(L to R) Long Doan, Broker/CEO, and Mike Bernier, President/Co-owner, Realty Group Inc.
For Long Doan, broker and CEO of Minnesota’s fast-growing Realty Group Inc., success is measured by the achievement of his partner-agents. “Every one of our agents is the CEO of their own business,” he says. “They don’t work for me. I work for them.” Doan and company President and Co-owner Mike Bernier are committed to providing a business platform designed to help their agents excel—and the strategy is working, driving the company’s net growth by more than 3,000 percent in the four years since they started growing Realty Group. But an out-of-the-box approach and a commitment to excellence are just the beginning of the story. In this exclusive interview, Doan and Bernier discuss the unique culture at the core of their company’s success and the changing role of agents and brokerages in today’s competitive environment.
Barbara Pronin: Let’s begin with a little personal background, and a brief description of your firm’s history and positioning in the marketplace.
Long Doan: I have been in the industry for over 25 years, although the first 15 years were spent on the mortgage side. I started Realty Group in 2009 and closed more than 1,000 transactions in our first four years. Mike, who was a top producer ranking in the top 1 percent of Minnesota real estate agents, joined me in 2011. In 2014, when the real estate landscape changed and the market began recovering, we decided to partner and launch Realty Group 2.0 with a grand total of eight agents and some very definite ideas about the way we wanted to run our brokerage.
Mike Bernier: We are grateful to have had remarkable success in these first four years, doubling our net growth year-over-year and expanding from our original eight agents to 250-plus real estate professionals and growing. We currently operate out of three Twin Cities-area offices, and we expect to open two more offices within the next 18 months.
BP: So what approach have you been taking to fuel this kind of growth?
MB: To start with, we recruit very carefully. There is a lot of buzz in the real estate community here because we are ranked as one of the state’s fastest-growing companies with the sixth most-recognized brand—so we get a fair number of inquiries. But most of the agents we take on board are referred by our current agents, so our growth has been both organic and controlled.
LD: In effect, we have 250-plus recruiters, and the reason our agents do the recruiting for us is that we attract, promote, develop and support them in ways that encourage and foster their success as business owners. We provide them with cutting-edge technology and marketing support, coaching and training at every level, and one of the most competitive commission payouts in the industry. It’s a partnership model that works, and it benefits everyone, including consumers, who are getting industry-best service from the most qualified agents in the business.
BP: How would you describe the state of your market? What are the challenges and opportunities?
LD: There is still an inventory shortage in Minneapolis-St. Paul and surrounding areas, but we maintain a proactive and collaborative environment with a high success rate in winning listings and multiple offers in this hyper-competitive market. Our greatest challenge, I think—which is also our greatest opportunity—is keeping up our forward-thinking approach and improving on our own growth rate.
BP: What is it that you do differently to set your firm and its agents apart from the competition?
LD: In a word, it’s our partnership model. Each agent is truly the CEO of his or her own company. We flip the traditional real estate model so that instead of our agents working for us, we work for them. Our job is to bring value to them, which we do by providing a 100-percent commission with a flat fee. Our core purpose is to help them grow their business, which we do via leadership, marketing tools, leads, facilities and, most of all, the culture of success that defines us. We understand that this is a people business—that there is more than one path to success and that one size doesn’t fit all. And we take the time to encourage every one of our agents to find the best path for them.
MB: There are no layers here between us and the agents. We take a family approach to the business and are directly available to our agents when they need us. Taken together, our agents are given everything they need to succeed in running their own business. We must be doing something right because here in Minnesota, the average number of sales per agent is between four and five per year. Our agents are, for the most part, closing between 10 and 11 transactions a year, and our core of top agents will sell hundreds of homes this year.
BP: You’ve mentioned your strategy for attracting and recruiting agents. What’s your retention rate like?
MB: The fact is that Realty Group becomes home to our agents. People retire, but they rarely leave for any reason other than that.
LD: Again, we believe that our central purpose is to help each of our 250 CEOs to grow their business. We provide so much value to them that they don’t unplug and leave us—so we typically don’t lose people, especially the people we don’t want to lose. There is always some friendly competition, of course, but there’s also a lot of mentorship. Our mandate is to help other people achieve their dreams, and in doing so, we achieve our own.
BP: I would imagine that kind of giving philosophy spills over into the larger community. What are your charitable efforts like?
LD: All of our agents are active in the community, from serving on local boards and in our state real estate association to raising funds and volunteering for various local causes—mostly centered around the needs of housing, children and veterans.
MB: Specifically, we support Toys for Joy, a local holiday gift-giving program, Eagles Healing Nest for homeless veterans and Habitat for Humanity, among others. They are all programs that are dear to our hearts and give us lots of opportunity to contribute in many ways.
BP: What are some of your most innovative marketing strategies, and how are they helping you to connect with today’s consumers?
LD: Branding is important. Our obligation is to market our people, and we are gratified to know that our brand is so recognized and well-respected throughout the state. That said, we expect—and train—our agents to market themselves in innovative ways. The fact is that the landscape continues to change, and consumers don’t care what flag you are flying. They only want the best buy or sell experience they can get. Statistics tell us only 4 percent choose the brand over the individual agent—so it’s up to that individual agent, using technology, reputation and personal interaction, to become the agent of choice.
MB: We do some direct mail, but realistically, our aim is to help our agents brand themselves via effective networking and the innovative use of social media—letting people know who you are, what you stand for, and why you do what you do. It’s the best way to build relationships that matter in the digital world we live in.
BP: How do you stay ahead of the curve on technology, online marketing and social media?
MB: We are very focused on customer relationship management, and we have invested heavily in the effort to help our agents market themselves. For example, we have organized a full-scale production studio, where agents can film videos and other audio-visual marketing aids they can use on social media and elsewhere.
LD: At the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that we are first and foremost a people business. Our objective is to use technology to enhance customer relationships, not replace the personal connection.
BP: What’s on deck for the future of the firm?
MB: We surprise ourselves constantly with the rate at which the firm is growing. The road ahead is clear, and I can see us having 1,000 agents on board in the not-too-distant future. I think it’s mainly because we know who we are and what we stand for, and we are scaling organically with passionate real estate professionals who have the same kind of goals and commitment.
LD: Beyond that, we will continue to maximize opportunities in Minnesota to expand both our team and our footprint—and we’ll continue to work to raise the standards of real estate professionalism, one agent at a time. With so many real estate companies out there, both big box and independent, I think our growth will be driven by one overriding fact: We add more value for our agent-partners than any other brand in the industry.
For more information, please visit www.realtygroupmn.com.
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