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By Maria Patterson

RISMEDIA, April 7, 2008-In a real estate industry where many agents are scrambling to recover from the fall, the Horning family just keeps moving in the same direction-forward. Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2006, Brookfield, Wisconsin-based Shorewest, Realtors is a quiet success story that speaks volumes about staying power in the real estate business. A discussion with company leaders Joe and John Paul Horning reveals that ongoing innovation and a strong company culture have played a big part in the company’s success. Adeptly carrying out the mission begun by their grandfather, John A. Horning, in 1946, the Horning brothers are ensuring that the Shorewest legacy continues.

Maria Patterson: Did you always plan on entering the family business or did you have other aspirations?

Joe Horning: It wasn’t predetermined. I came in with a degree in information systems and at that time the company was looking at revamping its accounting software system. The CFO hired me to spearhead that project.

John Paul Horning: When I was in high school, I thought I’d go pre-med. I had also been working in the accounting department at Wauwatosa Realty (Shorewest’s former name) and really enjoyed that. So after my first year in college, I switched gears and got a degree in accounting and became a CPA. For three years after school I worked in Chicago as a comptroller for a company that had about 24 retail stores. There was an opening in Wauwatosa’s accounting department-I interviewed with our CFO and began working at the company in 1993.

MP: Why did you want to leave the Chicago retail firm?

JPH: That firm was also a family business and it really opened my eyes to the way other companies are run. The people and the culture at my family’s firm were so different from where I worked in that retail environment. I enjoyed coming back to a place where everyone works together and enjoys what they’re doing.

MP: What was it like growing up in a real estate family?

JH: We started at a young age. We used to work in the summer microfilming files. We would sit in the dark with the microfilm machine and take pictures of whatever needed to be stored. We’d also cut grass at the office, move furniture-handyman-type stuff.

MP: How has Shorewest been able to persevere over so many years?

JH: Part of the reason is the culture of the company, and part of it is how we’ve remained innovative over the years. We still look at ourselves as a family-run company. We try as hard as we can to know every agent by name-and we have 1,200 agents and 400 support staff. There are three Hornings active in day-to-day operations. We have good managers and we don’t micromanage. We’re there to help our agents succeed. Our success has come through our people.

JPH: My grandfather started this company out of his house in 1946. It quickly grew from a one-person operation to the largest home-seller in Wisconsin in 1951. We’ve maintained that position through today-we’ve maintained that position for three generations and we continue to keep growing.

MP: How would you describe the company culture?

JPH: We focus a lot on families. We like to say we’re “families serving families.” Even though we’ve grown so much, we still try to keep the family feel. Some of our offices recite our mission statement every week-it’s a living document (see sidebar, page 84). It helps with cohesiveness and consistency. We’re all focused on the same mission even though we serve different parts of the state and different markets.

MP: What were some of the most significant changes/evolutions to the company over the years?

JH: We’ve always seen ourselves as the first company in the country to have a hotline where consumers can listen to property information over the phone. We still have the top-rated website in our marketplace, and we launched Shorewest TV a couple of years ago. That’s been a big hit. We spend a tremendous amount of money each year in branding the company through radio, TV and billboards.

MP: Changing from your original name-Wauwatosa Realty-to Shorewest, Realtors in 1997 was certainly a memorable move for the company. What was behind that decision?

JH: We were Wauwatosa Realty from 1946 to 1997. Wauwatosa is a suburb in the Milwaukee area, so it had some limitations. We had acquired a Coldwell Banker company that had six different offices and we realized we needed to change our name.

JPH: We’d outgrown that name and had this acquisition that expanded our footprint. We did focus groups and studies to come up with a new name. Then our attorney called us and suggested Shorewest-“from the shores of Lake Michigan to all points west.” There was a slight concern about whether people would know us as Shorewest since we had such deep roots in the community, but we knew that it was time to change.

MP: How would you characterize the company’s growth over the years?

JH: In the last five years, we went from 16 to 27 offices. We have an umbrella approach-we just keep going out a little farther and farther; we’re not jumping three or four hours away. Most of our acquisitions are from companies that seek us out. Often a company is affiliated with another brand and when they see the tools and services that we offer, compared with that brand, it’s like night and day. They can’t believe what we can bring to the table in such a short period of time. We’ve also probably opened a handful of companies from scratch in the last couple of years.

MP: What is your philosophy on acquisitions?

JH: It’s about finding the right partners in other contiguous markets that are willing to join us. We’ve turned many down. It’s all about being the right fit for our culture and our reputation-something you get once and can’t afford to lose.

MP: How do you leverage your company’s longevity in the marketplace?

JPH: We leverage our market share; we’re still larger than our next three competitors combined. We are really the only local, non-franchised company in the area.

MP: How do you market Shorewest?

JH: We spend at least $1 million a year in branding and advertising-and that’s not institutional advertising. We are spending less and less in print-newspaper and regular classified ads. However, we always brand our logo and Web address in anything that we do run. We have a billboard campaign where we run anywhere from four to six billboard messages that rotate throughout the southern part of the state.

MP: What’s the advantage to remaining an independent company?

JH: Our mission statement says we are “proudly independent.” We don’t have to wait for a decision to be made in a boardroom somewhere across the country. We are rooted locally and we reinvest in the community through charitable efforts.

MP: What attracts and keeps sales associates at your company?

JH: A big part of it is the tools we provide. We have a full-service, in-house marketing department with a graphic designer that can design special programs. We bring in national speakers to educate our agents. We have non-competing managers-the management staff is here to help agents. We’re big on recognizing our top producers as well as our mid-level producers. Everyone’s an asset to our team. We’re all in this together.

MP: How does Shorewest address the concerns of today’s consumers?

JPH: We’re constantly looking at new ways to serve our customers. We’re in the process of updating our website to make it even easier for consumers to use as their one-stop-shopping site.

MP: How have you adapted the company to meet the needs of the current marketplace?

JH: We’re educating agents heavily on where and where not to spend money. We’re also arming our agents with a lot of stats. When it comes to sellers, every agent is doing a market analysis every two weeks and redistributing that information to the seller. We give them a market snapshot report that shows what’s selling by price range and community so that our agents can work with sellers to show them where their price falls.

MP: What advice would you give to new agents entering the market today?

JPH: It still comes down to the basics, in spite of new technologies and tools. The first thing you need to do is prospect-that’s one-on-one, face-to-face, not just sending an e-mail. Having a positive, can-do attitude and enjoying what you do makes a huge difference. We supply new agents with the tools, technologies and systems, but you have to bring the positive attitude and the work ethic.

MP: How do you plan on securing the future of Shorewest?

JH: We’re going to continue to grow. Either you’re growing or shrinking-you can’t tread water in this industry. We will constantly revamp the things we do to keep them current with the marketplace. This company has been through downturns in the market before and we know now is not the time to get foolish. We’re very conservative but also very aggressive. RE

Fast Facts About Shorewest, Realtors

-Locally and family owned since 1946; founded by John A. Horning as a one-person office in Wauwatosa
-Later led by his son, John E. Horning
-Closed over $2.7 billion in sales in 2007
-Ranked 25th in transactions by RISMedia’s 2008 Power Broker Report
-Over 1,200 sales associates and some 400 staff members
-27 offices located throughout Southeastern Wisconsin, serving Dodge, Jefferson, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Rock, Sheboygan, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties
-Full services offered-closing, title, mortgage and relocation
-The Home Services Center integrates enhanced personal service with Internet technology to provide a wider range of services than traditional real estate companies can offer.

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