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Sheryl Chinowth and Lee Cohen are partners in the truest sense—both in business and in married life—and it comes as no surprise that their family mentality and positive attitudes have vaulted their independent real estate company, established just 10 years ago, into one of the largest and most productive in the greater Tulsa area. CEO and CFO respectively, Chinowth and Cohen are long-time industry professionals who are no strangers to adversity. They launched their company a short two years before an industry decline shook the foundations of many a lesser firm.

But they quickly learned the power of a can-do approach, turning modest beginnings into a flourishing empire that today supports and encourages growing success for more than 350 agents. In this exclusive interview, Chinowth shares the passion that fueled the company’s growth—and the straightforward strategies that keep them poised to reach the next level of success.

Barbara Pronin: Sheryl, let’s begin with a recap of your career path and how you came to co-found Chinowth & Cohen.

Sheryl Chinowth: I guess you could say I was born into real estate. It was my family’s business in Illinois, and I grew up with real estate being the main conversation at the dinner table. So it seemed natural to get my license right out of school and go to work in the family company. In the early ’90s, an opportunity became available in Tulsa, Okla., so I made the move with my two sons and began my real estate career in a new city. It was that move and a common passion for real estate that brought me and my now husband, Lee Cohen, together. We are fortunate to also have my two grown sons working in the business with us.

BP: How many agents and offices do you have now, and what areas do you serve?

SC: We have over 350 agents in seven offices in Tulsa and surrounding areas—and we are preparing to open an eighth office. We have a Property Management office, Commercial Division and Ranch and Land Division. We serve the central city and suburbs, and that’s basically the footprint we want for now.

BP: How would you describe your firm’s positioning in the marketplace—and what sets your company apart from the competition?

SC: We are one of the four largest real estate firms in Oklahoma. It varies a bit from year to year in terms of who has the greatest volume, number of transactions, and so forth. But we’re always right up there, and I think that’s because we consistently have more and better agents. While other firms were struggling after the recession hit, we managed to attract agents who had the fortitude to stick with it and wanted to be with the company that provided the best combination of tools, technology and support—and that was us. We knew we had the best agents and the best set of tools available. More than that, as a family company, we have a built-in culture—a kind of inclusive family culture that carries over into every aspect of our business. There is a sense of positive energy—a sense that we’re all in this together, that we care and support each other’s goals and accomplishments, and our customers become a part of that, too.

BP: How would you describe current market conditions in your area?

SC: At the moment, we are increasing listing inventory to meet the market demands. Property values have increased 6–8 percent over the last year or so, and are still increasing slowly. We are seeing multiple offers these days, and offers above full price.

BP: With the market rebounding, how is your approach to growth changing?

SC: I don’t know that it’s changing. It’s a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities—and there is a lot of opportunity today. We are a full-service agency with good partners. We have our own wonderful real estate school—and we make sure that our agents are among the most informed and the best equipped in the marketplace to help their customers make the best real estate decisions. We are proud of our brand and we have great staff support, so our agents are able to use their time for the things they do best.

BP: In the years since you and Lee founded your company, times were not always favorable. Is there a secret to how the business evolved and survived the recent downturn?

SC: No secret at all. It’s positivity, first, last and always. We know that confidence and optimism win. And as I mentioned, we have a wonderful culture throughout the company. We help and mentor each other every inch of the way and we celebrate each other’s successes and achievements. There is just no room for negativity.

BP: What are the challenges currently facing your firm and its agents?

SC: Increasing listings—and maintaining a reasonable growth rate while increasing our edge in technology, marketing and performance. We know the value of research, and we use the data and trend reports we get from RISMedia and other resources to help us plan ahead. We have a strong public relations and marketing team and a great IT department with their fingers on the pulse of what’s working—and we know how important it is that we are all on the same page. Our constant, open communication in the company and our strategizing meetings provide the environment for us to share resources and information. We drill down into where we are and what we have to do, and we find new ways to pull together as a team for the benefit of everyone in the company.

BP: Where does the greatest opportunity lie for increasing your business?

SC: Branching out in every area. We believe there is room to grow in every segment of the company, from residential to commercial to property management, as well as with our mortgage and title partners. We believe we have the resources and the drive to take us wherever we want to go.

BP: Sheryl, how are you serving the needs of today’s more informed and more tech-savvy consumers?

SC: Consumers have lots of information at their fingertips. But they may not have the experience to sort through and make sense of it. That’s where strong, professional agents come in. We know the neighborhoods, we know the financing options, we can zero in on exactly what people are looking for. We understand, for example, that many of today’s baby boomers want lots of amenities in less square footage, while younger buyers are looking for more space with rooms that can be used differently. We run continuous classes to ensure that our agents are always on top of the market. And I think we excel at communicating as our customers prefer it, whether it’s face-to-face, texting or through social media.

BP: How are you attracting and retaining top agents?

SC: We try to be sensitive to what top agents want and need—and we make a non-stop effort to provide it. That includes the best tools, the best resources, a family-like culture, and more administrative support. Whether it’s experienced agents who know our reputation, or new people who come through our real estate school, I think we’re known and ultimately appreciated for having a really great working environment.

BP: In your opinion, what is most critical to your firm’s success going forward?

SC: Maintaining the culture that’s at the very root of our success—the company spirit, that we’re in this together, that we support rather than compete. It’s a culture that sustains us and spills out into the community because working together for the good of others is one more way to build unity. We long ago established a Chinowth & Cohen Ambassador’s Committee, through which our agents and employees find so many ways to support causes ranging from the American Red Cross and the Susan G. Komen Foundation to local hospitals, schools, food banks and more. There’s no pressure, but everyone participates in their own way and it’s a source of pride and satisfaction for all of us.

BP: What’s in store for the future?

SC: Well, our eighth office opens this summer and we expect to open a ninth office later in 2014—also in the greater Tulsa region, which we love and that has been so good to us. Our hope is to continue growing without ever losing sight of what makes us tick. For us, real estate is a team sport, with shared goals and a shared philosophy that we all play a part in our success.

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