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“It’s all about our culture—and our training!”

So declared Nelson Zide, the jovial partner and senior executive vice president of ERA Key Realty, the mid-sized but mighty west-of-Boston company that in 2014 racked up the biggest year in the company’s 20-year history—bigger, even, than in 2005, when real estate prices were at their peak. The fact did not surprise Zide, or his partners, Bruce and Cheryl Taylor, Mike Seaver, and most recently, the Taylors’ son, Jeff.

“We didn’t do anything drastically different,” says Zide. “We just did more of the same. We’re an agent-centric company with a family-like culture and a common drive to be the best. We do what’s right for each other and our customers, and the rest just falls into place.”

We caught up with Zide on a busy morning to find out what it is that’s working—and why.

Barbara Pronin: Nelson, how would you define the company’s banner year? Was it something any of you expected?
Nelson Zide:
We knew by mid-year that the numbers were good, so we weren’t really surprised. But our agents didn’t know just how good the year was until our annual company meeting in January. In our best year previously, in 2005, we did $624 million in closed volume. In 2014, we did $667 million. That’s a jump of $43 million, without any increase in agent count, in a market where the average sales price is about $283,000.

BP: How big is ERA Key Realty, and how are you positioned in your marketplace?
NZ:
We have 355 agents in 14 offices, operating mainly west of Boston and in parts of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Last time I looked, we were fifth in the state for units sold, which is not bad, considering the four companies ranked ahead of us are all considerably larger.

BP: You credit the firm’s benchmark year to company culture and training. How do you build a working environment that inspires this kind of success?
NZ:
It starts at the top—and I mean right at the top, with ERA corporate. They’re always reachable, never formal, and we operate the same way. Here, the partners work in different offices, with different responsibilities, so it’s not like we’re always together. But we’ve worked together for a long time. We’re kind of like a well-oiled machine. There’s a comfy, effortless, ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ state of mind that carries down through the organization. We have fun together. It’s one of our core values. We have smiling admins in every office. Our annual company meetings are full of information, but we laugh a lot, and do crazy stuff—like turning up in movie-star wigs for a Hollywood party theme. This year, the theme was political conventions, with whacky posters and campaign buttons. The agents loved it. They know we care. They know how much we value them. Individually, they’re primed, ready, and professionally prepared to be the best at their jobs. But we all pull together as a team, and that gives us confidence and strength.

BP: How important is the training?
NZ:
It’s critical. And it’s life-long, geared for all, from the newbies to the experienced career agents. I’m proud to say we have the most robust live training program in the state of Massachusetts that includes major, company-wide programs and small class presentations every month that are relevant, timely and motivating. The newbies have Career Builder—a week of one-on-one with a manager focusing in on the basics. Then there’s our FIRE training, which stands for Fundamentals in Real Estate. It includes monthly training for everyone, with outside speakers, inside mentors, national programs and locally generated material. It zeroes in on specific strategies…finance options, buyer presentations, open houses…strategies our agents can use every day to generate and close more business.

BP: How do you measure the value of this training?
NZ:
We know it works, because our top producers participate month after month. We had a rookie last year who closed $6 million in volume using open house techniques he got through FIRE training. But the simplest measure might be the increase in agent production. In 2013, the average was six units per agent. In 2014, it was seven.

BP: How does the company stay on top of what the agents need and want?
NZ:
We ask for feedback. We regularly ask every agent to fill out a ‘Start-Stop-Continue’ form. What are we doing that you want us to continue? What would you like us to start doing? What would you like us to stop? And we listen. We listen and respond.

BP: What about marketing and promotional strategies? How have they evolved?
NZ:
We spent two years researching and tracking where our business was coming from. We learned that 70 percent of our agents’ business comes directly from their sphere of influence. So that’s a big part of our marketing spend. We pay the cost for every agent to market directly to their database, sending targeted direct mail pieces on topics their clients can use, like the ABC’s of home automation, or the typical cost and average return for various home improvements. At the same time, we want to be where today’s customers are. Today, we’re putting more time and energy into social media marketing.

BP: Which brings us to your technology. How is that evolving?
NZ:
These days, many agents work remotely a good part of the time. We saw to it that they had mobile access early on, so they could access our extranet, which is actually an intranet, from anywhere 24/7. And we put a lot of effort into making sure they have the best possible tools at their disposal. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of benefit from the launch of audio-virtual tours on YouTube. And we’ve just hired a social media manager to help us maximize new areas.

BP: In view of the company’s growth last year, what’s in store for the future?
NZ:
We’re on track now to reach $685 million in closed volume this year. That would be another milestone. What we really want is for all of our agents to earn more than they did last year, and we’ll keep trying to do what we do best to see that the goal is reached.

For more information, visit http://www.erakey.com.

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