Jeff Benson learned a lot over the years that factored into the success of the Milwaukee, Wis.-based real estate firm he opened in 1979. From his early days as a teacher to the sales savvy he developed in the automotive world, many things helped prepare him for his ultimate role as broker/owner of RE/MAX Realty 100—but perhaps none more than the life lesson instilled by his parents: “Put other people’s interests first and everything will turn out the right way.” Here, Benson shares how creating an environment where a like-minded, results-focused team could thrive has led to four decades of growth, no matter what the market dished out.
Maria Patterson: Jeff, tell us how you first got into the real estate business.
Jeff Benson: After I graduated from college in 1971, I taught for three years. Then some people I had been involved with enticed me into selling high-end automotive equipment. I found that odd since I didn’t have any sales skills, but I had taught some of their children in class and, as a teacher, you are involved in sales—you’re selling an intangible. So, I sold directly to automotive dealerships, and this gave me a very good understanding of how to negotiate with people.
At that point, my old college roommate had gotten into commercial real estate and development and kept telling me to get my real estate license. So, I studied and got my license in 1976. I went on several interviews with some of the larger regional real estate companies, as I was looking for a training program that would give me a good level of understanding of what this industry was all about.
MP: What led to you opening your own firm?
JB: I started working at one firm, then in 1978, I bumped into the RE/MAX concept and was intrigued. My original partner and I opened RE/MAX Realty 100 in ’79. Our goal was to build a place where we could surround ourselves with other like-minded people. We wanted to bring the right type of people in and continue to grow our individual businesses. That really developed into a leadership role for me. Some of my past sales experience, not only in real estate, but when I was selling automotive equipment—and even in teaching—came into play. I was also influenced by my parents, who taught me to put other people’s interests first and everything will turn out the right way. And that’s what happened at RE/MAX Realty 100.
MP: Sounds like you wound up exactly where you were supposed to be! So how large is the firm today?
JB: We have four locations and approximately 160-170 agents; we also offer full-service title and closing, and have a mortgage affiliation, as well.
MP: What has been your strategy toward growth over the years?
JB: It all goes back to making sure you’re able to identify the type of agents you want from the very beginning. We’ve been blessed to have like-minded people who think the same way…who truly want to take care of clients. Our goal was to be able to open offices through central parts of our marketing areas. We were looking at a way to help our agents become recession-proof by being able to market north, east, south and west in our locations. From time to time, there’s an area of the metro marketplace that may slow down. We try to make sure our agents are growing their business through relationships with clients who know people all over town. If they have a number of marketing areas where they have a sphere of influence, this helps them through the peaks and valleys.
MP: Makes sense. With four decades in the business, you’ve probably weathered some tough markets.
JB: I’ve gone through several recessions, and what we’ve done each time is watch the type of recession we were in. During the first one, from ’81-’84, when interest rates exceeded 16 percent, we happened to be in a state where there was a lot of creative financing, and we were blessed that we had agents who were very good at understanding negotiations. We were able to recruit even during a bad time, going into the recession with a little over 20 agents and coming out with about 50. Don’t forget, the 100-percent concept was attractive—even though our transaction count may have gone down, each transaction was worth so much more when agents had the ability to make that much more commission.
The last recession saw more of a focus on distressed properties. Through our national brand and regional resources, we helped our agents retool their business for that type of economy by training them on distressed marketing.
The other thing we’ve been very attuned to as a company is maintaining a solid financial foundation and keeping our debt under control. When we went into the last recession, we were financially very strong. Every owner has to make sure they have the financial capabilities to continue to put dollars back into the organization so they can assist their agents.
MP: How would you describe your firm’s positioning in the marketplace? What sets you apart from the competition?
JB: First of all, by riding out many storms, we’ve gained a very high level of respect within the local marketplace and the industry. Myself, Kathy [Martello, vice president of operations] and a number of agents over the last 40 years have been very engaged with charities, associations, MLSs, committees and boards, including some agents who have been recognized at local and state levels. We also have a very good reputation within the real estate community of working with other brokers. We want to help solve problems for our agents and their agents and continue to move the real estate industry forward.
We also have the highest per-agent unit count for companies that are at least 100 agents or larger. We’re ranked in the Top 50 of the Top 500 reporting companies in the United States—our small, quiet company in Milwaukee hit the Top 50. It all comes back to the quality of our agents. That, collectively, sets us apart. We look for individuals or team leaders that want to build a business that’s sustainable and projectable—not just a job to come to and start over every day.
MP: What most attracts agents to your firm, and why do they stay?
JB: The support that we offer them, the professional business environment, the tools and the systems, the marketshare and the quality of agents we have around us. We don’t just have the frills. We don’t just want them to think of this year—we want them to think about three, five, 15 years from now. This is a business, and they can have their own business inside of it and really grow it. We also have the longevity. We’ve been through up and down markets and we’ve seen a lot of things that other folks running organizations have never been through.
In addition, the financial strength we’ve been able to gain through good markets allowed us to weather the storm of a recessionary market. Agents know they have a place to come to. We’ve never cut support, never laid anyone off due to a downturn in the market. If anything, we tried to add help in tough times.
Kathy Martello: Agents often seek the next, shiny object they think may grow and enhance their business. But this is a simple business—if they take care of clients and put them first, they will be successful. But they have to be with a firm that has great branding and organization, and leadership with a local sense of the market who runs that organization and truly gives them support.
When interviewing and recruiting agents, I always ask why they’re considering a move, and they often say, ‘I need support.’ The thing we’ve managed to do over the years is deliver support to agents on individual levels. In a company our size, we’re able to do that. Our family of companies includes a great staff of about 24 and a Client Services Division (myself and six others) to tend to their needs…and Jeff is a master at talking people through their marketing plans.
MP: How would you describe your company’s culture?
JB: I feel we are a caring culture that helps our affiliates build their own personal business within our model. The culture involves the tools, the system and the branding, and all of that helps keep us in tune with our mission, vision and core values.
MP: How does your caring culture factor into your approach to coaching?
JB: Whether you call it coaching or guiding, when we sit down with someone, we’re going to figure out what they want to accomplish. A lot of people are successful when they get to us, but they want to take it to another level. It gets back to that question: ‘Where do you want to take your business?’ Based on their responses, we help them develop a plan that incorporates a lot of ideas and concepts gathered from existing agents over the last 40 years. We’re more than happy to put an accountability program together so they can accomplish what they set out to do. A lot of times, people are switching careers from corporate America and know the sales and relationship-building process but have to adapt their skills to suit the real estate business. We try to provide that additional help, as well.
MP: How have you marketed the firm over the years?
JB: A lot of it has to do with the RE/MAX concept—we’ve grown through quality agents who market their high professional standard to prospects and clients. We also do local advertising through radio and billboards. But in the end, it all comes back to the fact that the branding across the country is so strong. We’re the most recognized real estate brand in the world and we use that to our benefit. We continue to send the same message—we are the home of the top producer.
MP: How do you stay ahead of the curve on technology?
JB: It’s a challenge. We leverage the local, regional and national support from RE/MAX and the systems and technology they provide. We use that as a springboard and do the rest inside of our Client Services Division, where we train and help agents understand new media and new technology.
MP: What’s in store for the firm’s next decade?
JB: We want to continue to expand our local marketplace with quality agents. We would also like to continue to expand our footprint in Southeast Wisconsin. There are a lot of great things happening here. The Foxconn [electronics factory] deal will bring thousands of jobs to Wisconsin and offshoots of local companies.
MP: Sounds like you’re well-poised for even further growth…
JB: We’ve been blessed to be able to grow through mergers, acquisitions and affiliations, and to deliver our value proposition to attract quality agents. We’ve also been blessed with agents and employees that have stayed with us for 10, 20, 30 and more years. We all understand that without our agents, this organization is nothing. It goes back to that basic belief that if you surround yourself with the best group, you will continue to move forward.
For more information, please visit www.movingmilwaukee.com.