Coldwell Banker Advantage/Sea Coast Advantage/Chicora Advantage Flips the Pyramid and Puts People on Top
Of course, Gary Rabon, Ralph Huff and Tim Milam are proud of the fact that their firm ranks among the Top 3 Coldwell Banker franchises in the country—but what matters even more are the people in each of their 44 offices throughout the Carolinas.
“We put people before profits,” says Milam. “It’s not so much about the numbers, but about focusing on our agents.”
In this exclusive interview, Rabon, president and CEO, Coldwell Banker Advantage – Triangle Region; Huff, president and CEO, Coldwell Banker Advantage – Sandhills Region; Milam, president and CEO, Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage; and Rick Gregory, COO, Coldwell Banker Advantage, explain how inverting the pyramid and putting agents and consumers on top has shaped the firm’s massive growth over the past five years.
Maria Patterson: Please begin by telling us about the current size and scope of the organization.
Tim Milam: Our company has five regions: Raleigh, Fayetteville, Southern Pines and Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. We have about 1,400 agents and 44 offices. At the time of this interview, our projected sales volume for 2018 is around $3.7 billion in volume with a little over 16,000 transactions. We have three different names we market: Coldwell Banker Advantage; Coldwell Banker Chicora Advantage; and Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage.
MP: Those are impressive numbers. How does that compare to where the company was five years ago?
TM: Five years ago, we had about 700 agents, and sales were approximately $2.3 billion. Transactions were around 9,000.
Ralph Huff: We’re among the Top 3 Coldwell Banker franchises in the nation, and we’re No. 1 in North Carolina.
MP: So, what would you most attribute your growth to?
TM: Organic growth has been a big part of it. We’ve made some acquisitions, but I would attribute a lot of our growth to our focus on our agents’ success, which has led to other agents seeking to join our company.
Rick Gregory: The majority of our growth has been done with purpose. All of our acquisitions have involved filling in gaps that are part of a larger strategy. We look to where we believe we can serve agents in a way that helps them serve more clients.
Gary Rabon: In addition to our real estate company growth, all regions are now in the mortgage and title business to offer specific services and products that serve the customers of our agents.
RH: Agents embrace who we are as a firm. We go to market with people in mind and build around those people.
MP: You are in very competitive markets with a lot of new entrants into the area. What do you do to set yourselves apart?
TM: We put people before profits. It’s not so much about the numbers. We work for the agents—they don’t work for us. We’re focused on helping agents and their clients succeed.
GR: We have some unwritten rules: Do the right thing; do whatever is best for the client; treat others like you want to be treated. We really push our agents to get involved in the community and help others.
TM: Our culture includes giving back. We had 34 agents and three employees from the Wilmington office displaced from their homes after Hurricane Florence. All regions came together to send trucks of supplies down and raise cash donations. This big Advantage family helps out no matter what region is affected.
RG: What we’ve seen is that new entrants in our markets tend to focus on price, but being cheaper is not a compelling differentiator. When you’re focused on service, it causes you to think about all service experiences a customer may have, no matter what they’re shopping for. Tim, Ralph and Gary really focus on the service component and make sure our agents absolutely know they’re behind them.
MP: How do you ensure your level of service stands apart from other real estate firms?
RG: When consumers are buying or selling a home, they’re not comparing that experience against another home they bought or sold; they’re comparing it to other purchases or sales in their lives. We’re constantly focused not just on residential real estate, but other industries, as well. Everything we do is centered around making sure agents are positioned to service customers at an extremely high level. We’re ardent in our quest to constantly develop and secure the tools, systems and training to execute on the developing needs of our various markets and consumers.
MP: Can you give me an example of that?
GR: Our new voice search skill is a great example. If you look at the No. 1 product purchased this past holiday season, it was the Amazon Echo. Fifty percent of searches by 2020 will be on voice, and 14 percent of consumers are investigating home value information on voice. We’re investing in where the consumer is going.
MP: Do you worry about the so-called “disruptors”?
TM: We think that we are a disruptor. We don’t consider ourselves a traditional real estate company. We’re laser-focused on service to consumers and agents. What’s more, we built a strong culture that enables agents to be very successful. There’s a lot of value and stability in what we offer.
GR: People want to do business with people. We provide this level of support to agents so they can have interpersonal relationships with consumers. The so-called “disruptors” are about price or speed—not about relationships.
RG: To Gary’s point about price, a disruptor is somebody who’s identified a gap in a service experience based on consumer sentiment, and goes to exploit that gap with a new service model. In all the qualities that differentiate a company, a focus on price is neither rare nor hard to replicate.
RH: A focus on service also allows the organization to have the retention necessary to push forward from a growth perspective. Growth is not about sign-on bonuses and discounting.
MP: You really emphasize the fact that you, as the company’s leaders, work for your agents. What does that look like?
TM: Communication is a big part of it. We’re constantly reaching out to agents to find out what’s going on in their lives—we’re very much like a family. We also want to know what they don’t like…what problems they’re having. Agents know they’re fully supported and that we’ve got their backs. If a mistake occurs with a customer, we will make it right.
GR: I pride myself on the fact that we’re out in the offices with agents constantly. I know most agents on a first-name basis, as do Tim and Ralph. We have almost 1,400 agents, but the number is irrelevant. We value the relationship with all of them, and we want them to know that.
MP: How does this type of personal connection resonate with the younger generation of agents? Does it matter as much?
GR: Absolutely. We recently had a 23-year-old join the firm and I called him to say, “Welcome,” and gave him my cell number. At a company event, he introduced himself and told me how much he appreciated that phone call.
RH: No matter the generation, everyone craves communication. The way they want to communicate might be slightly different (social and otherwise), but they love engaging with the leadership team.
TM: We basically have an upside down pyramid with the owners at the bottom, and the agents at the top. We’ve been blessed to do some good things for people, and we ask all of our agents to do something nice for someone every week. Having good, quality people is more important than the number of people we have.
MP: How do you ensure your agents are getting everything they need to deliver for consumers?
GR: We listen to what their needs are. We ask, “What can we do better, and how can we help?” Agents know they can give us constructive criticism. Also, Rick and the management team are involved in a lot of national groups that keep us innovative and current with the times.
RG: There is thought leadership throughout our organization at every level. If we’re listening to people and asking really good questions, it generates insights that help us serve our agents better. It’s our responsibility to help our agents understand where consumers are going, and to give them what they need to set them up for success.
MP: What keeps you up at night regarding your agents or consumers?
TM: I worry about the media portraying REALTORS® as a dying breed. But a computer can’t talk a homeowner or buyer off the ledge over a home inspection that goes badly. REALTORS® who provide the best service will always have a place in the real estate market.
GR: I worry about complacency. When someone asks me, “Should I think about taking this course?” I say, take it. Never stop learning…every day, every week. If you stop growing, you’re shrinking.
MP: Finally, gentlemen, what’s in store for your future?
GR: I’m excited about 2019. A focus on fundamentals is the foundation of the business. Good brokers providing great services to agents and consumers make money in a good and down market.
TM: The real estate industry is changing at a rapid pace, and we have to stay focused on serving our agents and consumers better than everyone else. If you do the basics well, you can adjust to the market. I’m excited!
Giving Agents the Advantage
Agents at Coldwell Banker Advantage and Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage share how being “part of the family” has been integral to their success.
Tony de la Vega – Coldwell Banker Advantage
Celebrating his two-year anniversary with the firm, Tony de la Vega was attracted to Coldwell Banker Advantage after hearing about the volume of business other agents were generating. Now he understands that it’s all about the culture.
“The culture of professionalism and performance are evident and very appealing to me,” he explains. “The leadership is super competent, super experienced and super trustworthy. And the Coldwell Banker brand is well-known and reputable.”
All of this has helped de la Vega’s business take off. “The leadership has given me all the tools I can possibly need to produce a good volume of business, and empowered me with everything I need,” he says. “The culture and professionalism allowed me to brand myself in a way that complements my style. Coldwell Banker Advantage doesn’t limit you; they empower you.”
Sharon Webb – Webb Realty Group/Coldwell Banker Advantage
Sharon Webb has been with Coldwell Banker Advantage for five years and started a team two years ago. Several factors make the firm a great fit for Webb, such as its commitment to ongoing training and education.
“I consider myself an experienced agent, but I like to stay on the cutting edge with the latest tools, and knowing what’s going on in the industry is very important to me, since it’s always changing,” explains Webb.
She also appreciates the firm’s approach to leadership. “My broker in charge is a huge supporter and mentor, yet he gives me freedom so I don’t feel micromanaged. I have the opportunity to grow and expand. Whatever I need, they listen and provide me with. They fuel my fire.”
Shane Register – Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage
Shane Register has been with Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage since May 2007, and in the real estate business since 2005. Among the things he appreciates most about the company, in addition to its prime office locations, are its leadership and winning culture.
“When I was recruited to Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage, President Tim Milam communicated to me that he and his entire staff and managers work for the agents,” recalls Register. “Although this sounded positive, I really didn’t totally ‘get it’ until I was with the company for the first couple of weeks. This caring mindset permeates throughout the entire organization, resulting in a positive work environment and highly successful agents. The unique difference between Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage and other real estate companies is the willingness of the agents to support each other, openly share ideas and understand that everyone wins when their fellow agents thrive.”
Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at email@example.com.