Without a doubt, 2020 was a year that no one will ever forget—and for Fathom Realty, that’s not just because of the pandemic. Last year, the cloud-based, full-service real estate brokerage launched its IPO, and zealously embarked on expanding its presence in markets across the country. At the core of the firm’s surging success is its leadership team, which Founder & CEO Josh Harley built to bring “different strengths and experiences to the table.” In this exclusive interview, Harley, along with Fathom Realty’s Chief Brand Officer Wendy Forsythe, Chief Brokerage Operations Officer Samantha Giuggio and SVP of Finance Veronica Salmon, discusses why the company’s success is all about perseverance and determination…and why women have been central to the cause.
Maria Patterson: Josh, you’ve built a strong executive team to help bring Fathom to the next level. Tell us about your philosophy on choosing leaders.
Josh Harley: When I started Fathom more than a decade ago, I knew that I wanted to build a company that was bigger than me. I wanted to build an organization that had the potential to change the industry, and I knew that I could not do it alone. I needed to build a leadership team that shared my vision for the industry and my passion for serving others. I also knew I had to build a team of leaders who brought different strengths and experiences to the table. I wanted to surround myself with people who were smarter than me. I even wanted a team who was willing to disagree with and challenge me, because I knew that if I could build consensus among those who disagreed, we could accomplish anything. The most important thing I look for in a leader is a servant attitude. It’s vital to an organization to have leaders who will always place their people first.
MP: Seems like it would take a lot of courage to purposefully hire those who think differently, no?
JH: You’re not wrong! Hiring a leadership team is not an easy task. In fact, it can be a little scary, and that’s coming from a Marine Corps veteran! Why? Because you have to trust these people with your baby. You have to be willing to listen and learn, and you have to be willing to change your mind at times. This is why it’s so important to hire leaders from different backgrounds and experiences.
MP: Well, mission accomplished! The three Fathom executives gracing our cover certainly exemplify that philosophy. Was the decision to recruit female leaders a purposeful one?
JH: Actually, to be honest, it wasn’t. I believe it’s important to hire the best person for the job. However, I am proud of the fact that the first leader I hired at Fathom was a woman. In fact, the first few leaders I hired were women. I believe this played an important role in why Fathom had such strong early success. Today, we have strong woman leaders at every level of our organization, and I’m honored to serve them as well as beside them.
MP: Wendy, you’ve been an industry leader for many years now. As a woman, what were some of the struggles you encountered?
Wendy Forsythe: Early in my career, I never thought about gender differences in merit, expectations or opportunities. I just focused on working hard. As I progressed from the entrepreneurial environment of being a real estate agent and brokerage owner to a corporate setting working with large real estate brands and franchisors, my experiences changed—and yes, I experienced many situations where an unconscious or conscious bias had an impact on me, or both my male and female colleagues.
A male executive once told me, “Wendy, you’ll need to work twice as hard and accept half the respect; it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.” So yes, I have experienced the glass ceiling—I think all women have—but I don’t believe I have let it define my ambition. It’s given me some bumps and bruises along the way, but it has also allowed me to see through to the other side.
MP: Josh, in your opinion, what do women bring to the table in terms of a company’s success?
JH: As the CEO of an organization with more than a hundred leaders, and growing quickly, I can say with complete confidence that a woman’s perspective is not just important, it’s vital. Women and men often see the world differently and that’s invaluable. Both views are important, but neither view is truly complete without the other. It usually takes the perspective of both men and women to build a truly complete picture that allows you to make the best and most informed decision.
MP: What particular advantages does the real estate industry offer for women?
WF: Real estate is one of the few industries that doesn’t have what I call an “earnings ceiling.” Regardless of gender, age, education, race or background, as real estate professionals, we have an opportunity to set our own targets for financial and personal success. That has always been one of the reasons I have loved this industry and the people involved.
MP: Samantha, you’re the perfect example of someone who has taken advantage of the opportunity Wendy describes. How did you get started at Fathom?
Samantha Giuggio: When I moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts, I did not have a great real estate experience; I decided I wanted to help others so they didn’t end up in a similar situation. That’s when I got my real estate license and joined a traditional real estate firm. I loved the people I worked with, but I was not making any money. My husband would say, “Sam, you’re the busiest person I know doing everyone else’s work.” I knew this was not sustainable or a good business decision, and then Fathom found me. I joined Fathom as the fifth agent in the state of North Carolina, invested the money I was paying my old broker back into my own business and my business grew under the Fathom model. I even had to ask my husband to get his real estate license to help me!
MP: That’s quite a trajectory—from agent to chief brokerage operations officer! How did that happen?
SG: I was so grateful to Fathom that I wanted to give back. I volunteered my time to help new agents at the firm. That was the start of my Fathom journey: I was an agent, a group leader, a training coordinator, a district director, state broker, vice president of operations, senior vice president and now chief brokerage operations officer. When people ask me what my responsibilities are at Fathom, I usually respond, “Whatever it takes!” That attitude plays a huge role in opportunities opening up. When leadership sees someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to help the organization, they can trust you with bigger and bigger responsibilities.
MP: Veronica, what has your experience been like in the largely male field of finance?
Veronica Salmon: As an entrepreneur who built and successfully ran several companies in varied industries, I learned early in my career path that accounting and finance skills were beneficial for me. Due to finance traditionally being a male-dominated field, I often find myself in meetings that include very few women—or none at all. My aim is to ensure that I am more than prepared for these meetings. A large part of that preparation is dependent upon a trusted accounting and finance team, as well as good, old-fashioned hard work. Fathom has afforded me the opportunity to build such a team.
MP: How have you and your team contributed to Fathom’s growth?
VS: When I started in 2012, the immense opportunity for growth in every capacity at Fathom was obvious to me. While Fathom was doing business in three states and had a few hundred agents, there was a clear need for more comprehensive accounting and finance processes. It quickly became evident that the new processes had to be built for rapid growth. In conjunction with developing and overhauling processes, I began building the accounting and finance team. I focused on hiring bright people who wanted to learn and would work hard. Josh likes to say that Fathom wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for me, and while I’m sure that’s not true, I appreciate his recognition of my contribution. Fathom really could not have sustained its growth without a solid team in place to keep agents paid and happy.
MP: As leaders, how did you handle the challenges of 2020?
WF: We’ve been talking about disruption for the last 20-plus years…well, we got disrupted in 2020. The silver lining for us at Fathom was that it proved our business model in the most undeniable of ways.
MP: Yes, while most scrambled to institute virtual operations, Fathom had it all in place…
WF: Since Josh started the company, we’ve been virtual. During the pandemic, no one (even if they had an office) could go to that office. What agents figured out was that they didn’t need to work with a brokerage that had a physical office. For many, it was a security blanket they had been holding onto, because that is the way the brokerage business has traditionally been. The National Association of Realtors® conducts surveys every year, and one area they highlight is the fact that only 1 percent of buyers found their agent by walking into or calling a real estate office. Clearly, clients already knew what agents are just now starting to realize.
MP: I imagine a light has also been shone on Fathom’s commission model in the wake of the pandemic…
WF: Yes, control of agents’ commission dollars and how they make investments in their personal brands and business has become even more important to them over the last year. Our 100-percent commission model gives agents maximum control. This is a real pivot for the industry—agents are tired of brokers not giving them the flexibility they need to grow, or constraining them by charging large broker splits that then limit the investment they can make back into growing their personal business.
MP: There are other virtual and 100-percent commission models. What makes Fathom unique?
WF: What really makes Fathom a special culture is our commitment to people. The term “servant leadership” means different things to different people. What I observed when joining the Fathom executive team was a commitment to explore people’s strengths and create an opportunity for them to contribute to the mission of Fathom at the highest levels. Another thing that makes us different, but is not so obvious, is our technology and support offering.
SG: Early on in my career, I was told that leaders lead. They can’t help themselves. One of the most important things I have learned and have come to value is what it means to be a servant leader. A servant leader shares power and puts the needs of others first. A great leader should work to serve those that follow them, not the other way around.
MP: How has Fathom’s servant-leadership culture impacted you personally?
SG: In 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Meanwhile, I was getting ready to step into the district director position. Of course, I worried that my diagnosis would delay or somehow stop me from moving into my new role. Not only was the leadership team supportive of me, they allowed me to take this journey on my terms and gave me the flexibility and respect to manage my time as I needed. They expressed concern for me, but they respected me enough to allow me to handle my responsibilities and work as much or as little as I chose. The team of amazing people behind Fathom were exactly what I needed during that challenging time.
MP: Josh, what’s your take on female leadership at Fathom, and business in general?
JH: I’m proud that Fathom can be part of this discussion about women in leadership. It’s a meaningful conversation to be had, and I’m sad that it even has to be had. I didn’t grow up with the belief that women were less than men, and as I got older, I was shocked to learn that it was even a thing. I suppose I can thank my father for that because I was taught from my earliest memory that we were different but equal. Neither was better than the other. In fact, without the other, we would never see the full picture or truly be whole. I believe the same is true in business. I truly believe that Fathom could never have achieved the level of success we have without our amazing female leaders. The perspective they bring is invaluable and irreplaceable. We are truly blessed to have their leadership.
For more information, please visit www.fathomcareers.com.
Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas to email@example.com.