Extreme Telecommuting: Broker in Baghdad

Called up to active duty shortly after launching his company, a U.S. Army Reserve captain has nevertheless doubled the size of his brokerage.

May 1, 2007

Brian Wilson, GRI, didn’t have much time to talk real estate when he was in Baghdad meeting with the city council. But he squeezed in enough conversations on his drive to and from appointments to learn which neighborhoods were commanding the highest home prices.

Not surprisingly, homes in the safest neighborhoods, like Karadah in the central city, home to high-ranking government officials, were fetching up to $600,000, a tremendous price in a place that’s been steadily losing jobs and population.

But as long as there are even a few people around who feed demand, houses will sell well, says Wilson, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve who was expecting to wrap up a year-long tour of duty in April in Baghdad as a civil affairs officer.

The conversations about Baghdad real estate were a good distraction from Wilson’s real work in Iraq, which included helping the Baghdad government organize itself into a representative council. The real estate talk provided him a connection with home.

A residential real estate broker in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wilson had just launched his own brokerage, Neighborhood, REALTORS®, when he received orders in March 2006 to deploy to Iraq. Wilson had previously owned a Keller Williams franchise.

He hadn’t been expecting the call. But by employing lessons he’d learned in the military, including a 10-month deployment in Bosnia in 2000, he put in place a system for growing his company even though he wouldn’t be around to manage it.

“My deployments taught me that you have to set up a solid system at the outset and get the right people into place,” says Wilson. “Then you have to take your hands off the wheel and let your people do their job. Had I not deployed to Iraq, and had I kept my hand in everything, I doubt we would have grown as much as we did; my being forced to systematize everything and put trust in my manager probably worked to the company’s advantage.”

From two dozen associates before he left in April 2006, the company has more than doubled to 54 associates and is on track to reach 65 by fall, says Wilson.

Relationship Built on Trust

Wilson relies on his company manager Dzelal Hrustanovic, who joined Neighborhood just 15 days before Wilson deployed.

Wilson and Hrustanovic, a new-home specialist, had developed a good working relationship over the years, and when Wilson learned he had little time to get a manager on board, he knew immediately he wanted Hrustanovic for the unique blend of sales and management experience he would bring to the job.

“People who work in new-home sales tend to make excellent managers because they know both sales and what it’s like to work in an organization,” says Wilson. He’d brought in a new-home specialist once before to manage the Keller Williams franchise he owned.

Despite having a lucrative position with Lennar Homes, Hrustanovic took a chance on the new company, a decision based on the sense of trust the two had developed over the years.

Hrustanovic, a nationally ranked soccer player from Srebrenica, Bosnia, came to the United States in the 1990s after sustaining a gunshot wound while ferrying supplies to soldiers allied with the United Nations during the Bosnian War. He was treated at an American military hospital in Europe, was granted U.S. citizenship, and launched his real estate career. The military background of the two men has been a key part of their mutual respect.

“He risked a lot joining the company, but I think he saw an opportunity too,” says Wilson.

Incentives to Join

To attract recruits, the company offers a hybrid compensation plan in which associates can choose to pay the company a $500-a-month desk fee plus a $250 fee per transaction in exchange for keeping 100 percent of their commissions. Or they can split commissions on an 80–20 basis—20 percent goes to the brokerage—and pay a $100-a-month desk fee and the $250 transaction fee. Under the 80–20 split, commissions to the brokerage are capped at $8,800 a year.

“The cap makes it very attractive to associates who might otherwise end up paying two or three times that per year in commissions to the brokerage,” says Hrustanovic.

Associates can switch plans during the year with a month’s notice.

Whichever plan they’re on, associates receive $100 per month in passive income out of the commission of each associate they recruit for as long as they, and that associate, remain. They also receive a host of services at no cost to them:

  • Their own Web site.
  • Their listings advertised in local media.
  • A tool kit on CD-ROM that they can customize and that Wilson says contains everything they need to execute their business plan, including marketing letters, a listing presentation, and a listing appointment checklist.

Daily training sessions, typically focused on lead generation, hosted by Hrustanovic. “We don’t require them to attend; if just one person shows up, we’ll host the session,” says Hrustanovic.

The company also maintains a mall kiosk at which it features new-home listings and attracts customers by touting such builder giveaways as plasma TVs. Associates sign up to work the kiosk during the week. Any commissions from sales generated by kiosk customers, no matter which compensation plan associates are on, are split on an 80–20 basis with the brokerage. “It attracts the newer associates who are still looking to build a customer base,” says Hrustanovic.

Clear-cut Goal

Wilson says he has no plans to build a giant company and wants to be methodical in recruiting associates. “There are about 2,800 licensees in our area, and I want to bring on board only 5 percent of them,” he says.

What he’s looking for are associates who have been in the business a year or two and are generating $1 million to $1.5 million in annual volume and want to ramp that up to about $3 million. To find them, Hrustanovic focuses on associates who advertise their listings in local real estate publications. He introduces himself and tells them Neighborhood, REALTORS®, will take that expense—roughly $300 per month—out of their budget, says Wilson.

To keep company growth goals on track, Wilson stays in weekly contact with Hrustanovic, sometimes calling at 2 a.m. Baghdad time by satellite phone to reach his office during the workday. “Those are professional-level conversations about where the problems are,” says Wilson. “You need to have accountability checks to keep things moving on the right path.”

The company closed $98.8 million in volume in 2006, its first full year of business, on 80 listing sides and 231 buyer sides. The goal is to grow that by one-third in 2007.

“If you’ve hired someone with a track record of success whose heart is in the business, you don’t have to be in the office to work every day,” says Wilson. “That’s a good lesson, because if you feel you have to be there every day, it’s not really a business to you; it’s a job.”

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.