Pamela Babcock is a journalist based in the New York City area. She writes frequently about business, real estate, personal finance, legal issues and more for a variety of clients. Connect with Pamela at www.pamelababcock.com.
How an East Coast Brokerage is Breaking the Mold
One partner nearly balked at taking the leap, but this real estate startup seems to have found the perfect marriage of personalities and skills.
May 11, 2018
In a town where larger real estate businesses are still somewhat the norm, and hip uses of video marketing and social media such as Instagram are often an afterthought, West End Residential in Morristown, N.J., has a decidedly modern approach.
The three-year-old company recently moved across town into a restored, more visible 1920s Colonial with gleaming wide-plank hardwood floors, wall art with inspirational sayings, sleek sofas, aromatherapy diffusers, and water bowls for canine visitors. Upstairs, there’s even a private office just waiting for a special agent to move in.
Cofounders Janis DeVito, who is broker of record, and Danielle Hilliker, who works as the marketing director, are laser-focused on cultivating the 30-agent brokerage’s culture and brand in this town about 30 miles west of Manhattan. They’ve honed a holistic look and feel to the firm’s marketing, social media, and new digs, all designed to showcase what owners say is their goal—to provide a modern approach to real estate not only for clients but also for agents who work there.
“We’re actually doing a lot of things that companies near Hoboken or New York City are doing,” says Hilliker, who is expecting her first child in June. “The whole thing is the energy. People are noticing us and it’s a good thing.”
The pair’s skills and personalities complement each other. DeVito, a self-described Type A personality, has years of IT background and more than a decade of real estate training and management experience. Hilliker has a marketing degree and also worked in interior design. The pair met when DeVito worked as a managing broker at Weichert, REALTORS®. Hilliker had just gotten her real estate license and had plans to meet with DeVito’s business partner, but had a sit-down with DeVito instead.
“I loved her, her personality and everything she was going to teach me—we just clicked,” recalls Hilliker, who now has her broker’s license. DeVito was planning to leave the business but Hilliker convinced her they should start their own shop. The pair spent a month at DeVito’s dining room table hatching a business plan. Since both have relatives from England, they named the firm after London’s vibrant and energetic business and entertainment district. Today, they hope to play a role in making Morristown—home to more than 18,000 residents—one of the most popular destinations west of New York. That may not be difficult. In recent years, the town has seen an influx of younger residents and high-end apartments, restaurants, trendy bars, and other businesses.
DeVito, a single mother to an 11-year-old daughter, says she’s excited about the evolving community: “It’s the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve lived here 23 years.”
West End works to foster a family environment. DeVito says more seasoned agents often help newbies and agents openly talk about what they’re working on. “There’s no fear of somebody stealing work from another because I won’t have it,” she says. DeVito and Hilliker’s desks are in the open, not behind closed doors. “We wanted it to be very transparent,” DeVito notes.
DeVito is passionate about training but instead of having a classroom, the agent training lounge where she teaches twice a week looks like a trendy living room with a sectional sofa, comfortable chairs, colorful pillows, and a whiteboard. The pair decided to make it homey after once holding an office meeting at a broker open house and DeVito noticed everyone seemed more engaged and relaxed. Upstairs, there’s an impressive and now empty private space they’ve named “the legacy agent room,” replete with pheasant wallpaper. The pair hopes to attract a “very well-established” agent who might want to leave a bigger brand for a more intimate shop, DeVito says.
When hiring, DeVito looks for agents who get how digital marketing—websites, video, search, email, and social media—can be used to market homes and can explain that to customers. Agents are a mix of full- and part-timers, but about 70 percent are new to the field. While many potential hires contact DeVito, she also culls lists of recent licensees and tracks careers of potential rising stars. Offering training at night and during the day provides opportunities for agents to be face-to-face with her and also appeals to someone looking to shift careers.
Among the ranks is Leslie Allen, a former championship tennis player, once ranked 17th in the world, and Lucas Cittone, who has rehabbed and sold a number of once-distressed properties in the area. “It’s nice to kind of revamp the town and homes that were always beautiful but just kind of needed a little TLC,” Hilliker says.
Before working with a buyer, DeVito says it’s mandatory to bring customers to the office for a cup of coffee and consultation to find out what they know about home buying and what they’re willing to spend. “If you don’t spend the time doing that, you’re a taxi driver and they just see you as a giant key to open the door,” DeVito says. “I want people that build relationships. I‘m looking for people who want to do the job the right way and to have a good time doing it.”
West End Residential hosts educational homebuying and homeselling seminars at the local Frelinghuysen Arboretum and has auctioned doghouses to benefit the county sheriff’s department K9s, even dubbing itself “Woof End Residential” to promote the event. Last Valentine’s Day, agents spread a little love by handing out long-stemmed roses around town.
The company picks up the agents’ tab for professional photography and video on listings across all price points and was the first in the area to do fly-through videos, DeVito says. “We want everyone to look professional—it’s a representation of the brand,” she adds. The firm also provides gratis staging using a client’s possessions and helps with renovation ideas and paint colors. To retain a family feel, West End Residential hopes to cap growth of the Morristown office to about 50 agents, then possibly open an office in another town, possibly to the west. The firm recently signed its first $1.8 million listing and plans to launch a high-end brand.
DeVito admits she was nervous launching the firm and nearly balked until Hilliker, who both describe as “the fearless one,” “kept bugging me and saying, ‘But you’ve got me!’” Today, the pair says a framed saying on the office wall sums up their philosophy: "Be kind, work hard, stay humble, smile often, stay loyal, be honest, travel when possible, never stop learning, be thankful, and love always."
The company’s active Instagram feed shows that they seem to have fun doing it. Recent images show dogs lazing on the office floor, a video of someone riding a Segway to film a new listing and photos of happy buyers and sellers outside their new homes. One features photos of a pool and outdoor party hut and reads: “HUGE CONGRATS to the BEST CLIENTS EVER …closing on their AMAZING home! So THRILLED for both of you! Can’t wait to make use of this Tiki bar!” And in a video before the recent reopening fete, DeVito dances to Train’s “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” on a post that read: “Time to party!! #volumeup #weknowhowtoparty #realestate #realtorlife #funtimes #celebratesuccess #morristown #saturdays #njrealestate.”