Pamela Babcock is a freelance journalist based in the New York City area. She writes frequently about leadership and workplaces issues for a variety of clients. Connect with Pamela at www.pamelababcock.com.
Miami Brokerage Still All in the Family
Nearly a century after it was founded, three generations of the Pappas family have embraced change and molded The Keyes Co. into a nimble yet steadfast institution.
August 22, 2018
The Keyes Co. in Miami has survived the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and a slew of weather disasters. Now, amid a wave of consolidations, the 92-year-old brokerage is still family-owned and one of southeast Florida’s largest real estate companies.
Keyes (rhymes with “ties”) has about 3,200 associates in more than 50 offices serving the Gold Coast counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, and Volusia. Last year, the company racked up about $5 billion in sales in an increasingly complex industry. “We’re playing in a puzzle that’s dramatically changing and pivoting, and that can be challenging,” says Keyes CEO and President Mike Pappas.
Working with his team to face those challenges requires setting solid goals and having a laser focus, as margins become thinner and investments in technology are needed to drive business growth. “There are daily challenges that keep you up at night, but we’re working hard on growing to get to the size and scale to maximize the synergies,” Pappas says.
Keyes was founded by the late Ken Keyes in 1926. Pappas’ father, Ted, bought it in 1969, and Mike Pappas and his brother, Tim, acquired the firm in 1992. Tim, a CPA, is currently executive vice president. Two of their children work at Keyes—Mike’s daughter, Christina, is a district sales manager, and Tim’s son, Jason, is a sales associate and assists with the company’s management information system and reporting.
Leaders at Keyes are strategically training agents and positioning the company to maintain its place in today’s evolving industry. For example, the growing use of the internet for home searches and Miami’s worldwide allure meant Keyes needed global exposure. So, in 1997, Keyes became a founding member and shareholder of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, a network of more than 500 premier firms in 70 countries. Keyes also added in-house mortgage, title, insurance, property management, and relocation services through affiliates, and it now has a commercial and luxury property division.
Since 1994, the company has acquired more than 75 independent brokerages. When it comes to growth, Pappas says, patience is key. “We recently folded a deal we first talked about 20 years ago,” he says. In 2016, the company merged with Illustrated Properties, based in Palm Beach Gardens, after three years of talks. It had 550 associates at the time. That same year, Keyes overhauled its branding with new company colors and a redesign of its website and other marketing collateral.
While growth through acquisition may inadvertently lead to internal strife at some companies, Pappas says the quality of Keyes’ agents and management sets it apart. “Our family values are the company’s core values. We treat each other with respect and do what’s best for the person we are dealing with, whether it’s clients or associates,” says Pappas, adding that communication and transparency are paramount.
Pappas characterizes his management style as caring with a “strong and engaged ownership mentality” that’s entrepreneurial and decisive. “We’re able to fight things out and debate issues, then execute,” he explains.
When bringing on new agents, Pappas looks for past success, drive, energy, passion, and a desire to grow. Many Keyes associates and managers have been recruited by their peers to represent the industry. Ranks include representation from many countries, with a preponderance from Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. Christina Pappas and her cousin, Jason, created “Keyes Next Gen” for their growing group of sales associates under the age of 40.
Christina, who has a degree in hotel administration from Cornell University, worked in hotel sales and event coordination for four years in Los Angeles before joining the family business in 2011 after her grandfather died. As a child, her father used to take Christina and her siblings to the Miami office on Saturday mornings. Christina would sit at her grandfather’s desk and pretend she was an agent, then produce a “contract” on his typewriter. Negotiations were usually handled with Skittles candy.
Today, Christina is a volunteer director with the National Association of REALTORS® and the 2018 liaison to its Large Firms and Industry Relations Committee. She is also secretary of the Florida REALTORS® board of directors, past president of the Miami Association of REALTORS®, and past chair of its Young Professionals Network leadership board.
“I’m passionate about giving back to our industry what this profession has given me,” Christina says. “We’ve been around more than 90 years, and we want the industry to be healthy and strong for another 90 years.”
The company donates time or money to more than 50 charities. Each year, Mike Pappas and nearly 200 associates take part in the 70-mile Dolphin Cycle Challenge to raise funds for the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2017, Mike and Christina Pappas rappelled in tandem down Keyes’ 10-story Miami headquarters to raise money for Miami Over the Edge, a Greater Miami Youth for Christ initiative to help stop youth violence.
Pappas still draws motivation from his father for much of what the company does. “He was a really wise man and understood people,” Pappas says, adding that Ted Pappas often quoted from Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 memoir by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. He’d say things such as, “One has the power to choose their reaction,” and, “All you have is your reputation,” Pappas recalls.
In recent years, Keyes has made big investments in technology for associates. Among them are chatbots to help capture leads, VoicePad technology and text messaging options for listing information on For Sale signs, automated virtual tours, and a soon-to-be-rolled-out social customer relationship management system so customers can interact with Keyes agents via their preferred channels.
But despite all this change, some things stay the same. Each summer, Mike and Tim Pappas’ whirlwind “summer tour” takes them to all of the brokerage’s offices for employee and agent appreciation events. Mike Pappas also handwrites birthday notes to sales associates and staff—about 3,200 a year, or eight to 10 a day. Pappas says he keeps a stack of blank cards on his bedside table and often pens them late at night. “I’ve been doing it for 26 years,” he says. “And I can’t stop.”