Keeping History in Mind

An upstate New York real estate brokerage taps into the area's long history to drive Web traffic and boost visibility in the community.

May 1, 2009

R.J. Smith
CRB, CRS®, Real Estate Solutions, Pine Bush, N.Y.

Years in Business: 35; became a sales agent in 1974; opened brokerage in 1976
2008 Gross Sales: $126 million on 309 transaction sides
2007 Gross Sales: $156 million on 499 transaction sides
Number of Offices: 2
Number of Sales Associates: 50

Why he opened his his own business

I didn’t know any better. I was young and impressionable.

How he connects with the community

As part of our community heritage initiative, we created a "historic postcard" section of our Web site with hundreds of old images of the areas we serve. People like to see what their neighborhoods and the local landmarks looked like in the early 20th century. We require people to submit their name and e-mail address to see the images—this adds a few hundred names to our contact lists every month. We also enlarge some of the pictures, frame them, and give them to businesses to display. For example, we have a picture of an old pharmacy that’s now a floral shop. The shop owners enjoy the picture, and it helps keep our name out there.

His best business decision

More than two years ago, we left print advertising almost completely because it was more expensive and less effective than electronic media. It’s so much better to be able to push products directly to prospective buyers or investors. We’ve built a contact database of about 300,000 e-mail addresses and we send out 30,000 e-brochures with listing information each day. Most of our contacts are categorized into various audiences we want to reach, including accountants, lawyers, farm owners, real estate practitioners, and builders. We used to spend $5,000 on a newspaper ad that reached 80,000 people. Now our costs are minimal to reach more than 200,000 people each week. Our opt-out rate for the mailings is very low—less than 1 percent.

Getting associates involved

We’ve created a system we call the "virtual partnership" in which all salespeople see our entire budget every month and know where all of our spending goes—everything from rents and leases to marketing and staff costs. We’ve been doing this since the 1990s, when agents told us they wanted to be more involved in the details of the business. Everyone can participate in decisions about marketing because they see the information about what we spend.

How he's growing business

We operate in a market where about one-third of residents live in homes they don’t own. Of course, our goal is to have people buy within their means. We send direct mail to apartment buildings where people are paying up to $2,000 a month in rent and explain how they could buy a home and spend less than they do in rent. Since the middle of 2008, we’ve also been aggressively reaching out to employers, municipalities, and advocacy groups to do educational programs for potential first-time buyers. We’re starting to see sales results from these efforts.

His hardest years

We made it through the early 1980s when interest rates were 18 percent. People were saying back then that we’d never see single-digit rates again.

His customer service approach

It’s necessary to make customers for life. We tell our associates not to just show someone a house and disappear. Instead, deliver service to customers on a never-ending basis. In the past, real estate brokerages were service and information businesses. Now we’re essentially service businesses, so we have to provide service with the highest quality.

His hiring plans

We’re looking at the quality, not quantity, of our associates. We don’t want an army of cookie-cutter salespeople; we want a diversity of skills and interests. Some people focus just on home buyers; others are more interested in working with commercial properties. We want our associates to develop their strengths. We’d rather have 50 high-quality agents than 100 lesser-quality people.