Fishing for Great Ideas

Tim Greene's innovation initiative encourages his team to pitch proposals to improve operations à la "Shark Tank."

September 16, 2015

I grew up in the real estate business. My dad, John Greene, founded the company in 1976. When I was growing up, we spent Sundays going around and looking at every home for sale. At the office he always had some project for me to do. He loved everything about real estate, so he shared a lot of his knowledge. I was never forced into real estate and wasn’t initially interested. After high school, I went to Argentina and played polo for six months.

I came back to Chicago and enrolled in college, majoring in international affairs. My dad had opened a land brokerage, and I started working there part-time in 2001 to get internship credits. About that time the housing market really cranked up. Builders and developers were looking for land like crazy. I was always entrepreneurial—I started my own landscaping company when I was 15—but didn’t think I was destined for sales. Once I started working with farm families and helping them sell their land, I realized how much I loved it. I got my license in 2002 and ran the land brokerage until late 2007.

By then I had sold a ridiculous amount of land and planned to take some time off. That lasted 29 days. The recession had hit, and the real estate brokerage was losing good talent looking for greener pastures. That had never happened to us before. We went from maybe 75 agents down to about 55. I thought, "We could lose everything we've worked for."

Family Business Relaunch

The downturn provided the opportunity for the next generation to relaunch our family business. A different leadership team was in place then, and my dad wasn't involved in daily operations. In January 2008 we announced we were officially stepping in and taking an active role. Dad took over as president, and I became the vice president. I identified 400 things I wanted to change about the company and went about changing all of them. I’m a broker by trade, so that's the lens my world is viewed from. We have to provide the best environment and culture for our brokers to work in because at the end of the day, they go out and get the business. We put in new technology, websites, phone system, and internal social media. We remodeled our conference room and added a coffee bar. We updated our branding by lightening the colors and using a more modern font. I made some mistakes, but I try not to make the same one twice. One mistake was spending $150,000 on cloud computing software the brokers didn’t like or use. Another was hiring one person to fill both the sales manager and managing broker roles; it was too much for one person.

Great Ideas Wanted

In January we established the Innovators Fund to support great ideas that improve operations, help brokers do their jobs better, and elevate the client experience. It works like this: Associates and employees submit their proposals. A review team consisting of three company executives—but not me—identifies the most promising proposals and invites the applicants to pitch their ideas in person. They are asked to explain the issue or opportunity their ideas address and tell us why their ideas are significant, what is the ideal outcome, and what resources are needed. It's similar to the television show "Shark Tank."

Funding decisions are made by the review team. There is no specific dollar limit. Approved applicants implement their ideas and provide the review team with regular progress reports. If the innovation works, it is adopted throughout the organization.

When I was only selling land, I came up with a lot of ideas I never got around to implementing because the phone rang and I moved on to the next transaction. If I could have just told someone the idea, and they had the resources and the ability to implement the idea, I could have made more money, or it would have been better for my clients, or something positive would have happened. Our goal is to capture when someone has this great moment of clarity and make sure it doesn't slip through the cracks. Having a formalized process does that. Also, if you have to fill out a form and make a presentation, you’ve thought this through. It’s not some half-baked idea.

So far we've said a lot more yeses than nos. One approved proposal was for the design and production of a communication piece targeted to new-home builders. The broker is having tremendous success with it. Another broker found a way we could enhance our listing presentation materials, and we made those changes. We declined one proposal, which was for newspaper advertising. It’s amazing how much enthusiasm we’ve seen from the team. These aren’t necessarily terribly complex ideas, but just simple, smart solutions. This program has switched the thinking from "How have things been done previously?" to "Is there a better way?"