Coast to Coast: A Conversation with Bob Pittman

January 1, 1996

Bob Pittman's new to the real estate business but not to business in general.

Most recently, the new head of Century 21 was CEO and president of Time Warner Inc. and chairman and CEO of Six Flags Entertainment. Under Pittman's tenure, Time Warner launched Court TV cable network and acquired Six Flags. Before heading to Time Warner, Pittman was CEO of MTV Networks, which operates MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, and VH-1.

Pittman entered the business world at 15 as a part-time radio disc jockey in Mississippi, where he grew up. He later became a program director and specialized in radio station turnarounds in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York.

Pittman now serves on the board of directors of Hospitality Franchise Systems, the parent company of Century 21, and America Online.

Now that he has taken over as managing partner and CEO of Century 21, Bob Pittman is settling in and making changes. Because of the franchisor's size and scope across the country (approximately 6,000 franchisees in the United States), those changes could affect nearly every real estate market in the United States. Today's REALTOR® Editor Gabriella Filisko recently caught up with Pittman to find out about his plans.

We hear you're getting rid of the yellow jackets.

Yellow jackets? You mean the gold coats? How dare you call gold yellow!

No, I'm making them optional. There are regional differences in terms of dress, identity, and things like that, so we're trying to make the company flexible. I also understand enough about brand building to know that the jackets are a symbol of our brand but not our brand.

I understand that one of your main goals is to better use the brand awareness Century 21 has.

What we haven't done with brand awareness is make it work for us. I'll give you an example. In the advertising business, people say, "If you don't have anything to say, sing it." Every Century 21 commercial has been a singing one.

The commercials aren't memorable. They're not hard-hitting. I have a cardinal rule of advertising: You shouldn't be able to take my company's name off an ad and put my competitor's name on it and have the ad work.

I did "I want my MTV" in the early 80s. We spent only $2 million on national advertising for that campaign, but people still remember it. I like hard-hitting, go-for-the-jugular advertising, and we'll do that at Century 21.

Every business in America is moving toward brands. My definition of a brand is that you have customers predisposed to doing business with that product. I find that the real estate industry isn't strong on marketing expertise. Brokers are confused about market share and brand.

If there are 50 Bob's Hamburgers in Manhattan and one McDonalds, Bob's would have a large market share, but McDonalds would still be the brand. If McDonalds were to open 50 restaurants in Manhattan, it would run Bob's out of business, because McDonalds has predisposed customers. Bob's doesn't.

The perception of some people in the industry is that Century 21 has name recognition but that it's a mediocre franchise.

Yes, but that perception is not true with consumers. In the industry, Century 21 suffers in the eyes of salespeople. They think, "Oh, Century 21 isn't so great," or, "It's not good with the upscale audience," which also isn't true. Century 21 has strength across every income group on a nationwide basis.

What specific plans do you have?

This industry is so far behind the times in leads and leads management it's ridiculous. My estimation is that if we give our franchisees a good leads management system, we can probably quadruple the amount of closings on their current lists. First, I'll teach brokers to manage the leads they have and give them a system to do it. Second, I'll give them leads they don't have.

How will you do that?

I'll do it in a couple of ways. We just announced a deal moving Sears Home Improvement, owned by AMRE, to Century 21. What we don't want is to do new things everybody else can copy.

AMRE meets more than a half-million consumers each year, and the number one sale it makes is to people fixing up their home because they want to sell. And it meets people who could use its services but don't. The number one reason they don't is that they've decided to sell their home or buy another instead. Both are easy flips for us.

In terms of support, we look at automation and technology. I'm on the board of America Online, and I've been part of the interactive strategy for Time Warner. I understand technology. When I looked at Century 21, I said, "My God! The company is way behind everybody else in automation." Then I looked closer and said, "No, it's not. The whole industry is behind." Again, that's a quick fix.

What specifically are you talking about with regard to technology?

I'm talking about automating offices so that brokers can find out who's productive and who's not, to give brokers early warnings so that they can push for productivity.

In terms of paperless transactions, salespeople need to spend less time filling out forms and more time selling. If you bog them down doing the same form, with a slight variation, five or six times, that's time they could have been making calls or actually closing a sale.

As an outsider, what else struck you about the real estate business?

There are some awfully good people in this industry, but the industry is living by conventional wisdoms that were invented 15 to 20 years ago and don't apply to today's consumer.

Just in terms of leads management, brokers are throwing gold in the garbage can. If the lead's not hot at the moment, they throw it away. They don't understand how to incubate a lead, how many times you should work it, what techniques you should use the second, third, or fourth time, how you feed it back into the system, and how you know when it's ready to produce.

In terms of advertising, companies don't understand the call to action, how to get people to rush in.

Where do you expect Century 21 to be in a year?

We can probably grow 1 percent to 2 percent per year in market share. We have an underperforming brand. My goal is that our market share should at least match consumer preference.

You talk a lot about one-stop shopping. Can you elaborate?

Americans today are motivated by price but also by convenience. And many consumers will pay a premium for convenience.

We have salespeople who've put years into developing a relationship with consumers. Salespeople develop great trust, so much that buyers ask them, "What school should I send my kids to? Where should I get my hair cut?"

Yet, all we do is sell them a home or sell their home. Our goal is to help brokers figure out how they can make more money from ancillary services than they do from real estate transactions. If they can do that for little additional cost, you talk about radically altering brokerage profitability.

Other than mortgage services, what services do you see?

Home security, cable TV, hooking up phone service. If I can get consumers a deal because they're Century 21 customers, Century 21 will have a competitive advantage. That'll be a big revenue source for brokers, and most consumers will rather go to a Century 21 salesperson than to one who can handle only the home sale. In five years, I want us to be completely one-stop shopping.

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine. 

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