Minority Companies Make a Difference

In small markets and large, these minority brokerage owners have what it takes.

July 1, 2003

The face of real estate is changing. Though the 2001 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Member Profile shows 92 percent of NAR members are Caucasian, 2 percent are African American, 2 percent are of Asian decent, and 5 percent are Latin or Hispanic. But although their numbers may not yet correspond to the demographics of the U.S. population as a whole, many minority-owned companies have a significant impact on their communities and the industry as well as on the next generation of real estate professionals from minority groups. Here are just a few of the companies that make a difference.

Beating the Odds

For 12 years, Marty Rodriguez bested her fellow Catholic school students by outselling them during annual candy and Christmas card drives. No small feat for a one of 11 children who grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath house on the "poor side" of town in El Monte, Calif.

Today, Rodriguez, broker/owner of Century 21 Marty Rodriguez in Glendora, Calif., continues to defy the odds. In 1996, Rodriguez opened her 11,000 square-foot brokerage office, designed and contracted by her husband and son. Last year, the office closed 596 transactions and topped $4.5 million in sales volume. A selling broker, Rodriguez held the title of Century 21's top selling real estate pro in the United States for 1990-2000.

"My father, who was born in El Monte, taught us to work hard and said that people would take us on our own merits," says Rodriguez. "I take those same standards to work with me each day."

In addition to drive and perseverance, Rodriguez says what makes her company successful is that “we really focus on teamwork. Everybody helps each other. And in real estate it's not always that way."

Building team spirit is easier because her 13-sales associate company is peppered with family members. Her stepson, Ed (sales manager); son, Sean (information technology and graphic design); and daughter, Shelley (a broker who runs the business side of the office), all contribute to the company's success.

"I am a great salesperson, but my daughter is great businesswoman. So I do the day-to-day selling, but I don't run the company," says Rodriguez, who started selling real estate in 1978.

Although many minority real estate professionals serve consumers predominantly within their own ethnic group, only 25 percent of Rodriguez's clients are Hispanic. The company does direct some of its marketing efforts toward Hispanics and more than half of her salespeople are bilingual. But the diversity of the San Gabriel Valley market means that the company serves a wide clientele.

To encourage more minority brokers and salespeople, Rodriguez says the real estate industry must lead by example.

"The ongoing growth of nation's Hispanic population means that the bilingual salesperson is very important. I am a role model for my community, so it is important for me to be the best example I can be not only for Hispanic salespeople but for the real estate community as a whole," she says. Although she’s a proud member of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, "I will never be a prisoner of my heritage,” says Rodriquez. “But I believe my heritage lets me help a lot of Hispanic people to achieve the American dream of homeownership."

On-Air Affordable Housing Expert

Long before affordable housing became a congressional buzzword, Danette O'Neal, CRB, CRS, ABRM, broker-owner of Danette O’Neal REALTORS®, was providing a beacon of hope to the New Orleans homebuyers nobody else wanted: people rejected by the larger companies because of bad credit, foreclosure and bankruptcy, or low income.

Many thought they’d never buy a home, but one by one, O'Neal began healing souls and mending credit. "This has become our ministry," says O'Neal, a former securities and insurance broker who started selling real estate in 1991.

Many of O’Neal’s clients are African American, but three of her 62 sales associates are fluent in Spanish, and one speaks American Sign Language. To bring more associates up to speed in serving diverse clients, O’Neal offers in-house Spanish classes, as well as classes on real estate topics. She’s also proud to note that 60 percent of her associates hold two or more real estate professional designations.

Although working with disadvantaged homebuyers can require more effort than traditional clients, O'Neal is comfortable with her role as an industry expert. "We are the first people Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and our local and state boards come to when testing new affordable housing products," she says.

O'Neal keeps her identity as the affordable housing expert in front of the public with a weekly radio segment on housing and finance issue aired on local WYLD AM940 in June 2002. Building on her media experience, O’Neal debuted as host of "iSUCCEED" (isucceedtv.org), a 30-minute show on local access TV in September 2002. The "financial fitness" showcase,” which airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m., focuses on educating the public about affordable housing options and services.

"The response locally is phenomenal. I can't go anywhere without being recognized," she says. O’Neal credits her media exposure as a big factor in producing more many of the 1,200 monthly hits she gets on her Web site, dorealtors.com.

Thanks to such savvy marketing, the two-office independent, which boasted 700 transactions and annual sales of $47 million last year, has grown from 17 salespeople to 62 since its doors opened in 1999.

Though encouraged by changes in the real estate industry's attitude toward minorities. O'Neal, an African American, says there’s still work to do.

"I believe the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and most state REALTOR® associations are already on the right track. But it's up to real estate professionals to change their attitudes," she says.

A Mentor to Minorities

Since 1991, T. Sami Siddiqui, broker-owner of Prudential California Realty in Sacramento, Calif., has helped many minority homeowners set down roots in American soil. But at the end of the day, Siddiqui's pride lies in his ability to help minority sales associates find a place in the real estate community.

"When I bring in minority associates with few communication skills, nurture them over a 2, 3, or 5-year period, and see them become successful, that is my reward," says Siddiqui, who moved stateside from Pakistan to pursue an education in 1978. He began working as a marketing manager for a bank, dabbled—unsuccessfully—in property investment, and then decided to try selling real estate.

Being a minority company is a draw for minority salespeople, says Siddiqui. "I think they know that I understand the challenges they face." Almost 30 percent of his 54 salespeople are bilingual and serves a clientele that is dominated by Russians, Vietnameses, and Mien (an ethnic group from Southwest China that now also live Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam). Although Siddiqui speaks both Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, and Hindi, he finds that most of his Pakistani clientele are fluent in English.

By focusing on a diversity of clientele, Siddiqui’s company has growth to three offices in Northern California. The company closed 567 transactions and in $3.2 million in sales in 2002.

Siddiqui says the real estate community needs both more bilingual real estate practitioners and resources, including books, forms, legal contracts, and training materials in a range of languages.

"It is important for us in the real estate industry to have documents in clients’ language, so they know what they are signing," he says.

Not content to remain only a real estate company, Siddiqui called on his banking background and added financing to his cadre of services when he opened ChoiceOne Funding in 1993.

"We needed another profit center, and I had done mortgages as part of my banking background. When I was dealing with some of the loan officers, I didn't feel like I was getting the whole picture. I felt that I needed control. It was one of the best things we have ever done," he says.

In the future, he hopes to expand his loan operation and add two additional real estate offices.

Although Siddiqui’s never felt a direct backlash from his minority status, he says, "On some occasions, indirectly, I have felt that customers and salespeople do not want to work with me because I am a minority or they envy my success," he says. "But you cannot let this deter you from what you want. You move on."

A Second-Generation Refocus

When Cuban-born Pedro Hernandez founded Hialeah, Fla.-based Pedro Realty Inc. in 1970, he didn't just sell houses. He carved out a specialized niche as the only company in Miami-Dade County catering to predominantly Hispanic and Cuban American clients.

Once a 70-salesperson, 12-office giant, today the 3-office family-owned independent, which specializes in residential and commercial real estate and property management, has 30 Spanish-speaking sales associates and closes an average of $78 million in annual sales. Hernandez is still active in the business, but he’s now getting help refocusing the business from his daughter, Miami-born E. Mendez, CRS, CRB, CIPS.

"Nowadays we have more competition," Mendez says. "We're not the only minority game in town. That was my father's niche, but now it's about finding a way to be different again."

Mendez, who also owns and heads Pedro Realty International in Miami Lakes, is working to realign Pedro’s marketing efforts to embrace segments beyond its traditional Cuban American constituency. Though one of the first local brokers to advertise on television, these days Pedro is using the Web ( www.lizamendez.com) to target consumers with a visit-worthy site that features housing information in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese.

Mendez, who started selling real estate in 1982, says brokerage owners and salespeople who don't offer information and services in a variety of languages do a disservice to the home-buying community."Sometimes there is a perception that the world is English only,” she says.

In addition to targeting consumers with multilingual informational resources, Mendez is attracting homebuyers by exploring new business models. The company's most recent venture is an office opened last year in a local Wal-Mart store. The retail-based outlet combines Pedro residential and commercial listings with foreclosure assistance, bankruptcy information, credit-repair resources, and mortgage and financing products.

"It's been a work in progress. It's a totally different operation from your traditional real estate office, but we like it. And there is a lot of traffic," she says.

No matter what the business model, Mendez sees herself as a link in a universal chain.

"We are a minority company, but we have the same issues as every firm in the country. I don't see myself as different. I have to wake up every day and go out and compete," she says. "But does it give me an advantage that I speak Spanish with some customers? Yes, absolutely."

A Sum of Many Parts

With an average listing price of $60,000, it took a lot of transactions, but in 2002, the seven sales associates at Chicago-based RLB Realty Group Inc. closed $10 million in sales. RLB, founded by Ronald L. Branch, GRI, in 1990, specializes in foreclosures and REO marketing for banks and corporations.

“I’m in an active market, and we’ve been established long enough that most of our clientele find us,” says Branch. “But working hard is what’s made me successful. There’s no secret to it.”

Though success is sweet, broker-owner Ronald L. Branch says it hasn't always been easy.

"My biggest challenge is being an African American in America," he says. "When I walk into a room, the first thing that people notice about me is that I am a black male, not that I am a real estate professional. So I have to prove myself beyond what a white American would have to do for the same type of position, for the same type of work. That is a given."

For Branch, a former marketing rep for the oil industry, the biggest reward of minority ownership is the ability to make decisions and see results.

“In this arena, as a business owner, quite often you can see the direct effect of your efforts," he says.

Branch's efforts have also taken him to the helm of the nation's largest and oldest minority trade association. He is president-elect of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers Inc, a group founded in 1947, predominately by African Americans.

Branch says his affiliation with minority business networks has advanced his career both formally through educational programs and informally via professional contacts. In turn, he gives back by mentoring kids in his community.

"My focus is reaching back and helping as many people as I can understand what America is all about and how successful one can be if you put your heart and mind to it," he explains.

In 2001, Branch put his money where his mouth is and purchased a building in Bronzeville, a historic name for the predominantly African American South Side of Chicago. He says the 6,000-square-foot property, which houses RBL, stands as a symbol of what people can do with action and hard work.

Still, even with his own success, Branch believes the real estate industry needs a fresh perspective. At a time when the overall real estate sales force is aging, Branch hopes to encourage more young minority real estate practitioners through programs such as NAREB's Young REALTIST Division, an outreach program that seeks to recruit and develop real estate salespeople right out of college.

"We have to present the opportunity for younger African Americans and let them realize the opportunities that exists in our ranks," he says. He acknowledges that building the presence of minorities in the real estate industry is a gradual process. “But it is getter better,” he believes.

At Home on the Range

Kenneth Li may not own a horse. But deep in the heart of Texas, the Taiwan-born, Hong Kong raised president of Houston-based Century 21 Southwest has found a place to call home.

When Li came to Houston from Hong Kong in 1981, he was one of about 25,000 Asian Americans residing in the city. Today, he is one of more than 300,000. Li says 10 percent of the members in the Houston Association of REALTORS® are Asian.

He chose Houston to study mathematics and computer science at Houston Baptist University, but Li’s real estate career began before he even graduated. In 1983, he entered into a joint venture with his uncle to develop Diho Plaza, a retail center that became an anchor for Houston’s New China Town. The pair went on to acquire a second retail property, christened Diho Square, in 1985. Today, New China Town is a thriving focal point for the city's Asian community.

While some call him a pioneer, Li, who no longer owns Diho Plaza, says he's just lucky. "A century ago, Asian immigrants did not have the chance to grow with the community. But I have had a real opportunity, and it has just exploded."

In addition to his development activities, Li entered residential sales in 1987 with the opening of Texas George Realty (a nod to the first President George Bush). The company, which specialized in serving the Asian community, grew to 100 sales associates before Li turned it into a holding and investment company and bought Century 21 Southwest in Houston in 1998. The 20-associate company topped $18 million in sales last year.

"I was doing great with Texas George in the 1990s, but I wanted to go to the mainstream and service more people, so I thought a well-known franchise name would help me to grow." says Li. Li also felt his company benefited from access to Century 21's training programs and from access to what is going on in the industry as a whole.

Even though he has a strong presence in the Asian community and a 95-percent bilingual sales staff, being from the same background is not always a plus with buyers, says Li.

"We know the culture, we speak the same language, and it’s easy to break the ice. But some buyers think they will have more privacy if they speak with a non-Asian salesperson," he explains.

Whether a practitioner is minority or not, Li notes, success lies in education, ethics, training, mentoring and the ability to look for new opportunities beyond cultural lines.

"Minority associates do not only serve their ethnic communities, they have the capacity to serve the whole community," he says. "It doesn't have to be Asian salespeople with Asian clients. We should be more diversified."

As these stories show, minority owners face the same challenges as every other real estate brokerage owner. But they also occupy a special position as ambassadors of the American Dream, both to the Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority homeowners they serve and to the next generation of minority real estate professionals who follow their leads.

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