Walt McDonald, 2004 NAR President and Bridge Builder

A leader who knows first-hand how far the association can take you

January 1, 2004

Walt McDonald was a teenager growing up in a small town in rural Oklahoma when he decided on a lark to enter a sales contest at his junior high school. To his surprise, he won. His prize was a brand-spanking-new bicycle. McDonald already had a perfectly good second-hand bike, so he sold his windfall and tucked away the cash.

The shrewd business sense and drive to win that McDonald discovered in himself as a youth have today propelled him to the pinnacle of real estate industry leadership. In November, at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Francisco, he was inaugurated as 2004 president of the nearly 1 million member National Association of REALTORS®.

A soft-spoken man with kind eyes and an easy smile, McDonald says he didn’t seek the top post at the nation’s largest professional organization.

“I didn’t seek any of the jobs I’ve had in organized real estate,” says McDonald, CRS®, GRI, broker-owner of Walt McDonald Real Estate in Riverside, Calif., and a former president of his local and state associations. Instead, he says, he’s had many mentors along the way who’ve encouraged him, including several previous NAR presidents.

Go west, young man, and prosper

The youngest of four children—three boys and one girl—McDonald moved to California after graduating from high school. He initially came to visit his sister and take a summer job, but he never left.

After a four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marines—he enlisted when it looked like he was about to be drafted, he says—he bought into a struggling business that made precast concrete pieces. After helping the company turn a profit, McDonald sold out his share and wondered what to do next.

“I had a baby at home, so I had to do something to provide for my family.” It was then, in 1964, that McDonald turned his attention to real estate.

“I taught myself about the business in a few weeks, then sat for my exam,” he says. With license in hand, he went looking for a company to join. “Big companies didn’t want me because I didn’t have any experience, so I went with a small one. I sold a house my first day on the job,” McDonald recounts proudly.

In 1969, he opened his own company, which quickly grew to about 17 sales associates.

But McDonald didn’t like managing the office as much as he liked doing deals, and as positions in the REALTOR® organization took more and more of his time, he pared back his business. Today, he has one office and two associates.

“I’m one of America’s small-town REALTORS®. I take the pieces of business the big guys leave behind, and that works out just fine for me,” McDonald says with a grin.

He says he loves real estate because “it’s the only career where a poor kid from Oklahoma could gain this level of success and get to help a lot of people. I also fundamentally believe that being able to own a piece of property is so much a part of what makes this country great,” he says.

Rules to live by

Friends and colleagues describe McDonald as kind, conservative, and thrifty. They say he’s a person of great determination who makes decisions thoughtfully, after much input and deliberation. And, they say, he’s a man of integrity.

“He’s extremely conservative, but very down-to-earth,” says Sandy Totten, McDonald’s business associate and close friend of more than 30 years. “He’s also very loyal.”

According to Bert Orr, longtime friend and associate with McDonald’s company, McDonald’s word is his bond: “When Walt says something, you can take it to the bank. I’ve always admired his honesty.”

McDonald himself sums up his life philosophy thusly: “Work hard. Be fair. Have goals to accomplish. Have a little fun along the way. And if life is good to you, share its rewards with others.”

He credits much of his business and financial success to principles he learned from his father. “My father always said you’ll never succeed on wages alone. You have to live on less than you make and invest,” says McDonald, who counts among his favorite books The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. “The book says 10 percent of what you make should be yours to keep. And I’ve applied the theory to my business.”

Someday, he says, he’d like to create a program in schools to teach young children about the importance of financial responsibility, well before they get their first credit card offer in the mail.

The new ‘lions’ are out there
McDonald comes to the NAR presidency in what he describes as a “golden age for real estate.” Mortgage rates are low, the national homeownership rate is high, and existing home sales continue at a record pace. The commercial sector, too, is beginning to revive from its dot-com hangover.

Best of all, practitioners are successfully navigating the transition to the Internet. Still, the industry isn’t without challenges, the biggest being how to ensure that REALTORS® remain the first point of contact for consumers in a real estate transaction, McDonald says.

“Today there are huge corporations out there saying, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of money in this real estate business.’ These companies want to capture a portion of the real estate transaction revenue stream without actually getting into the business or adding any value,” McDonald says. He’s referring in part to the proliferation of online referral services that provide leads to real estate practitioners for a fee.

Payment of these referral fees reduces the bottom line of real estate practitioners in a way that may threaten their ability to remain profitable, McDonald says.

When it comes to the industry’s public policy agenda, McDonald says the battles NAR has historically fought in Congress are now being waged with the nation’s regulatory agencies.

Such is the case with the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is seeking to alter as a way to simplify the closing process and add more certainty to its cost estimates for consumers. NAR supports reforms that would create a level playing field between lenders and real estate practitioners offering guaranteed-price packages of settlement services to consumers. But it opposes a HUD proposal that would give lender-provided service packages a clear advantage over those provided by real estate practitioners.

NAR’s efforts to keep large financial conglomerates out of real estate sales and property management is also, in part, a fight with the U.S. Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, which want to relax long-standing laws that require the separation of banking and commerce activities by declaring real estate brokerage and management a financial service.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll ultimately win the fight to keep big banking conglomerates out of real estate, hopefully in the coming year,” says McDonald.

Tackling challenges with teamwork

Meeting all of the industry’s challenges in the year ahead will require a strong team effort, he says.

“I believe I’ve surrounded myself with an incredibly talented group of people,” he says, referring to NAR’s 2004 Leadership Team. “And I’m going to rely on their strengths more than mine in the year ahead.”

The admiration McDonald has for his team is mutual. NAR’s 2004 First Vice President Thomas M. Stevens says McDonald is an approachable leader who’s a good listener and doesn’t rush to judgment. “Every leadership team needs someone like Walt,” says Stevens, president of the Washington region for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Vienna, Va., and senior vice president of the mid-Atlantic region for NRT.

“I believe you make better decisions when you study an issue in a large group,” McDonald admits, “getting a lot of input from a lot of sources.” He says he intends to “listen, learn, and then lead” in his year as NAR president.

One of his goals for the coming year is to reinvigorate NAR members to become more involved in their association, whether by serving on a committee or simply attending NAR’s two annual meetings, in May and November.

Meanwhile, McDonald wants the association to continue to focus on providing tools and services for REALTORS® that can help them be more successful in their business.

“The REALTOR® association is the bridge that can get our members from where they are in their careers to where they want to be,” he says.

And speaking of success, how will McDonald measure his own performance a year from now? “If we’ve provided more benefit to the members and strengthened the organization,” he says, “then I will consider this year a success.”

ESSENTIAL McDONALD

  • Walter Thomas McDonald CRS®, GRI, was born on June 28, 1936, in Woodward, Okla.; raised in Enid.
  • Family Longtime close friend and business associate Sandy Totten; a son, Jeffrey, 40; a daughter, Tammy Blackmore, 41; a grandson, 18, and a granddaughter, 6
  • Company Walt McDonald Real Estate, Riverside, Calif., a single-office, independent company specializing in property sales, leasing, and lending
  • Education Riverside Community College
  • Military service U.S. Marine Corps, 1958–1962
  • Key roles in the REALTOR® organization President of the Riverside/Moreno Valleys Association of REALTORS®, now the Inland Valleys Association, 1973; a member of the California Association of REALTORS® board of directors since 1971 and now an honorary director for life; president of the California Association of REALTORS®, 1993; a member of NAR’s Executive Committee since 1996; NAR Regional Vice President, 1998; NAR First Vice President, 2002; NAR President-elect, 2003
  • Community involvement Previously served on advisory boards of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and the Riverside National Bank. Recently served on the advisory board for the City National Bank in Riverside. In 2003, completed a second two-year term on the Fannie Mae advisory board.
  • Greatest passions Family, the real estate business, the REALTOR® association, real estate investment as a wealth builder, Haagen-Dazs ice cream
  • Hobbies Hiking, camping, traveling, playing poker

Pamela Geurds Kabati is the former publisher of REALTOR® Magazine and senior vice president of communications for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

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