The Right Man at the Right Time

Those who know Charles McMillan say there's no one better suited to take on today's market challenges and strengthen REALTORS®' bond with consumers.

January 1, 2009

If Charles McMillan's first real estate transaction had gone off without a hitch, it's very possible that he wouldn't be leading the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® into its second century. In fact, he probably wouldn't have become a REALTOR®.

In the early 1980s, just a few years out of the Air Force and working full time in the nonprofit sector, McMillan became interested in real estate investing. He saved money for a down payment and found a property with potential. But as any first-time buyer would, he had lots of questions for his real estate agent.

He never got answers. Instead, he was told: "Oh, don't worry about that. It's not important." 

So he took matters into his own hands, reading through masses of paperwork and slowly finding answers to his questions. However, when closing day arrived, he didn't feel amply prepared to move forward. 

"I forfeited my earnest money and walked away," McMillan says. "I wasn't even aware that there was a real estate commission to complain to. The only thing I could think to do was enroll in a real estate course—not to become an agent, just to make better-informed decisions when I went into the marketplace."

One class led to another, which led to another. Classmates urged him to sit for the Texas real estate licensing exam and interview with brokers. "The rest is history," laughs McMillan, who is 57.

In all seriousness, McMillan has done nothing short of make history. Not just because he's the first African American president of the country's largest trade association—a milestone he downplays—but also because he's leading NAR into fresh territory in 2009, overseeing new initiatives to strengthen REALTORS®' bond with consumers and bring the housing market out of turmoil.

His overarching imperative: Whatever NAR does must be for the benefit of REALTORS®. "He's what I call a members' president," says Benny McMahan, who has served as CEO of the Texas Association of REALTORS® for 18 years. "He's one of those REALTORS® who bleed REALTOR® blue. He loves this industry, and he loves the REALTOR® organization. He measures his success by how many REALTORS® he's helped and what new benefits he's bringing to them."

A big part of serving members, McMillan says, is engaging with consumers at a much deeper level than in the past. "Consumers need to know that we have their best interests at heart," McMillan says. "REALTORS® are a preeminent advocate for private property rights and a natural ally for consumers. The public doesn't always know what REALTORS® are doing to make their communities a better place."

His first priority been to urge Congress and the new administration to adopt NAR's four-point plan for boosting the housing industry, which would, among other things, open the $7,500 tax credit toward the purchase of a principal residence to all taxpayers and eliminate the repayment requirement. 

"The only way to overcome today's economic turmoil is to motivate and encourage worried or cautious housing consumers to enter the marketplace," McMillan says. "Our goal is to ensure there is a healthy market and sufficient capital to support mortgage lending to qualified borrowers."

But McMillan is also thinking beyond the current economic crisis. Among the "Second-Century Initiatives" McMillan will be aiming to achieve in 2009:

  • Launch a syndicated talk radio show that will cover a universe of real estate–related topics of interest to consumers.
  • Develop a consumer Web site that will help the public become better informed and better educated about all aspects of homeownership and provide a venue for people to take action on real estate issues that affect their communities. 
  • Create a national database of property listings that will provide NAR members with reliable information on every property in the country—even properties that are not for sale.
  • Work toward creating higher professional standards for the real estate industry, thus improving the public image of REALTORS®.

Stand and Deliver

Can McMillan get it all done? All signs point to yes. The North Carolina native is already known within the REALTOR® organization as someone to call on when quick action and decisive leadership are required.

"When a new issue emerges as a hot topic for REALTORS®, Charles forces himself to become an expert so he can lead others," says Sherry Matina, CRB, RCE, chief executive of the Greater Fort Worth Association of REALTORS®. "His ability to stand and deliver on any topic of importance on a moment's notice is invaluable, especially in the political arena." 

A case in point: In spring 2008, when REALTORS® became concerned that Fannie Mae's so-called "declining market" policy would reduce homeownership in communities that had been hardest hit by the housing downturn, NAR leaders dispatched McMillan to Washington, D.C.

In days McMillan became an expert on all matters related to the government-sponsored enterprises. "Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were on the defensive," he says. "Their eyes had been blackened by the media and by members of Congress. They were used to being attacked."

Rather than join in on the assault, McMillan decided he'd have more success by focusing on mutual ground. "I let them know that REALTORS® had no desire to see the demise of the GSEs. We want to help," he says.

By setting a friendly, collaborative tone, McMillan and the GSE leaders moved past differences to a productive discussion. In mid-May, Fannie Mae scrapped the declining markets policy and "identified our meeting as the catalyst for making the change," McMillan says.

"Charles can build consensus better than anyone I know," says H. Nathan Booth, CIPS, with Westgate Realty Group Inc. and ZBA International in Alexandria, Va. "The higher you rise in the organization, the more important that becomes."

Raised Up With Work Ethic

Hard work and the ability to collaborate with others to achieve a common goal have always been parts of McMillan's life. Born in a small farming community in Whiteville, N.C., McMillan grew up in a home with his grandparents, mother, and little sister. As a young boy, he would help out on his family's farm, growing and harvesting tobacco, corn, strawberries, and other so-called "truck crops" that paid the bills.

"I didn't have a childhood where I came home from school, got a sandwich, and went out to play," McMillan says. "But I got a work ethic that has served me well."

Although McMillan enjoyed a very close relationship with his grandmother and grandfather—both of whom were highly spiritual people—the small town offered "no jobs and no opportunities" over the long term. So when he was 12, he moved with his mother and sister to a more urban area in North Central Florida, where his aunt and uncle already had laid down roots. "I'll always be grateful for the new start," McMillan says.

His mother, Ethel McMillan, made sacrifices as a single parent to provide for the household and give her children what they needed to succeed. "My mother showed me that a strong and determined person could do anything if that person was willing to work hard enough," McMillan says.

McMillan also made sacrifices, always holding a job while in school to contribute to the family income. While attending high school in Bartow, Fla., McMillan worked part-time at a grocery store and at his uncle's auto mechanic business. But his jobs never trumped his studies. "I knew there was more to life, and I wanted more, so I paid particular attention in school, even as my peers were dropping out here and there," McMillan says.

By the time he was ready for college, McMillan had several scholarships offers. He enrolled at North Carolina Central University in Durham, where he set out to earn a degree in economics and political science. But just a year later—in 1971, when the Vietnam War was in full force—McMillan's course shifted when he received his draft card in the mail.

With one look at the low number on his card, McMillan knew he was destined to serve. Rather than wait for his number to be called, he headed to the local Air Force recruitment office and enlisted. He never served in Vietnam, but in the nearly eight years that followed, McMillan was stationed throughout the Western Pacific, providing computerized support for military aircraft missions.

His wartime experiences gave him the chance to travel to exotic locales, sparking a curiosity and appreciation that he still holds for foreign cuisine, language, and culture

Of course, McMillan didn't just do his job in the Air Force—he mastered it. His exceptional command of the Air Force's mission and procedures earned him the honor of "Airman of the Pacific." To receive the award, McMillan had to compete with thousands of other servicemen through a series of tests and interviews.

Real Estate Beckons

After wrapping up his second tour in the Air Force, McMillan was ready to return to civilian life. He took a job as a youth counselor for a national nonprofit psychiatric treatment facility, working with adolescents who were struggling with inner-city life. His managers took notice of his high success rate and quickly promoted him to a role training others and handling regulatory issues. The new job landed him at a corporate facility in the Lone Star state.

"Texas made me feel at home," says McMillan, who's now an avid fan of country music and Texas barbecue.

It was there, while he was still working for the psychiatric treatment facility, that McMillan's real estate investing mishap led him onto a new career path. He didn't even realize until years later that he had made a career jump during one of the most challenging real estate markets in history: It was 1983, and double-digit interest rates had virtually stalled home sales. Not only that, Texas was at the start of a serious slump brought on by rapidly falling oil prices.

Naïvete worked to his advantage. "It's amazing what you can do when you're under the illusion that things are normal, when you have no idea that everything around you is going to heck in a handbasket," McMillan says. The lesson he learned then is just as true today: "Regardless of the market, people are always in the market to buy or sell."

McMillan started as a salesperson with a Century 21 franchise in the Fort Worth area and moved up to sales manager and trainer before earning his broker's license in 1987. He made a name for himself locally as the expert on buyer agency, a hot topic at the time.

Matina, who was then working on the real estate brokerage side of the business, hired McMillan to help her employer Wm. Rigg, REALTORS®, in Fort Worth, formulate a new agency policy. McMillan eventually became vice president of corporate training for Wm. Rigg, which was purchased by NRT Inc. and merged with a local Coldwell Banker office in 1999.

Today, as broker of record and director of realty relations for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Dallas–Fort Worth, McMillan is the company's point person for all regulatory and legal issues.

Every Task With Excellence

As McMillan's real estate career grew, so did his involvement in the REALTOR® organization. It all started about a year after he earned his license when he stopped by the board office and volunteered to help hand out heavy MLS books.

"One day I went to the association office to pick up the new MLS books, and the executive asked me if it was possible to stay a few hours and help distribute the books. The other gentleman who worked there was off that day, and all three ladies were pregnant."

McMillan volunteered for the rest of the afternoon.

"I've always had the belief that no matter what the task, you do it with excellence and you do it with pride," McMillan says. "It gives people an indication of how you would handle greater things. That, more than anything, has been the magic for me. I started at the very bottom and ended up in a role that I wouldn't have foreseen."

Sure enough, a couple of weeks after his stint at the board office, his phone rang. It was the association executive, inviting McMillan to serve on the special events committee. From that small first step, McMillan went on to serve as president of the Greater Fort Worth Association of REALTORS® in 1991 and president of the Texas Association of REALTORS® in 1998.

He then launched into major leadership roles at the national level, where colleagues and mentors recognized that he had what it takes to lead the association. In November, during the 2008 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Orlando, McMillan was sworn in as president.

McMillan acknowledges the significance of being the first African American president in the association's 101-year history, saying that he's "proud and honored to be a role model," but he also admits being annoyed at times by the hubbub that comes along with it.

"Charles sees people as people. He transcends color and race," says Booth, who was the first African American president of the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®. "Never once in the 17 years I've known him has he sat down with me and talked about race. That's not one of the things that he wants to wave around like a flag. He wants to be known as a person who exhibits the characteristics of success."

What's most important to members, Booth says, is that McMillan is the most qualified person to be leading the national association during this challenging period in the housing market. "I think he will be a great influence for us this year," Booth says. "He's the right person at the right time."

Service Sparks Passion

As a young man, Charles McMillan didn't plan on joining the military—he was in college when he got his draft card in 1971 and decided to enlist (pictured above with his NCO Leadership School class). Yet, today, he thanks his two terms in the Air Force for piquing his interest in and appreciation of different cultures.

While serving, McMillan was stationed throughout the West Pacific, including in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. He has since visited a long list of other countries, from France and Argentina to—most recently, in November 2008—Japan.

Usually he's visiting with a business agenda, but that doesn't stop him from exploring local culture. "I'm not one who travels 5,000 miles and then gets a hamburger from a franchise," he says. "I like to interact with folks and eat the local cuisine. I do whatever they do locally."

Through his real estate dealings today, McMillan recognizes that the profession is crossing borders more than ever before. "The world's economy is in the midst of a massive wave of globalization, and real estate is no exception," says McMillan, who holds the Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation. "It's a myth that international real estate is for a small cadre of elite members. All members would benefit from the CIPS designation."

Under McMillan's leadership, NAR is developing a Web-based media library devoted to international real estate. The library will include information gleaned from leading real estate experts in countries all over the world.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.