NAR's 2011 President: Engineering The Future

Deeply connected to the everyday trials practitioners are facing, 2011 NAR President Ronald L. Phipps is determined to focus on results, not fanfare, from the helm of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

January 1, 2011

Even before he assumed the presidency of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® in November, Ronald L. Phipps was crisscrossing the country, meeting with America’s top bankers and imploring them to do more to help bring stability back to the housing market.

The trips were all in a day’s work for the leader of the nation’s largest professional association. But as he advocates on behalf of the association’s 1.1 million residential and commercial practitioners, his other sphere of influence—the place where he started selling homes 31 years ago—is never far from his thoughts. He remains squarely engaged with the listings that his tight-knit Warwick, R.I., brokerage, Phipps Realty, is balancing.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, between NAR duties, Phipps stopped to leave a note for a seller at 111 Hawthorne Ave., a three-bedroom Victorian a few blocks from his own home. "It’s a great opportunity to be so close to the water," he said, as he led a brisk tour of the home he’d been diligently marketing for four months. "These don’t come on the market that often at $450,000 with a guest cottage. It’s a fantastic price."

Phipps understands viscerally the tribulations that his fellow practitioners have been facing for the past several years. He’s right there in the trenches, too. "I love this business," he says, "but it isn’t easy. My family relies on this business to keep the lights on. You know the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’?" he jokes. "Well, we’re strong enough. Give us a break."

A Holistic Approach

Indeed, Phipps is a pillar of strength, an inveterate runner and swimmer who isn’t afraid to test his physical limits. He starts most days that he’s home with a run along Greenwich Bay or a swim at his local YMCA. He has participated in nearly 50 triathlons, including the renowned Ironman competition in Panama City, Fla., in 2000. He completed the required 2.4-mile swim, followed by the 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile run, in a respectable 12 hours and 3 minutes. This was nine months after finishing the Boston Marathon.

"Preparing for the Ironman took two years of mental and physical discipline," Phipps says. "I viewed it as taking lots of small steps to reach a big goal."

Such athletic endeavors have helped prepare him for the unforgiving real estate market. "We’ve been dealing with a downturn for five years in Rhode Island. My Ironman experience has taught me the importance of endurance and patience," Phipps says.

His passion for fitness (he also keeps a bike at NAR’s headquarters in Chicago) is matched by a love of learning and teaching. He holds the ABR, CRS, GREEN, and GRI designations, as well as the e-pro certification, and teaches real estate courses several times a year through his training company, Sequoia Seminars. Before entering real estate, he graduated from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., with a double major in political science and comparative religions.

But if endurance and intelligence have served him through years of skittish lenders and nervous clients, it’s his penchant for "leading with the heart" that brought him to the pinnacle of organized real estate, he says. "For me, care and compassion are more important most of the time than crisp eyes and the sharpest thoughts."

But beneath Phipps’ benevolent nature lies a propensity for bold action. Having chosen Carpe Diem—"seize the day"—as the theme for his presidency, Phipps, 53, is ushering in initiatives that are potentially career-boosting for every member of the association. He thinks about the needs of REALTORS® broadly and holistically.

"We need to be the engineers and architects of change, not just the voice of real estate," he says. His meetings with Bank of America, Chase, Citi, and Wells Fargo are emblematic of his commitment to help fix the problems in the industry, not simply complain about them.

Another top priority is encouraging smarter and more efficient use of technology to get business done. He has done away with a weekly FedEx package that NAR’s Leadership Team traditionally received. The cost savings allowed the team to obtain iPads, enabling them to receive the information digitally. When practical, he uses Skype to attend meetings over the Internet and cut down on travel.

He’s also one of the architects of the new online REALTOR® University—not the existing continuing education portal but a fully accredited, degree-granting academic institution slated to launch in 2012. The idea sprang from a presidential advisory group appointed by 2008 President Dick Gaylord. The PAG members, observed that, although there were real estate degrees offered by a number of universities around the country, none of the programs offered courses that specifically taught what real estate brokers do.

Subjects taught will range from construction management and mortgage financing to operating a brokerage. "It will be fully complementary with the designations and certifications we now offer. We are committed to excellence. It will be a world-class operation," Phipps says.

Phipps’ final major agenda item addresses the health of the industry one practitioner at a time. "Our profession is good for gastroenterologists," he says only half jokingly. "We deal in a high stress environment, and we probably have a higher percentage of ulcers than the population in general."

That’s why Phipps intends to use his presidential pulpit to focus on wellness. "I want people to diffuse the negative pressures of the business with activities like running, swimming, and biking. We need to do a better job as leaders to show people how technology can free them to take better care of themselves, to take care of their mind, spirit, and body."

Deep Real Estate Roots

The gentle-voiced Phipps, the eldest of five siblings, lacks any discernible New England cadence. His serene air is more evocative of his native California. He is, in fact, a fifth-generation San Franciscan who moved up and down the California coast during his childhood. "My father was an executive with Colgate-Palmolive and he was regularly transferred. I’m naturally wired as an introvert, but I learned early on about how to get along with others, because we moved so often," he says.

The Phipps brood landed in Rhode Island in 1973 when his father, Rick, took a job with Textron’s watch-producing Speidel division. His mother, Joyce, had grown up in real estate—her father had been an appraiser and city assessor in Redwood City, Calif.—and she’d become something of a relocation master thanks to years of packing and repacking a growing family. After settling the family in Warwick, she started a new neighbor’s social organization. She loved helping people adjust to the new community, so with more free time on her hands as the kids got older, she decided to get her real estate license.

After working for a year as a sales agent, Joyce started Phipps Realty on April 1, 1976. Her three biggest competitors wagered she wouldn’t last more than a year, Phipps says. It’s nearly 35 years later, and the brokerage she founded has outlasted them all.

Phipps gives Joyce credit for changing the relocation business in their area. "She didn’t invent anything, but she knew from personal experience what all the facets of corporate relocation involved," he says. Rick Phipps obtained his license in 1980 and joined the business 10 years later after he retired from the corporate world, eventually becoming president of the Kent Washington Board of REALTORS®. He passed away in 2003.

During the years they headed the company, Rick and Joyce had a requirement for their five children: All had to obtain their real estate license, even if they ultimately chose a different career path.

An incentive for Ron: He got to see more of his then-girlfriend Susan Martins. "We took classes together. It was the only way I got to see him," recalls Susan, now Ron’s wife of 31 years. "At the time, I lived at home, and my mother didn’t want me to date."

For the record, Phipps notes that Susan scored higher on the licensing exam. "She’s much smarter than I am," he says with a grin.

Ron and Susan married 10 days after their respective college graduations in 1979. Susan went on to get her master’s degree in teaching and took additional classes in counseling. After teaching high school for several years, she joined the family business.

Real estate isn’t the only thing the couple has in common. They also share a love of entertaining, reading, vibrant modern art, and music—early in their relationship, they earned college funds working as wedding singers. A favorite on Ron’s song list: "One Hand, One Heart" from "West Side Story."

Among the five Phipps siblings, Ron was the only one who stayed in the real estate business, and he concedes that wasn’t always his intention. "The economy was very bad in the early 1980s. I thought I’d stay until it improved," he says. He expected to go to law school or perhaps teach. But as he put more and more time into the business, he realized how much he enjoyed it: "Every day was filled with opportunities, challenges, and rewards."

Branching Out

The Phipps logo, a tree of life, hints at the company’s core identity as a family business. Three generations of Phippses are now active in the business. Joyce still comes in every Monday, and two of Phipps’ three children—Matt, 30, and Ian, 25—are sales associates. (Daughter Caite, 23, is working on her second undergraduate degree, in nursing, at Georgetown University.) Matt is the former chair of NAR’s Communications Committee and Ian serves on the Global Business and Alliances Committee. "The best thing about working together is that we truly enjoy each other’s company," Phipps says.

It is a family business in the most literal sense. The office is a converted two-story house with a toy-filled spare room that serves as a play area when Matt’s 1-year-old twin daughters visit.

Although the members of the Phipps family help each other as needed in the running of the business, each person has an expertise that lends a distinct value. Susan specializes in appraisal. Matt is the main arbiter of technology decisions for the office. Ian works largely with renters and weighs in on technology matters as well.

Matt, who has participated with his father in weekly real estate advice segments on local TV stations for the past five years, says the inherent respect and trust each has for the other keeps conflicts to a minimum. "Even though he has more experience than Ian and I, he recognizes what we bring to the business, such as our understanding of emerging technologies and the mind-set of buyers and sellers in our generation."

In fact, despite its deep roots, connecting with the next generation is a big part of what sets Phipps Realty apart today. Five of the company’s 10 agents are under 30 years old. They have made connecting with first-time buyers a niche, shifting away somewhat from the brokerage’s relocation focus. "There’s not as much relocation business in this area as there used to be," Phipps says. "You have to adapt as the times change."

Phipps Realty is the only one in his market using mobile tags on listings. This means that consumers with smartphones can get a wide range of information about a property, including photos and video, just by driving by and pointing their camera at the sign. Staying ahead of the technology curve has been good for business, he says. The brokerage’s sales volume in 2010 was about $25 million, up 25 percent from a year earlier.

Path to Leadership

Phipps began to get more involved in NAR activities at the urging of his father. In the 1990s, Phipps chaired NAR’s Presidential Advisory Group on Virtual Office Web sites, as well as the PAG on MLS Rules and Regulations. He has served on NAR’s board of directors since 2000 and was vice president for the New England region in 2003.

It was NAR’s 2001 President Richard Mendenhall who inspired him to seek the NAR presidency. Phipps was impressed by Mendenhall’s effort to help families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—an effort that raised more than $8 million in less than four months—but that wasn’t all. "At a Board of Directors meeting [in May of that year], Richard gave an emotional speech that really touched me," Phipps recalls.

Mendenhall wanted to make a statement about the great odds people overcome to achieve the American dream. So during the meeting, he bestowed a special President’s Medal of Honor on Chris Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who had risen past unbelievable challenges to achieve success in real estate. "From then on I wanted to do more," Phipps says.

In fact, he already was doing more. Phipps was a runner-up in 2001 for REALTOR® Magazine’s Good Neighbor Award for his fund-raising work to benefit the Tomorrow Fund for children with cancer through his participation in Ironman competitions and triathlons.

Perhaps no one understands Phipps better than his friend Jeff Duclos, a police officer from nearby Cranston, R.I., who trained and competed with his friend for the Ironman 11 years ago. "There is no one I trust more in this world than this man. He could lead an army," says Duclos, who has also been a client of Phipps on seven real estate transactions involving himself or his parents over the years. When Duclos was divorced in 2002, he faced a brief period with nowhere to live. "Ron and Susan took me into their home. I lived with them for six months. I would do anything for this guy," he says.

Phipps is characteristically low-key about the kindness: "He was great to have around. He helped vet our daughter’s boyfriends."

As for Mendenhall, he’s delighted that his compassionate friend is taking the reins during a time when so many REALTORS® are struggling to keep their businesses healthy. But he’s quick to point out that Phipps brings more than compassion to the job. "Ron is an extremely bright guy, very well-read, but he doesn’t throw it in your face," says Mendenhall, who continues to serve with Phipps on the NAR Executive Committee. "He is first and foremost a practitioner. He understands what members need. And he’s not one to look for credit for himself."

When Phipps has big decisions to contemplate about NAR’s business or his own, he’s likely to retreat to the hand-painted rocking chair in his office. It’s one of 15 one-of-a-kind chairs painted by the art-loving Phipps family. "It’s just the right size, and it’s really comfortable," he says. This particular orange wooden chair bears a collection of sayings and images that reflect his core beliefs, including "Justice is truth in action." and "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you land among the stars."

It’s a fitting perch for a leader who sees today’s challenging times as an opportunity—a chance to set a new, better stage for future generations.

Family Ties Ron Phipps has been part of a family business for his entire 31-year real estate career.  Here are his tips for working well with relatives:

Listen more than you speak. Repeat what the other person says until the person is satisfied that you understand. If you still disagree, it’s OK to say so.

Respect each other’s time. If you need to engage in conversation, remember that what may be the best time for you may not be best for them.

Take a break. Plan family activities that don’t involve business.

Keep it professional. Adult children should use first names rather than "Mom" or "Dad" in a business setting.

Don’t assume your children will stay in the family business forever. He wouldn’t stand in the way, he says, if a great opportunity came his sons’ way.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.