The Uniter

NAR 2014 President Steve Brown's drive for inclusivity is about strengthening the REALTOR® family by giving each member a more personal connection to the association.

January 21, 2014

The seeds of Steve Brown’s real estate career may well have been sown when he was a little boy observing his dad at work. Don Brown never worked in real estate. He was a dairy distributor in Dayton, Ohio—a corporate milk man, if you will, who had contracts with large area companies including GM and Delco. “I would listen to him on the phone negotiating and working out things with customers. Even then, I realized I wanted to do that someday—to be like him.”

Sitting in the elegant, cozy dining room of his Dayton home not far from where he grew up, Brown, 61, gets choked up recalling his childhood and the roots of his ambitions. Don Brown passed away nearly 10 years ago, but the lessons he imparted continue to drive the 106th president of the National Association of REALTORS®. “My father worked hard and kept his word, and I saw that he was not afraid to get his hands dirty. He did what it took to get business done. That was the image I had of him.”

Brown is the president and co-owner of Irongate Inc., REALTORS®, a company he has been affiliated with for most of the past 38 years. When he signed on as a rookie salesperson in 1975, the brokerage had one office and about 30 agents. Today, Irongate’s six offices and 300 agents account for about 20 percent of Dayton-area real estate sales. And Irongate offers a full range of services, including a mortgage division, title services, insurance, and property management.

As an industry champion for more than two decades, Brown has followed his father’s example, rolling up his sleeves to help set NAR’s course on a remarkable range of issues including environmental and land-use policy, lending, tax reform, and large brokerage services. As 2002 president of the Ohio Association of REALTORS®, he fought hard for greater clarity on the regulations pertaining to brokerage affiliate services, such as mortgage lending and title services. “He is an excellent advocate who also has a great deal of compassion, empathy, and humility,” says OAR’s CEO, Bob Fletcher. “But don’t mistake these traits for weakness. He has enormous persistence as well.”

While it was his father who sparked his interest in the art of deal-making, Brown credits his mother, Helen, now 88 and living nearby, for encouraging him to pursue a real estate license as a way to earn money shortly after he graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Helen had become a real estate agent herself in the early 1970s after having had an important, yet somewhat clandestine, earlier career as a mathematician with Air Force Technical Intelligence at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Among her projects during World War II: working on calculations that turned out to be contributions to the building of one of the first atomic bombs. “She didn’t know that at the time. No one around her knew,” he says. Brown’s brother Stuart, 58, is also a REALTOR®. He specializes in property management and residential sales at Irongate.

A Spiritual Side Trip

Although Brown has been a visible and trusted fixture in the REALTOR® organization for many years, his real estate career was hardly preordained. In 1978, three years after getting into the business and having already won recognition as one of Dayton’s top 10 salespeople, he paused his real estate career to pursue a theological journey.

“I wanted a better understanding of who I was and what I was called to be,” he explains. “I figured if I didn’t pursue this in my 20s, it would be much harder later.”

Over the next five years, Brown earned a master’s in divinity from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., and studied Eastern Orthodox Christianity at St. Vladmir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. Ultimately, in 1983, he attained his doctorate in ministry and pastoral counseling from Andover Newton Theological School outside Boston. While he considered a career in counseling during those years, Brown concluded that it would not be the right fit. “If I were practicing psychology, I would feel as though the stream of life was running in front of me and I was on the bank watching.”

Brown returned to Dayton and the real estate world in 1984. Buoyed by his carefully honed pastoral skills, his sales career thrived. His personal sales have consistently kept him in the top 10 percent of the competitive 2,300-member Dayton board. Deep knowledge of local inventory doesn’t hurt, either. “When I show people what I consider a good home for them in terms of condition and location, I can point out that it won’t get better than this,” he says. “It will get different over time, but not better.”

Meanwhile, his spiritual side continues to flourish. Brown cofounded St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in Dayton in 1986. The congregation has grown from 18 people to more than 125 members today.

The hard work that underscores Brown’s successful real estate career is also a defining element of his leadership style and has helped him navigate the REALTOR® association ranks. His first NAR committee assignment in 1999 was on the Land Use, Property Rights, and Environment Committee, dealing with subjects he concedes he knew little about at the time. But his attendance as an “active listener” soon turned into a passion for finding middle ground on contentious land-use issues and gave him an opening to greater involvement. 

Brown’s still actively listening. As president, he’s pushing for greater inclusivity. Given the range of challenges REALTORS® are facing—from advocating for sound secondary mortgage market reforms to navigating rapid technological change—Brown says it’s imperative that NAR have a richer, more personal connection with its members. “We won’t get there overnight,” he says, but his sense of urgency is palpable. His mantra and presidential theme for 2014 is “The time is now.”

A chief concern is the role of commercial members in the organization. Although he specializes in residential sales, Brown is acutely aware that commercial members can feel overlooked amid the prominent attention given to homeownership issues. “Many simply don’t feel part of the fold,” he says. The small percentage of NAR members who are primarily commercial practitioners—about 75,000 of the association’s more than 1 million members—belies their stake in the industry, he says, given that the sales volume of a typical commercial broker is almost double that of a residential-oriented member. “If we’re going to be The Voice for Real Estate®, we have to find ways to embrace all parts of real estate.”

Brown has taken a step in that direction by naming commercial practitioners to four of his 14 appointed liaison posts. And his push for inclusiveness doesn’t stop there. His liaisons—who represent the president’s leadership team on key NAR committees and are charged with sharing those committees’ activities and discussions with the senior leaders—are a team diverse in ethnicity, age, and gender. Every NAR president also has two appointed vice presidents who serve as counselors. Brown is the first NAR president to put women—Beth Peerce of California and JoAnne Poole of Maryland—in both roles.

Brown’s championing a more visible outreach to the association’s broker members through NAR’s Broker Involvement Program, an initiative that already counts 17,000 broker participants. “We have to strengthen our relationship to brokers. There’s a feeling among some that their interests are secondary to those of the agents,” he says. “That can’t continue if we’re going to speak in unison on nonpartisan issues that are key to our professional survival,” he says.

When NAR is raising advocacy funds or issuing Calls for Action to lawmakers
—whether concerning flood insurance subsidy phase-outs or the government’s role in the guarantee of mortgage financing—brokers are the natural conduits to enlist agents’ support, he says, “but they can’t support us if they don’t perceive that we’re supporting them.”

Last year, Brown worked with 2013 President Gary Thomas on an overhaul of NAR’s labyrinthine committee structure. “The last such restructuring began in the 1990s and took 12 years to complete. We did it in six months,” he says. “We eliminated 12 committees and launched 16 new ones with greater relevance, including groups that focus on broker idea exchange and increasing RPAC participation,” he says. All told, the restructuring has created some 300 new volunteer opportunities for members.

And he wants to engage more members. “Whether through social media, text, or e-mail, we need to make more meaningful connections. If only 150,000 members out of a million are truly engaged, that’s a problem,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t do more to connect with our members.”

Inviting deeper engagement can make you vulnerable, but that doesn’t faze Brown, who takes the helm of NAR during an age that not only encourages transparency but also demands it. Through his own professional and personal journeys, Brown says, he has come to understand that individuals thrive when they are open about their own passion and strengths. “If you have to pretend to be someone else in order to lead, it won’t work,” he told association executives and incoming presidents at NAR’s Leadership Summit in August. “Leadership is mostly about truth and getting people to recognize truth even when it is hard.”

A Dayton State of Mind

Back home, Brown keeps a close eye on the business. Two mornings a month, he gathers the company’s nine managers in a conference room to catch up on matters big and small. Home for three days in mid-
September between back-to-back association trips to the West Coast, Brown was pleased to announce that the brokerage’s year-to-date sales volume had reached $342 million, up from $273 million at the same point a year earlier. He shared his views on everything from the menu options for the firm’s approaching Oktoberfest social gathering for agents and business partners to the details of an upcoming fair housing class for Irongate agents.

Colleagues are full of praise for his ability to stay on top of day-to-day business operations and personal sales along with his NAR duties. “He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. He always knows what’s going on in the offices,” says Dell Kaser, co-manager of his Centerville office.

“With everything else he has going on,” says his assistant Lisa Corral, “he’s able to recall the phone number of clients he hasn’t spoken to in two months.

“He has the highest expectations of everyone around him,” Corral adds. Apparently, that includes himself. Keeping up his commitment to lifelong learning, he has earned four designations in recent years: ABR, CIPS, CRS, and GREEN.

Brown vows to stay in touch with his clients during his presidency. At the start of his term, he had close to 20 active listings; Corral and his other assistant, Andrea Guernsey, offer critical help in managing his work these days, he says.

Home as a Haven

Lately, a vacation for Brown is being at home for a week at a time. He lives in a stone house on the oldest lane in Dayton, which he shares with his partner of 24 years, Mark Stokoe, 58. The four-acre property is set on a hillside amid lush woodlands and a bubbling creek. Stokoe, a former teacher, runs his own graphic design business that handles marketing and advertising for Irongate.

The two moved into the home in 1996 after overseeing a gut rehab. On a recent stroll among the sugar maple and beech trees behind the house, Brown describes his passion for the sacredness of the environment. “Defending property rights goes hand in hand with defending the well-being of the Earth. If we don’t protect the environment, then we leave it to extreme groups on both sides of the issue—the people who claim they can do whatever they want to the environment and those who condemn cutting down a single tree.”

When he’s home, Brown is rarely sitting idle. Three times a week, he and Stokoe go to the gym for a high-intensity session with their trainer. Pre-dawn visits to hotel gyms are a stand-in when he’s traveling.

Exercise is a form of stress relief for Brown; so are his dog Busby, a Lhasa Apso, and feline housemate Baxter. “Sometimes I look at them and think, no matter how I did that day, all they want is love,” he says. “I can see the world as all good from their eyes.”

Brown also finds joy tending to the plants and flowers around his home. When he’s working his own land any time of year, he can’t help but notice how life changes along Little Sugar Creek. Moss crops up in new places and the pesky honeysuckle reappears each spring despite his best efforts to tame it. “I have learned a lot from watching the woodlands change. At first when we moved here, I found myself resenting the change, wanting the same beauty always,” Brown says. “I have learned there is beauty in change. You can’t control it all.”

That realization may have been part of what led him to the helm of NAR. The disruptive effects of the housing crisis, along with technological advances and rising consumer expectations, have spawned a sense of urgency within the association. NAR’s Board of Directors in November approved a strategic plan that highlights innovation and reinvention as maxims going forward.

In Brown, NAR has a leader who recognizes that change is something to embrace, not fear. “As an association, we are no longer just reacting to change. We are initiating change,” the new president told members at his inaugural in San Francisco. “The time is now for us to plant for the future.” The stakes may be high, but as Brown sees it, the potential rewards are nothing but bountiful.

Wendy Cole

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