A Time for Vigilance

Our message to consumers must be clear, says NAR President Chris Polychron: REALTORS® bring an indisputable value.

January 21, 2015

At one time, a letter from Chris Polychron to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. had a reasonable chance of reaching the commander in chief. Polychron smiles broadly as he recalls the year 1993, when he sent word to President Bill Clinton—a former Arkansas governor—that he’d be in Washington, D.C., for NAR’s May meetings. Could he pay a visit? Even Polychron was a bit surprised by the response: an invitation to the White House in advance of Clinton’s speech to the REALTORS®.

“That’s Arkansas. It’s a small state, and we stand by our friends,” says Polychron during an informal tour of Hot Springs, Ark., where he not only sells real estate but also develops property, cooks up big meals for charity events, and has a standing gin rummy game with the same friends he has played with for 36 years.

“Everyone knows everyone here,” he adds with another big grin. And judging by the greetings that come his way when he’s out and about, it appears he’s exaggerating only a little.

As much as he loves his Razorback roots, Polychron is now traversing a wider field, that of 2015 president of the National Association of REALTORS®. As an in-the-trenches practitioner with 1st Choice Realty in Hot Springs, Polychron has negotiated his share of technological disruptions and economic upheavals. With his daughter Nikki Young as his business partner for the past 12 years, he has adapted to newer marketing practices and scaled his business to fit the times. He finds inspiration from Winston Churchill, who famously said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Yet, real estate remains a business of trusted relationships and market knowledge, he says. “It’s essential that REALTORS® remain central to the real estate transaction.” he told state and local association leaders meeting in Chicago in August and repeated during his inaugural remarks in November. “Technology is a great tool, but we have the knowledge our clients need.”

Since he became first vice president of NAR in 2013, Polychron has been part of an NAR leadership teams energized by a new strategic plan to push for courageous moves, including changes to the realtor.com® operating agreement to make the site more competitive with other real estate portals; implementation of new standards for local and state REALTOR® associations; creation of a new REALTOR® Code of Excellence (more on that later); and support for News Corp’s purchase of Move Inc., operator of realtor.com®. That purchase was announced in September and finalized in November—the same week Polychron took over as NAR president. Member reaction was mixed, with some questioning the wisdom of associating with the global media company. But Polychron and his fellow leaders quickly surmised what News Corp support of the REALTOR® brand would mean for members. “REALTORS® are about making consumers’ real estate dreams a reality,” he said in a prepared statement after the deal was completed. “The unique strengths of News Corp, Move, and REALTOR® members will enhance our ability to do that.”

Two months earlier, over pork chops and potatoes at his gracefully appointed home, Polychron sketched out the issues playing heavily on his mind: the swirl of inaccurate real estate data on the Internet, the ongoing debate about tax reform and what that might mean for home owners and property investors, and the need to engage NAR members on a range of issues.

Polychron could not have imagined, during that casual dinner with REALTOR® Magazine, the tragedy that would unfold one week later and help define his presidential priorities. That’s when Crye-Leike agent Beverly Carter was abducted after meeting a prospective buyer at a vacant home. Her body was found Sept. 30 behind a concrete mixing plant in Cabot, Ark. The murder, which took place just 60 miles from his home, became a watershed moment.

“What happened to Beverly Carter brings the issue of safety close to home,” he said at the time. “What REALTORS® do every day is inherently risky, and it’s something we need to focus on.”

Two weeks after Carter’s murder, an attack on a California agent solidified Polychron’s commitment to a robust REALTOR® safety program. He wants to add a safety component to new-member orientation materials, and he’s calling on state associations to add safety topics to their continuing education requirements. “We’re also considering recommendations for a buddy system or an app,” he says. More important, though, is the need to topple the prevailing belief that our members must always be on-call for customers, he says. “No property sale is ever worth dying for.”

Friends and Family

Whether he’s thinking about members’ safety, talking to reporters about the housing market, debating the impact of new technologies, or working on plans to raise the association’s value proposition, Polychron carries on with an abiding optimism. “I don’t just like what I do for NAR. I love what I do. I feel blessed.”

But while the REALTOR® family buoys him, he says, his own family provided the foundation for his professional success. His father, Theo, was a Greek immigrant who arrived in New York at age 16, made his way to Little Rock, and began working in restaurants there. Eventually, he opened four restaurants of his own. Polychron and his older brother and sister learned the values of hard work and loyalty from their parents, who also made sure the children became conversant in Greek.

Beginning at age 9, Polychron worked as a dishwasher and then as a busboy in one of the family’s restaurants. “That’s really when I learned to sell. I overcame my fear of talking to people,” he says. By age 11, he was handling cash, and it became clear he had a good mind for numbers.

It wasn’t just business that united the family. Polychron’s brother George, seven years his senior, endured a lifetime of medical problems starting in early childhood, including severe scoliosis, which led to paralysis and numerous surgeries. The Polychrons instinctively pulled together, drawing on a deep well of compassion and positive spirit. Polychron’s mother, Georgia, born in the United States to Greek immigrant parents, spent her life juggling restaurant work and being the primary caregiver to George, who passed away in 1985 at the age of 49. “I can’t say enough about what a neat person George was,” Polychron says. “Having him in our lives has given me a sensitivity to the struggles people go through, whether those struggles are visible or not.”

Polychron married his high school sweetheart Janis in 1967, the same year the couple graduated from the University of Arkansas, where Polychron earned a bachelor’s in marketing. Looking at Polychron today, it’s still easy to discern the traits that drew Janis more than 50 years ago. “He was certainly good looking, but I was also attracted to his sense of family. He cares deeply about the people around him, and he always has,” says Janis, an artist who worked in advertising during the early years of their marriage. The Polychrons have two daughters: Natali, a nurse, and Nikki.

It’s Nikki, a licensee since 2003 and president of the Hot Springs Association of REALTORS® in 2012, who will handle many of the team’s day-to-day business decisions during Polychron’s presidency.

The father-daughter team’s top year in business together was 2007, when their sales volume reached $15.8 million. For the past few years, their sales have hovered in the $4 million to $6 million range. At year’s end they were handling about 20 listings, ranging from small vacation homes and vacant lots to commercial buildings with multiple tenants. Polychron is also a successful investor and developer. One of his projects is the 83-lot Quail Ridge Estates subdivision, a few miles from downtown, where he and Janis built their home 10 years ago.

There, the Polychrons regularly gather for Sunday dinner with their daughters and their families, including three grandchildren, who range in age from 7 to 18. Chris is very likely to be the chef.

“Cooking is one way I relax,” he says. Others favorite pastimes include gardening, quail hunting, exercising at the gym, and playing cards. Despite the varied demands on his life, Polychron is generally a laid-back soul with a penchant for finding the positive in others. “My philosophy about people is that there’s a little good in everybody, and that’s the part I focus on. I really mean that,” he says.

That sunny-side-up approach served him well in his earlier careers in bond sales, banking, and (briefly) thoroughbred horse sales. Before he got into real estate in 1987, the pinnacle of his professional life had been his five years as president of Grand National Bank, a Hot Springs institution where deposits quadrupled from $20 million when he came aboard in 1979 to $80 million by 1984 when the bank was sold. “When I arrived the bank was losing around $50,000 a month. When I left, that’s how much we were making a month,” says Polychron, noting that the high interest rates in the mid-1980s helped boost earnings, along with his knack for winning accounts, including home loans.

One account holder he got to know quite well was Virginia Kelley, the mother of Bill Clinton. During their years in Little Rock, the Polychrons had supported Clinton’s election as Arkansas attorney general in 1976. Their friendship has remained steadfast. When Clinton lost the governor’s seat in 1980 after one term, Polychron was one of five Little Rock pals he consulted for their unvarnished advice. The voters hadn’t liked Clinton’s decision to hike license plate fees or his wife Hillary’s apparent disregard for social protocols as the state’s first lady. Clinton returned as governor in the next election, better attuned to voter sentiments, and never lost another election.

Making his fifth appearance at an NAR event, Clinton was back with his old friend in November, formally installing Polychron during the inaugural gala at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in New Orleans. “Chris always knew what was important [and] he always knew what was right,” Clinton told REALTORS® attending the gala. “I’m glad that you made him your president.”

Finding Real Estate

When Polychron left banking, it was to take a chance on an industry he loved, thoroughbred racing. For two years, he sold horses for the largest thoroughbred purveyor in the central U.S. region. But while he remains a devoted racing fan and a box-seat holder at Oaklawn race track, horse sales proved a volatile business—one that abruptly bottomed out in 1986, when changes to the federal tax code eliminated the tax benefits of such investments.

Polychron got his real estate license and sought a spot as an agent with McAdams Realty, a thriving independent brokerage in Hot Springs (which became an ERA franchise in 2007). “I asked around and learned it was the best company in town,” Polychron says.

But broker-owner Jim McAdams demurred, saying he had no desk space. So Polychron went to work for a competitor but kept an eye on McAdams. Six months later, he says, “I walked into Jim’s office with two boxes and said, ‘Where is my desk? I’m going to work for you, so figure it out.’ He found me a spot.”

Within two years, Polychron was responsible for a third of the brokerage’s sales, and in 1994 he became a managing broker and co-owner, flourishing with the brokerage for 24 years. Three years ago, Polychron and his daughter moved to 1st Choice. But he remains on great terms with McAdams, who served as the master of ceremonies at Polychron’s inaugural. “Chris has done it all—sales, management, and land development. He can feel every practitioner’s joy and pain,” says McAdams. The industry will benefit from his “talent for marketing and dealing with people,” he adds.

Arkansas has only seven national directors who vote on NAR leadership slates. (California, by comparison, has 110.) But Polychron’s colleagues in Hot Springs say they’re hardly surprised by his rise through the national ranks. “There’s no mountain too big for him,” says 1st Choice broker-owner Jim Kellstrom.

His ascent underscores his ease at building a coalition of -supporters and reflects widespread admiration for Polychron. “He is a natural salesman with the highest morals and ethics,” says Elizabeth Farris, city president with Regions Bank in Hot Springs and a former REALTOR®, who has known Polychron since his banking days. “He’s also a tireless advocate for what he believes in. The members of NAR are in good hands.”

Ready to Defend

Polychron—Arkansas REALTOR® of the Year in 1996 and president of the state association in 2003—made his mark nationally in fundraising for the REALTORS® Political Action Committee and grassroots mobilization. As the association’s first Member Mobilization Committee chair in 2008, he helped launch the Broker Involvement Program, an initiative through which brokers can ask their agents to respond to calls for action to Congress. “We celebrated when we got our first 100 members. Now we’re up to 17,000 people when we put out a call for action,” he says.

His appointment of RPAC allies Michael Ford of West Memphis, Ark., and Charlie Oppler of Franklin Lakes, N.J., as NAR vice presidents speaks to his dedication to keeping advocacy front and center. “These are two people who know the influence that our association, with more than 1 million members, can have in Washington,” he says. “Also, I know they will be blatantly honest with me. I have the utmost respect for and trust in them.”

Outside of politics, Polychron expects to zero in on industry concerns about the reliability of real estate data on the Internet.

The popularity of third-party portals is a reality, he says. But their presence makes it imperative that NAR continue to champion the interests of REALTORS® and consumers with regard to online listing information.

“We have a right and a responsibility to make sure our own data is accurate,” he says. And consumers are entitled to know the real source of that data. “We must continue to remind everyone that the service we provide in accumulating property information is very valuable. We should not be giving our data away.”

One challenge, he says, is that “most people still do not know the difference between a REALTOR® and a real estate agent. That needs to change,” he says.

Changing it means raising the professional bar, and under the leadership of Polychron’s predecessor, Steve Brown of Dayton, Ohio, NAR’s volunteer leaders took meaningful steps in that direction in November. Advocating before the NAR board of directors—a body with nearly 800 members—the leadership team garnered approval in concept of a REALTOR® Code of Excellence. Its goal: to measurably increase professionalism through increased training and recognition of competencies that consumers value—including knowledge of the Code of Ethics, understanding of data privacy and security, and proficiency in the use of technology tools. The board also authorized NAR leaders to appoint a work group to set criteria by which REALTORS® are evaluated online. That effort is designed to gain the upper hand on the rating and review systems already in place—systems that many REALTORS® feel focus on the wrong measures of success or contain inaccurate or downright bogus information.

The heavy lifting of developing both the Code of Excellence and the performance criteria will take place during Polychron’s presidency, and friends say he will apply his usual equanimity to the task. “He’s a giver,” says Kellstrom. “And he always has a smile on his face.”

Wendy Cole

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