Know the Customer

Coldwell Banker CEO Jim Gillespie closed his first real estate transaction in 1975 and hasn't looked back since.

January 1, 2010

In January 1975, 30-year-old real estate rookie Jim Gillespie took a call from a young couple interested in buying a home in unincorporated Hinsdale, Ill. "I was just sitting in the [Gallery of Homes real estate office] when the phone rang," he recalls.

Excited, Gillespie listened to the caller, asked a few question, jotted down some notes, and arranged to meet the caller and his wife. Having recently traded shorts for pinstripes—he had been working as a youth program director for a La Grange, Ill.-based YMCA only a month earlier—Gillespie says it was the first lead he'd converted to a listing appointment. That listing appointment evolved into his first sale.

More than 30 years later, Gillespie, now president and CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, talks about that important "first" and how it influenced his career.

How did you start building your client list as a new sales associate?

GILLESPIE: I had a pretty good list of contacts going into my career from my time at the YMCA. In fact, I got permission to use a list of about 200 contacts from a fathers-and-sons and fathers-and-daughters program run by the YMCA. I used that list as my initial sphere of influence. In fact, when I went into the business, I contacted everyone on the list and ended up selling a home to the receptionist at the YMCA and her husband. She told me they couldn't afford to buy a house. So I learned about FHA and VA loans. With the minimal down payment, they qualified for a loan. And I sold them a house. I will never forget that moment when I called to tell them they got the house; they broke down and cried on the phone.

How did you get started in real estate?

GILLESPIE: A good friend of mine was a manager at the office I eventually joined. He and I played tennis. I worked a lot of evenings for the YMCA. He told me that I would work a lot of evenings and weekends and make more money in real estate. He offered to train and mentor me. I told him that I liked working at the YMCA because it afforded me the opportunity to help people. He explained that I would be helping people in the real estate business. He explained that I would be helping people with one of the most expensive transactions they will ever make: buying a house.

He was right. I had that feeling when I was helping that YMCA receptionist and her husband to get a house. That feeling really came to me the very first time I took a listing of a home I had sold previously. This couple bought the home in Hinsdale in 1975. The husband got transferred in late 1976, and they had to sell. But they made money on the home. And I remember the couple thanking me. It gave me a good feeling to know that I helped them out.

Did you have a specialty or niche when you started?

GILLESPIE: I was the FSBO king of La Grange. My specialty was converting FSBOs. I would offer to help them with their sale and hope that in return they would list with me. I visited this one couple every Monday. They wouldn't list with me. But I visited them every week, without fail. Then one Monday, I had appointments all day and didn't make it to their house. They called the office to see if something had happened to me [laughing]. Needless to say, I got that listing.

Tell me about the first sale and how you got the client.

GILLESPIE: I was just sitting in the office, and this couple called in on a house they had seen. I showed them about nine or 10 homes during the course of three appointments. As we looked at these homes, I tried to listen to everything they said to me and each other and observe them closely to see what they liked and disliked. They demanded a home with a two-car attached garage.

Eventually, this one property came on the market. I went on a broker's tour. As soon as I got inside the house, I knew the couple would love it. So I called them and met them at the house. They fell in love with the house as soon as they went inside. The funny thing was that when we were walking back to the car to sign the contract, we all noticed that the house had a carport. But by that time, they didn't even care.

Now, I had heard, around the office, this little saying: "Buyers are liars." And by the end of this transaction, I understood what that meant. Buyers are not necessarily liars; they just don't always know what they want. This transaction taught me that.

Tell me about the property.

GILLESPIE: It was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch-style house. It had a beautiful plate-glass window in the family room that looked out to the front yard and street. It had a nice kitchen. And it had a two-car carport [laughing].

What was the listing price?

It sold for about $50,000. I believe that was a full-price offer.

How long did this first transaction take?

GILLESPIE: I closed within my first 30 days in the business.

What was your closed sales volume that first year?

GILLESPIE: My production in the first six months was more than $1 million and enough to earn me rookie of the year for the whole year. I was working for an eight-office Gallery of Homes Company franchise in La Grange. I averaged about two sales a month. After my first six months in sales, the company promoted me to an office manager.

What were some of your biggest fears about your first real estate transaction?

GILLESPIE: In truth, I really didn't have any fears. I got great training and felt very confident presenting the offer.

What did you learn from this transaction?

GILLESPIE: I learned that you need to listen to your customers and pay attention to how they react when you are showing different homes. Practitioners need to remember what the client likes and dislikes. This transaction also gave me confidence that I knew what I was doing and would be good in the real estate business.