John Smaby was sworn in as 2019 president of the National Association of REALTORS® this month—but he makes it quite clear that he is just one part of the team. As he puts it, “We are a seven-person Leadership Team for four years, and for one year, I’m privileged to direct the choir.”
A second-generation REALTOR®, Smaby brings nearly 40 years of experience to the role of 2019 president of the National Association of REALTORS®. As a broker at Minnesota’s Edina Realty, he has been in the trenches with real estate professionals to understand their needs on a firsthand basis, and his years of service at the state and national association levels afford him a big-picture perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing the industry at large. Here, in this exclusive interview, Smaby shares some of his thoughts on the year ahead and the bigger picture for real estate.
Maria Patterson:You have a long history of association involvement at various levels. Why do you feel this has been, and continues to be, an important part of being a REALTOR®?
John Smaby: My father was a REALTOR®, and from an early age, I saw how much my dad respected the REALTOR® family. Because of his work ethic, and because this industry provided him tremendous opportunities, my family has benefited, and has received so many gifts over the years. I didn’t completely understand or respect that until about 10 or 15 years ago when I started thinking about, ‘How did I get here today?’ A lot of people along the way devoted their time to help the real estate business…to help it adapt and change with the times. So that’s why I feel it’s important to do my part, as well.
MP:What are your thoughts upon stepping into the role of NAR President? What are you most excited about?
JS: I’ve been on the runway for four years as a team member, so the most important part is continuing to be a strong and inclusive team player. We are a seven-person Leadership Team, and for one year, I have the privilege to direct the choir.
Our team is committed to taking a broader view of the vision for our association. Traditionally, incoming NAR leadership selects a theme for the year ahead that is representative of their team and priorities. But 2018 President Elizabeth Mendenhall, 2020 President Vince Malta and I decided to do something a little bit different—we adopted the “Own It” theme to carry us through three years. Our team is unified; this is just one example of the commitment we’ve made to each other, reflective of our members-come-first focus. We’re working hard as a group to make a collective decision for the betterment of members and consumers across America. If we all look at the longer-term view for our association, that will outlive my short term as president.
MP: What will be your top priorities during your presidency?
JS: Our members will determine our priorities, and we have a fabulous strategic thinking committee to help do that. With their help, we have identified four priorities to focus on throughout 2019:
First, to advance the membership and consumer communications. Toward the end of 2017, when CEO Bob Goldberg took over the reins at NAR, we opened a fresh chapter in our association’s history. Bob is a visionary and is changing our strategy—especially in terms of consumer and member communications. We’re looking forward to rolling out a new consumer advertising campaign in 2019.
Second, we’re doubling our efforts in advocacy and regulatory monitoring. The polarization in Washington has created different opportunities and obstacles for the association in the future. With Jerry Giovaniello retiring at the end of the year, we have hired a new senior vice president of Government Affairs, Shannon McGahn, to retool our Advocacy Group. We’re remodeling our house, and this is one more area that we’re focused on.
Another area we’ll be focusing on involves our role as stewards of data. In this day and age when data security is crucial to all businesses, it’s imperative that NAR is a good steward of the data for both our members and consumers. Additionally, we are heightening our technology advocacy efforts in support of our members and the industry.
The fourth priority focuses on member professionalism and enhancing the member experience. How do we provide ways for members to educate themselves and ultimately raise the bar of professionalism? One of our major initiatives is the Commitment to Excellence program, rolled out at the 2018 REALTORS® Conference & Expo, which covers 10 areas of competency for REALTORS®. This education-based program is an added value and will really make a difference for all members.
MP: How are some of the changes taking place at NAR helping to move the association forward?
JS: We’re remodeling our association, and that takes some time. Our “house” was built in 1908; we have to create a new house that the next generation of REALTORS® can continue to remodel and keep making better. In the kitchen, we have to cook up some news ideas. We have a library, but how do we study? Are we wired? Do we have the right technology? Do we have the REALTOR® Party family room with the YPN bar? The MLSs and invited guests need to feel welcomed. And you need to put a roof over the top that makes it all sustainable.
Part of our renovation includes tearing down walls. At the start of 2018, Bob Goldberg rolled out a new internal organizational alignment and made changes to the senior management team to more effectively and efficiently serve our 1.3 million members. Silos have been broken—quickly, we are becoming a more nimble, dynamic and innovative association.
MP: What will be some of your greatest challenges as president?
JS: Member involvement. We can’t grow if our members aren’t connected. Our world today is much smaller than it ever was, but it’s also more disconnected in that the world comes at us from so many different directions. There are so many opportunities and different roles for agents, companies and associations to take on, which makes organized real estate today more important than ever. More agents are fearful of what could happen to a business they love. We have to help them understand that the changes that are happening are evolutionary. We had discount brokers in 1980, and we have competition in our marketplace today. Successful agents can tell their story and share their viewpoint better than anyone else, so we have to get REALTORS® more involved.
MP: What are the most significant legislative/regulatory issues currently facing the real estate industry, and how is NAR advocating for members?
JS: We’re still trying to understand the full effects of the tax reform legislation, and what it means for our members—this fight is not over. We recently had a nice win for our brokers with the Section 199A Pass-Through deduction. With a new chief lobbyist at NAR, now is a great time to refresh our approach. The fast eat the slow in today’s world—we have to be more nimble and more flexible. The REALTOR® Party is strong, but if we can continue to engage more REALTORS® and consumers, it will only get stronger.
MP: What are your predictions for the 2019 housing market?
JS: I feel like there’s a little more normalizing happening in America—a little bit more balance. You can’t make a prediction that puts a blanket over it, but I think pricing increases are going to slow a little, and then we’ll see where the economy takes us. Some areas, of course, will continue to see unbelievable growth.
One thing is for sure: We won’t become a nation of renters. Owning a home is still the greatest asset, and we have to do everything we can to protect that.
MP: Any closing thoughts, John, as you step into the role of NAR President?
JS: I would like to say thank you to the membership for giving me a chance to play a small part in the future of our association. It’s something that I wear proudly on my badge. I wake up every day and think about what I can do to advance our association. I’m grateful, because this is the greatest business in the world!