Recently, we received the sad news that Wes Foster, co-founder, and chairman emeritus of the Long & Foster Companies, passed away on March 17 at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 89 years old.
Wes was a real estate icon, and his story is quite the lesson in leadership. A one-time aluminum siding salesman, Wes would go from building materials to building one of the largest independent real estate companies in the nation.
I remember the first time I met Wes Foster. It was the ’90s, and I was a young partner at Contempo Realty. What stood out to me was not only all his accomplishments and everything he had achieved in his incredible career but also what a gentleman he was. He was polite, courteous and honorable.
The story of Wes Foster’s career begins on the football field. He received a partial football scholarship to attend Virginia Military Institute, where he graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He then served as an artillery officer in Germany and upon returning to the U.S., took a sales job for Kaiser Aluminum. Through his work, he met many home builders and eventually, in 1963, one of those builders offered him a job as a new home sales manager, the start of his real estate career. In 1966, he joined Nelson Realty, serving as vice-president of sales until 1968, when Wes and Henry A. “Hank” Long co-founded Long & Foster.
There were many similarities between the two leaders: Hank was an Air Force veteran and Wes served in the Army. They were both in their 30s with a few years of experience in real estate. They were also willing to name their business on the chance of fate. In an interview with the Washington Business Journal, Wes recalled how Long & Foster came to be. Apparently, the two men flipped a coin. Wes said: “(Hank) got his name first. I became president. We took off.”
If only every success story began so succinctly.
At first, Long & Foster operated out of a 600-square-foot office and had just three real estate agents including Hank, who specialized in commercial real estate and Wes, who specialized in residential. Of course, as we all know, the brokerage grew exponentially, expanding from Northern Virginia into Maryland in 1974 and into D.C. in 1977. In 1979, Wes bought out his partner after Merrill Lynch offered to buy the company. As Wes explained to The Post in 1988: “I told , ‘Gosh, I really like this crazy business.’”
Now solo, Wes eventually built one of the largest privately held companies in the Mid-Atlantic area. In September of 2017, Long & Foster joined the HomeServices of America family of companies. Today, Long & Foster has more than 200 offices, over 8,500 agents and staff, and is No. 1 in total transactions in the Mid-Atlantic region.
But Wes’ success wasn’t without sacrifice. In 1995, Wes told The Post he’d cut his salary down to zero to keep his company afloat. Years earlier, Wes and Hank had led the brokerage through the “stagflation” of the 1970s, finding ways to withstand the difficult economic conditions even as so many businesses around them were failing.
Wes was also a pioneer of the “one-stop-shop” real estate business model that almost everyone is trying to duplicate today. Under Wes’ steady leadership, the company developed services like mortgage, settlement services and insurance, to provide customers with everything they needed for the real estate transaction, all under one roof. Later, Wes launched property management and vacation rental divisions.
When asked about Wes’ leadership, Patrick Bain, president and CEO of The Long & Foster Companies, said: “Working with Wes for several years, what stood out most was his appreciation and attention for everyone he met. Wes always treated you as the most important person and knew it was the agents and employees who chose to work here, who were the heart and soul of the company.”
In 2004, Wes was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame. In 2006, Virginia Military Institute’s football stadium was dedicated as the P. Wesley Foster Jr. Stadium, a fitting tribute to the place where Wes once played.
So, what’s the message? When The Post asked Wes Foster what contributed to his famously competitive drive to succeed, he said he believed he was “born that way.”
Wes, your drive may have started from birth, but your legacy and memory will remain in the hearts and minds of all those you inspired forever.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.