Gino Blefari, President & CEO, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, on location at an exclusive Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Maui Properties listing—the Kona Peninsula Residence—at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Editor’s Note: This is the cover story in the August issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine.
Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices President and CEO Gino Blefari recently hosted the brand’s Top 50 brokerage leaders and their guests at the company’s annual Berkshire Elite Circle conference, an exclusive leadership retreat held in June in Kona, Hawaii.
Against a backdrop of sandy beaches and tropical clime, Blefari summarized his immense respect for network members and his vision around Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices’ value proposition.
“Forever—as I define it—means enduring through all times, and just as the waves have endlessly crashed against the shores of Kona, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices will forever serve the lives, lifestyles and needs of our clients,” he said.
For Blefari, the concept of “forever” might be simply explained by a maritime metaphor, but its application to the brokerage network and respective franchisees is complex and all-encompassing.
When asked why he and Chris Stuart, chief operating officer at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, have dedicated such significant time to establishing Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices as the “forever real estate brand,” Blefari explains: “All of us with years of real estate experience have witnessed how for decades individual real estate agents advertise their desire to be accepted by consumers as their ‘real estate agent for life.’ Regrettably, this offering seldom materializes, becoming nothing more than an overused phrase.”
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has said the brand will be around a century from now. “Berkshire Hathaway wants to be in businesses that are enduring,” he explained. “Real estate brokerages will be around 100 years from now and HomeServices will be around 100 years from now. It will always be a very important business.”
According to Blefari, the more consumers recognize and respect a real estate brand—and the brokerages that bear its name—as representing their needs forever, the more significant meaning will be placed on the concept of a “real estate agent for life.”
“Brokers and brands in general, while succeeding in creating transactional value, have fallen short in their attempts to establish lifelong value with consumers,” he says. “To create lasting, forever value within a brand or brokerage means doing a whole lot more.”
Specifically, Blefari believes brands and brokerages must persuade consumers that the company culture represents an extension of this forever concept, focused on nurturing the fundamental role of an agent as a trusted advisor who extends value, skills and advice not only before or after a transaction, but also throughout a client’s entire life.
“As seasons change, as families grow and as children leave the nest, lifestyle needs evolve,” says Blefari. “A forever real estate agent understands that the concept of home is predicated on the many changes life can bring and it doesn’t start—or end—with the transaction. That’s what we want consumers to associate with every single sales professional who carries our Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices name.”
It’s a weighty task to imbue the forever title on a fast-growing network of nearly 46,000 agents working in almost 1,400 offices nationwide (with an expanding global presence), but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Blefari and his team.
“Change begins with solid leadership,” he says. “And we happen to have the best leaders in the business guiding our forever brand.”
A Leader Leads Forever
To truly execute a forever vision requires immense insight, inspiration and innovation from all those responsible for turning “forever” into “for real.” At the top of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices’ command sits Blefari, who understands that great leadership means holding team members accountable for the particular facet of “forever” they have committed to accomplishing.
“A forever-focused team functions much like a team of Olympic rowers,” explains Blefari. “To move steadily forward and win the race, each member must be acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of those around them and work to achieve a kind of synchronicity that’s almost poetic in its perfection.”
Blefari, with more than 30 years of industry experience, is no stranger to navigating waters both smooth and choppy. His success is the kind many write books about; he began as a golf course manager turned award-winning real estate agent, and later, founded Silicon Valley, Calif.-based Intero Real Estate Services, which became one of the fastest-, organically-growing companies in the history of real estate. At Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, he’s a hands-on leader, fostering a culture of outstanding performance and accountability by leveraging his operational expertise and experience.
Every Thursday evening, tens of thousands receive Blefari’s “Thoughts on Leadership,” a rundown of his weekly travels and the inspiration they bring. A voracious audio book and podcast listener, Blefari has taken his leadership lessons to implement an entire method of operation that every team member at his organization follows. Framed after the best-selling book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” team members focus on Wildly Important Goals, or WIGs; act on their lead measures; keep a compelling scoreboard; and create a cadence of accountability. Blefari himself participates on departmental WIG calls, where members announce their WIG progress and set commitments for the upcoming week.
It’s a well-oiled machine of process, procedure, time management, accountability and execution at the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices headquarters—and it has resulted in tremendous growth. Blefari is the first to admit it’s still a work in progress, but tremendous strides have been made, especially in sales.
Top-quality brokerages join the network with a regular rhythm, network firms acquire and merge with market leaders to expand their reach, and through careful consultation, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network brokerages are increasing profitability at impressive rates.
With a sharp focus on growth, Blefari has for two years mentored a group of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brokerages called the “Mavericks,” and guided these companies to achieve new levels of success.
The original Mavericks group, which is made up of nine Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network brokerages, (there are plans to expand to a second Mavericks group in 2019), saw an overall 159 percent jump in bottom line, pre-tax profit. Since the group began in December 2015—and up until December 2017—the top five best-performing Mavericks brokerages saw a 4.3 times rise in pre-tax profit, corresponding to 329 percent growth in profit; followed by 4.3 times, corresponding to 328 percent growth in profit; 3.3 times, corresponding to 230 percent growth in profit; 2.6 times, corresponding to 164 percent growth in profit; and 2.5 times, corresponding to 127 percent growth in profit, respectively.
“I don’t think there are very many companies that can say in two years, ‘I’ve more than doubled or I’ve more than tripled or I’ve more than quadrupled my pre-tax profit,” says Blefari. “And keep in mind, these brokerages were all good operators to begin with, but can now say that they’ve done just that.”
Executing a Forever Vision
Growth at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices isn’t just a result of more diligently operated network brokerages; it’s also empowered by the tools and systems Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices provides. Leading the technology and marketing charge is Stuart, who understands that forever means being the most innovative and integrative brand in the industry.
“We do not need to be obsessed with disruption,” he explains. “We need to be preemptive regarding the erosion of our value and create an environment where network agents can serve their clients in a way no mobile search ever can.”
Stuart helms these initiatives with a strong tech and growth background. Previously, he was part of the executive leadership team at Intero Real Estate Services, and prior to his time at Intero, co-founded a mortgage brokerage firm that grew to become one of the largest in Northern California. He also built and oversaw Silicon Valley-based teams at Oracle, and was responsible for creating some of the very first internet-based applications in arenas ranging from commerce and customer service to knowledge management and inventory control.
Today, his extensive technology and business development pedigree is put to work, and Stuart sits in the driver’s seat of the brand’s innovation.
Under his watch, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices is now working with some of the most forward-thinking companies in the world—Salesforce, Adobe and VaynerMedia—to enhance the brokerage network with unmatched technological, digital and predictive sophistication.
First, there’s a new website project underway that combines the power of an industry-leading content management system, a Fortune 500 development experience, best-in-class property search tools and responsive design to offer, as Stuart describes, “something for everyone.”
“Our new website utilizes artificial intelligence to deliver content specific to a user’s interests and persona type,” he says. “An investor needs to know different information from a luxury buyer or first-time buyer, and our website will use machine learning to serve a user exactly the content he or she wants to digest.”
Concurrently, network brokers, offices, teams and agents will have the ability to create their own experience within the system—vendors and apps can be added or removed in the plug-and-play environment—while still maintaining the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brand identity.
“Being a forever brand means creating an online experience that’s dynamic and valuable,” says Stuart, who is also at the forefront of a project that will create more transparency and data portability among industry tools and systems.
“We’re creating a central data hub that allows Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, our vendors and our franchisee’s vendors to retrieve data from other platforms and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between them,” he says.
It’s a philosophy Stuart staunchly abides by: Every system, tool and program must speak to one another, and be measured, then analyzed, in a data-driven approach to growth.
Even brand marketing initiatives with new ad partner VaynerMedia are meticulously examined by an expansive, experienced team to determine what’s working and what’s not, then figure out why.
VaynerMedia, founded by social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk, is widely regarded as one of the most cutting-edge marketing firms on the planet. In conjunction with the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices team, VaynerMedia executives broke down the previous campaign, Good to Know, and transformed it into Good to Ask, a non-traditional, digital-centric marketing machine that uses highly advanced SEO, SEM and targeting strategies to send poignant ads to consumers most likely to connect.
“The digital-focused approach lets our team be more flexible than we would be with traditional media like TV or print,” says Vaynerchuk. “The brand is reaching more potential customers than ever before, but more importantly, the right people with a customized message.”
The crux of the campaign is high-quality content, delivered as long-form video vignettes, sleek visuals and informational takeaways. Since the campaign launched, the brand has garnered almost 180 million impressions across social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest.
This innovative tactic to real estate marketing represents only one of many ways the brand is differentiating itself as a forever name.
“Forever also means being an all-inclusive leader,” says Teresa Palacios Smith, vice president of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Strategies at HSF Affiliates. Palacios Smith joined HSF Affiliates (which owns and operates the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices franchise network) in August 2017, tasked with overseeing the franchisor’s commitment to increasing diversity among its brokerage networks.
“We understand the importance of helping our network brokerages mirror the diversity of the communities they serve,” she says. “For us, ‘diversity’ is so much more than a catchphrase; it’s woven into the inclusive fabric of who we are as a brand, as a network and as professionals helping others achieve the dream of homeownership.”
Most recently, Palacios Smith received one of the first-ever RISMedia Real Estate Newsmaker Awards, bestowed to several industry leaders at the National Association of REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Expo in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Leaders who received the award exemplify an outstanding ability to garner positive headlines, a direct result of their effectiveness in creating change.
Gary Acosta, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) says, “I have no doubt that through her influence, the network will better service every single member of their respective communities and make them feel cared for, always.”
“Teresa is transforming the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network through her dedication to diversity,” says Jim Park, the national chairman emeritus for the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA).
“In the entire real estate industry, there is no greater ambassador for diversity and the empowerment of women in business than our own Teresa Palacios Smith,” says Blefari. “I have witnessed firsthand her incomparable efforts tied to inclusivity, diversity and gender equality for our network agents and the communities they serve.”
For the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brokerage network, “community” is an ever-expanding concept, especially as the brand grows both in America and across the globe. “It’s important for us to develop a deep understanding and respect for the businesses and cultures that distinguish all countries,” says Michael Jalbert, senior vice president of Global Sales for HSF Affiliates.
“Forever in the franchise sales arena means being highly selective of the brokerages that join our network and focusing on our global growth,” he says. Since joining the team in October 2017 after previous positions driving growth at major real estate brokerage networks, Jalbert has orchestrated impressive franchise transactions for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices that are helping to bring the forever brand to new markets.
“I’m delighted, yet not the least bit surprised, that prominent real estate brokerages are drawn to our brand,” says Jalbert. “Industry leaders near and far—and the markets they serve—recognize and appreciate the universal relevance of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. Specifically, they understand how our brand, unlike any other in the real estate industry, represents prudent decisions and sage advice—and these brand promises transcend geography.”
Globally, Berlin became the brand’s first international stronghold in March with the launch of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Rubina Real Estate, an award-winning brokerage and recurrent honoree for Germany in the prestigious International Property Awards. In 2017, Rubina Real Estate was named “Best Real Estate Agency” and “Best Property Consultant (Marketing)” for all of Europe.
“Most brands are hyper-vigilant regarding recruiting and retention, whereas the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices culture is based on selection and development,” explains Jalbert. “That comes into play with franchise sales, because we attract brokerages that don’t want to just grow a little; they want to grow exponentially among a network of elite professionals and a team of strategic leaders.”
And Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices leaders aren’t just adept at creating forward-moving initiatives; they’re also experts at coordinating all projects to foster the kind of synergy necessary for sustainable progress.
“Forever means our core services are all in alignment,” says Karen Cain, director of Program Management Office at HSF Affiliates. “You can have a transformative vision and put together a strategic plan, but real success comes from putting a system in place, setting goals, holding team members accountable and, most importantly, executing on every single initiative until it’s complete.”
The execution of the mission that Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices be real estate’s forever brand also requires excellence in research and development.
“Selecting Allan Dalton to be senior vice president of Research and Development was essentially an inevitable decision based on his experience, skills, results and scholastic approach to real estate,” says Blefari.
“I can think of no one else who, in addition to being president and co-owner of a major regional brokerage, created the national marketing system for multiple brands,” he adds. “Then, to top it off, Allan was the chief executive officer of what at the time was the largest real estate website in the world, realtor.com®. Clearly, the combination of his off- and online experience and expertise within the real estate industry is second to none.”
Dalton, an author of several real estate industry books, including “Leveraging Your Links,” an examination of the role of social media marketing, brings to his position seminal observations.
“First, as an industry, we have been so-called farming for years, but planting the wrong seeds,” explains Dalton. “Specifically, as a transaction-to-transaction industry, we have been planting only seasonal and annual seeds, and Gino wants us to begin planting perennials, as well.”
And, he notes: “Presently, consumers often have only one doctor, lawyer, dentist or financial planner, yet divide their loyalty amongst multiple real estate professionals. Our research and development must mitigate against this long-standing consumer practice.”
Dalton believes that as part of the vision of forever, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network sales professionals must possess the skills and knowledge to create forever loyalty with their clients.
Currently, learning is given significant weight at the brokerage network, and Rosalie Warner, vice president of Network Service, ensures Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network sales professionals are armed with the knowledge to advise clients worldwide.
“Forever means growth and profitability based on consultative service and support,” says Warner, who oversees the Business Consulting and Global Network Training teams. “We challenge network brokers by asking them, ‘What do you do better than your competitors, and what do you do that none of your competitors do?’ Often, through our classes and consultation, they gain valuable ways to build that competitive edge.”
Warner says unlike other brand initiatives that are hurtling toward the digital, her team is out in the field daily, meeting face-to-face with agents and management to provide customized training, solutions and knowledge. “As we see models change, we’re right there changing along with them,” she says.
Her team isn’t just changing the game of real estate; they’re also writing the rules on how it’s played. For instance, Warner and leaders from Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices meet several times each year with a group of millennial-age top producers. Named the REthink Council, these network agents share best practices, insights, challenges and wins that are then turned into videos, white papers and content for the network to digest.
“The REthink team brings a fresh perspective and makes us ask, ‘Are we doing something the way we’ve always done it because we’ve always done it that way, or because it’s the best way to do it?'” she says.
The question ultimately speaks to why Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices can live up to its enduring status. Firmly grounded by the strength of its storied Berkshire Hathaway Inc. heritage, the brand is unafraid of change and constantly anticipating the wave before it crashes ashore.
“We’re not a brand focused on just today or tomorrow,” says Blefari. “We see the waves before us, of course, but concentrate on the entire ocean, because like our Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brand, it’ll be around forever.”
Melissa Kandel is director of Global Communications, PR and Digital Media for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. For more information, please visit www.berkshirehathawayhs.com.