Before "branding" was a household word, Arthur E. Bartlett, the founder of real estate franchising giant Century 21, knew the power of a big name.
In 1955, at the age of 22, he sold products for Campbell Soup Co. to stores in the Los Angeles area. He saw supermarkets get bigger and mom-and-pop stores slowly disappear. So, in 1971, when he co-founded Century 21 in Santa Ana, Calif., he knew franchising was the way to help little guys fight like big guys.
"Correct or not, consumers have confidence in the big, brand name," Bartlett told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "Franchising has been the savior of free enterprise in this country. It has given the small businessman a way to survive."
Bartlett died on Dec. 31, 2009, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, according to his daughter, Stacy Bartlett Renshaw. He was 76.
Now a Realogy Corp. subsidiary, Century 21 Real Estate LLC is the world’s largest residential real estate franchise company with 7,700 independently owned offices in 67 countries and territories and more than 120,000 sales employees, according to the company’s Web site.
Bartlett was born in the midst of the Great Depression on Nov. 26, 1933, in Glens Falls, N.Y. He was the middle of three children. His mother was a hairdresser and his father was a truck driver for General Mills. The family moved to Long Beach, Calif., to care for a sick aunt when he was in the ninth grade.
After school, he worked at a clothes retailer from the age of 16 to 21 where he learned the art of selling. He was a natural-born salesman, Bartlett told franchise book author John P. Hayes. Hayes wrote a profile of Bartlett around 1990.
"It’s not enough to have the desire to sell and to win," Bartlett said. "You’ve got to really enjoy the satisfaction of helping people by accomplishing the sale."
Only one thing bothered Bartlett about his job selling clothes: the low pay. In the mid-1950s, he met Collette Cupiss at a party and fell in love at first sight — though she didn’t. His skills as a salesman prevailed, however, and the couple married in 1955. They had a daughter and stayed together until Collette’s death in 2002. He re-married in 2005.
After his first marriage, Bartlett began working for Campbell. In 1960, after winning several sales awards, Bartlett went back to school to study real estate.
"It was a straight commission business," Bartlett told Hayes. "And I knew you could make a good living doing it. It requires the use of sales abilities and talents, and a lot of energy, all of which I had. So it made sense for me."
His first job as an agent was at Forest Olson in the San Fernando Valley, then California’s largest residential real estate company. In short order, he became a branch manager, but left in the mid-1960s to open his own brokerage, Four Star Realty, in Santa Ana.
He later also founded Comps Inc., one of the first companies to offer computerized comparable sales data for the real estate industry. Unfortunately, the company did not do well, and Bartlett eventually sold it.
After the sale, a chance encounter with former Forest Olson employee Marshall Fisher changed the course of Bartlett’s life. Fisher worked for CJS, one of only two real estate franchises at the time (the other was Red Carpet) and told Bartlett about real estate franchising.
In that idea, Bartlett saw a solution to a problem that had bothered him both when he worked for Campbell and when he worked in real estate.
"The chains offered tremendous training for new salespeople. They had a big image. They could buy full-page ads. When I was with a large real estate firm, we had all of this. But when I opened my little company, we had none of it. And when I operated Comps Inc., I saw the little companies, and I knew they were destined to lose in this market. I saw the big get bigger and the small get smaller."
Bartlett and Fisher founded the company in 1971. A brainstorming session led to the name of the new venture: Century 21. A bit futuristic, but that was Bartlett’s style.
"Art had an uncanny ability to take a new idea and develop it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. His marketing and sales approaches were very aggressive," said Jim Cummings, former Century 21 International president and chief executive officer, in a statement.
"Art was a legend whose actions helped to write the very history of real estate and franchising," said Tom Kunz, current Century 21 Real Estate LLC president and CEO, in a statement.
Central to the growth of the company was its most powerful symbol: the gold coat. Not long after founding the business, Bartlett "stole" rival Red Carpet’s national franchise sales director Bud Shultz, who insisted Red Carpet staff wear red coats.
Shultz’s only condition on switching his allegiance was that Century 21 staff wear gold coats. Bartlett preferred a more subdued brown color, but eventually agreed to a mustard gold version.
Shultz passed away in 1989, according to Cummings, who stayed in touch with Bartlett until the day before he died.
But the coat lives on as what the company calls "walking, talking business cards." …CONTINUED