ZipRealty’s chief executive Eric Danziger started out opening doors for people at the Fairmont Hotel in the heart of San Francisco. He’s come a long way in the last 34 years, but he’s essentially still doing the same task today. Only now, the doors lead not to a few nights’ stay, but to homes for Zip’s customers and careers for its salespeople.

Danziger, 49, left his last post in the hotel industry as president of Carlson Hotels Worldwide to join ZipRealty less than three years ago. At that time, the realty brokerage was a mere baby struggling to find its way out of the surrounding dot-com bust.

“We were running out of dough,” Danziger said. “I certainly didn’t come in and find charter jets and luxury vehicles…we had to build the company almost from scratch.”

Danziger’s family and hotel cronies thought he was crazy to join an online startup when so many dot-coms were emptying their offices.

“They said I was nuts. They said, ‘What’s this online game, this technology thing?’ But now they are all saying ‘wow,'” Danziger said.

ZipRealty was started as a Web-based operation in 1999, has grown to 400-plus local agents in 14 markets nationwide and plans to add 1,000 more agents and expand into new regions this year. The company is a full-service brokerage that offers online access to the MLS, low-commission transactions and a 1 percent cash rebate to qualified buyers.

What makes Zip nontraditional is that its agents are full-time employees, not independent contractors. Danziger believes this arrangement allows the company to be consumer-focused rather than agent-focused.

He recalls his first day at the company, which then was headquartered in Richmond, Calif., a few miles north of its current location in Emeryville. The 25,000-square-foot warehouse-style office with 52 employees was the perfect illustration of dot-com era optimism.

“The first day was surprising because I didn’t realize how much needed to be done,” Danziger said. “I came in and found mostly unorganized chaos–and a lot of fabulous people.”

Danziger grew up in San Francisco and has bought and sold 11 homes in his lifetime. His first impressions of the real estate business came with those experiences, which were mostly negative and painted a picture of an industry ripe for change.

“I’ve received better service from people selling me a necktie than selling me a house,” he said.

That’s why he takes the consumer-centric business model so seriously. He compared his home-buying experiences to his experiences buying and selling large hotels and pointed out that he was used to having complete and full disclosure with purchases in the boardroom, but he felt he never heard the full story about houses that were available.

“That strikes me as really weird,” he said.

Danziger doesn’t think the entire brokerage industry is broken, but he believes too few salespeople put the consumer above all else.

Danziger is still a newcomer to residential real estate. He’s far better known for his tenure in the hotel business, where he held top executive positions at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, in addition to Carlson.

He managed an impressive list of real estate investment deals that helped to grow the hospitality companies. His lack of any formal post-high school education hasn’t held him back in his professional life.

Danziger is no stranger to branding, a practice he perfected during the 30 years in which he built and operated hotels that became household names. He thinks brands should be meaningful, but sees no distinctions among real estate brands. He wants to challenge that by growing Zip’s brand name.

Danziger dropped a few hints about what’s ahead for Zip, but declined to offer details. He mentioned some “quantum steps” for the company in terms of growth and marketing, and the possibility of an acquisition or initial public offering.

“It will be a very significant year for this company,” he said. “In my mind we’re barely out of the starting blocks.”

While president of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Danziger directed rapid growth that led to the company’s IPO. He also served as the chairman of the American Hotel and Motel Associations Strategic Planning Group, a trustee of the American Hotel and Motel Federation, a member of the Hotel Industry Real Estate Council.

He said he left the hotel business because ZipRealty presented an opportunity to grow a company and instill a stronger consumer focus in real estate transactions.

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