Editor’s note: We scoured the industry in search of behind-the-scenes technology innovators driving change for real estate. In this special Inman News series, we share their stories, but the five people and companies we chose are by no means the only pioneers in real estate. There are hordes of innovators out there, and we’d like to hear all their stories. Drop us a tip if you have someone in mind. (See Part 2: Neighborhood real estate videos come alive; Part 3: A perfect online real estate marriage; Part 4: Bridging islands of real estate technology and Part 5: ‘Lazy’ investor turned tech pioneer.)

Though 150-year-old Baird & Warner is one of the country’s oldest real estate companies, by no means is it resistant to change, as its snappy Web site, online lead generation system and other technological innovations attest.

“I’m just an integral gear on a fine-tuned machine,” claims Charles Melidosian, the company’s vice president and chief information officer, who came on board in 2000 to implement what he described as a long laundry list of innovations, many of which originated with the company’s president, Stephen Baird.

Melidosian has the technical chops to back up his position – he spent years studying calculus, engineering, physics and computer science in college.

“I broke into the school’s computer systems too many times and they locked me out,” is Melidosian’s joking explanation of why he ended up with a degree in communications.

Actually, “I liked making money in business and realized a technical career could be very limited. Rather than get fed on Jolt Cola and Snickers bars and make a cap of $40,000 doing programming, I opted for technical sales,” Melidosian said.

After working as a technical consultant, he moved to Chicago-based, 2,200-employee Baird & Warner in 2000.

“When I arrived at Baird & Warner it was the perfect storm. They were privately held and therefore could make these long-term investments without having to worry about investor perceptions,” he said.

The company put up a Web site in 1996, before Melidosian’s arrival, and has continued to pioneer in the online space ever since.

One of the site’s outstanding elements is its rich content on home maintenance, home buying, home finance and related topics. While other real brokerages, such as Coldwell Banker, have tips for homeowners, buyers and sellers, Baird & Warner’s offerings are exceptional. The site has 1,200 pages including definitions of real estate terms, primers and step-by-step instructions on maintenance from the popular “For Dummies” series.

“The Number One thing consumers want is all the listings. We have between 70,000 and 80,000 listings for the Chicago area on our site,” Melidosian said. “We display every listing we can under state law and MLS regulations.”

According to Melidosian, the second most sought-after element is multiple photos.

“We send a professional photographer to take photos of the houses we sell,” Melidosian said. The company, VideoHomeTours, which Baird & Warner engaged in 2002, takes interior and exterior shots of each house.

But the most compelling element is Baird & Warner’s lead generation system.

“The real magic is how when someone’s on the Web site and there’s a call to action to work with the Realtor, how we make that a seamless transition from online to offline,” Melidosian said.

“If you go to half a dozen real estate Web sites and pretend to be a buyer and say you’re interested in a house, I would like to think Baird & Warner would respond faster than any other company. On the Internet, speed is of the essence. Being able to respond quickly and with the right response sounds like very simple stuff, but most real estate companies can’t execute on it,” said Melidosian.

A rigorous program determines which agents will be allowed to respond to online inquiries.

“We have trained a subset of our Realtors to be part of a program called our First Team agents. They have to go through strict training and operate under a set of guidelines,” Melidosian said.

There is also a staff at the home office whose sole responsibility is responding to the e-mails and phone calls generated on the Web site. The staff works seven days a week, matching up each prospective client with the appropriate First Team agent.

Melidosian, who lives and dies by his own Blackberry, said that Baird & Warner has rolled out Blackberries to all its Realtors.

Online clients are more sophisticated and prepared than traditional consumers, he said.

“A traditional consumer has to visit 20 homes, the online consumer only four homes on average,” he said. “It takes the traditional consumer six to 12 months to make an offer. The online consumer takes an average of only three weeks. We have had people do it on the same day.”

That’s because the online consumer has spent time online learning the market, finding out what he or she can afford. When they meet with the Realtor they are ready to transact, according to Melidosian.

“The whole thing focuses around the clients and letting that drive all business decisions downstream. Give the customers what they want,” Melidosian said.

Tomorrow: Neighborhood real estate videos come alive.

***

What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com; (510) 658-9252, ext. 140..

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