Editor’s note: In these Factory Tour segments, we bring you a behind-the-screen look inside the office environments at real estate technology companies that are pushing industry innovation. You may have previously known these companies only through their Web sites or online tools or services.
EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Almost a decade ago, HomeGain set up shop in a renovated warehouse across the street from the headquarters of animation film company Pixar.
HomeGain is an online real estate marketing company that helps real estate agents and brokers connect with clients through marketing and lead-generation tools. HomeGain lets consumers compare agents and search for homes. Since Inman News founder and publisher Bradley Inman launched the company in 1999 with 12 employees, HomeGain has grown to a staff of 90 employees at its Emeryville location.
Inman sold HomeGain in 2005 to Classified Ventures, a company focused on online advertising. Formed by five media companies, Classified Ventures offers Web sites for consumers to search homes, apartments and automobiles. Its online businesses include www.apartments.com, www.cars.com, www.HomeGain.com, and Homescape.com.
There are a total of 1,200 Classified Ventures employees located throughout the country and about 800 in the Chicago headquarters.
There is a lot of history in the area. HomeGain’s headquarters used to be an old automotive storage garage, and panels of high windows allow natural light to pour in during the day.
The Oakland Oaks, a minor league baseball team in the Pacific Coast League, once played at the Oakland Ball Park (or Oaks Park) stadium in the same neighborhood. In 1955, after poor attendance, the team moved to Vancouver, Canada, and was renamed the Vancouver Mounties. In 1957, Oaks Park was torn down and a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant took its place.
Now, the space is Pixar Animation Studio’s headquarters. The nearby Oaks Club is one of the oldest and largest card rooms in the San Francisco Bay Area — established in the 1890s. And the city, which has a heavily industrial past, has seen some recent urban infill and revitalization projects that have brought new restaurants, retail shops and residential projects such as low-rise and mid-rise condo, loft and apartment projects.
The HomeGain office includes three different suites: the main room, the lunchroom, and another for sales and customer service.
On the wall is the "customer advocate" plaque, which features the name and picture of an employee who is an example for other employees. The person, who can be from any department, receives a special parking spot for the month and a gift card, in addition to the recognition on the plaque.
The HomeGain sign greets all who enter the building, and to the right are cubicles. Here the staff is organized under sales, finance, technology, client services, quality assurance, product management, application development, facilities, human resources, and marketing. At one employee’s desk is a shelf of toys among which is a replica of WALL-E, the computer animated robot and star of a Pixar film, and Max — the orange gorilla and HomeGain mascot. Along a walkway is an arsenal of Nerf guns that people will pick up for spontaneous Nerf fights, says Jessica Gopalakrishnan, senior marketing manager.
"We like to have fun. It’s a light atmosphere," she says.
To the left side of the office, across from conference rooms, are open cubicles called "hotels" for people from the corporate office in Chicago or for other visitors. Along a side corridor is what used to be the old kitchen but is now a storage spot for office supplies, and a door to the company lounge, which doubles as a meeting room and lunchroom, says Gopalakrishnan.
In addition to the kitchen, where employees are rummaging through an assortment of cereals and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, are tables, chairs and a nook of couches. A flat-screen TV is affixed to the wall.
Salvatore Giammarresi, vice president of products, walks into the lounge to grab something to eat. He says a lot of ideas pop up when people are gathering for lunch or a break.
The employee lounge not only serves as a lunchroom, but a site for impromptu brainstorming, company meetings and Nintendo Wii video game tournaments. The TV is tuned into the Olympics. HomeGain plans to have its own weeklong "office Olympics," including Scrabble (spelling words related to HomeGain and Classified Ventures) and basketball with wastebaskets and crumpled paper. One project was building a home for Max the mascot out of office supplies. The week is concluded with an awards ceremony.
"People also use this as meeting place if conference rooms are booked," says Kerkman, human resources manager.
Above round lunch tables is a panoramic photograph — several others can be found in the company’s conference rooms. Each conference room has a theme. All photos in one room are of seascapes, so the room is dubbed "Seaside," while urban is another theme in the sales department.
Janis Suggs, the office manager, is the innovation behind the lunchroom, as the entire setup was her vision. Suggs send out surveys via e-mail asking employees about the varieties of cereal and soda in the vending machines.
"(It’s a) way for employees to decide things," says Kerkman. "They get to come up with ideas."
The mascot Max was named through a similar survey. Suggs arranges emergency preparedness for employees, including first-aid and CPR training.
"That’s one thing that’s changed since we were acquired," says Mandy Grace, chief financial officer. "There’s a lot of training like presentation skills, sexual harassment and public speaking."
The company seeks feedback from the employees, and there is organized teambuilding that takes place in and outside of the office.
The committee organizes employee appreciation and picnic events, blood drives for which HomeGain teams up with other companies in the building, and at each anniversary the company attends an Oakland Athletics or San Francisco Giants Major League Baseball game. During employee appreciation month this year, the managers cooked breakfast and served the employees at their desks.
During meetings, the staff is encouraged to be involved and speak up, says Gopalakrishnan.
Although the office’s surrounding area features a few small local delis and coffee shops, employees take advantage of the company lounge during breaks. Some group together and organize their own events, like the "Salad Club" that brings back healthy lunches for interested employees.
Employees from the Emeryville office sometimes travel to corporate headquarters in Chicago, where they get to meet people from Classified Ventures’ other businesses.
"When they do their Christmas parties we’ll send employees there to participate and see what’s going on at corporate," says Grace. "It shows them interactions with another very similar company under the same umbrella."
Next up for the HomeGain EAC: can recycling. The money will go towards a foosball table.
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