Bill Chee’s career began inauspiciously. He cheerfully admits that he was thoroughly disenchanted by a youthful spin through the banking business.
Then, with career choice No. 1 out of the way, he turned his attention back to real estate, which he had tried briefly in college — though that option didn’t bode particularly well, either.
"I struggled along with it," he recalls. "I don’t take well to sales."
But if Chee wasn’t a master of salesmanship, he was a self-described "analytic," who realized, in the dark ages of the early 1970s, the possibilities of technology and access to information. And he turned them to his advantage.
Chee went on to co-found a successful real estate brokerage, to lead the National Association of Realtors, and — most famously — to send the industry into something of a dither when he publicly chastised it for being blind to competition from other quarters.
The latter would come to be known as the "Lions Over the Hill" speech, his 1993 comments in which he extolled the NAR board of directors to set aside their long-running territorial and bureaucratic fights over local multiple listing services and to grapple, instead, with the prospect of Microsoft or other corporate entities wresting away their extremely valuable listings data.
"There is a high probability that the Realtor organization will lose control and direction of the MLS as it currently exists," he told the assembled directors. "I view the current MLS situation as a few Chihuahuas fighting over a bone, unaware that a hungry lion is coming over the hill."
That’s the section of the speech that seems most often remembered in the industry, but the NAR president went on to make some pointed criticisms as he urged the trade group to consider devising a way to provide public access to listings data.
It was, he says, not particularly well received.
"In some quarters, they thought I was going to destroy the industry," he said in a recent interview. "I was trying to say that the MLSs were screwed up."
He said that message wasn’t new, that he had been saying it for years, but in his role as NAR president, it "got blown up" — which at that time was necessary.
"What was happening was that most capacity to deliver information wasn’t happening in our industry. It was happening in the Baby Bells and Microsoft and more powerful organizations than we were," Chee said. "If we didn’t recognize it, then they would start to take over data distribution to our own Realtors.
"I thought that people were just trying to protect their own territory. But the MLS was a primary source of revenue and they didn’t want to deal with change that was happening," he said. "The message had to go out that they had to be the providers."
In the nearly 17 years since the speech, Chee says he’s seen important policy changes and consolidation among some of the nation’s MLSs, "giving the member a better value for their dollar." Others, he says, have barely changed course.
Information technology — if it was even called that then — was what had put Chee’s professional life on the map.
In the 1960s, armed with a degree in finance from the University of Hawaii, he launched into a management-training program at a local bank. …CONTINUED
"I lasted there about 14 months," recalls Chee. "I couldn’t stand the bank. I was shocked at how the corporate world functioned. At 4:30, everybody left at the same time, except me, and I’d still be sitting at my desk.
"I always would talk to the janitors, because they came in one minute later."
So he quit, without a plan for what would come next. He did, however, still possess a real estate license left over from his college days, where he says his efforts had produced very few sales.
But real estate seemed to be the only immediate option, so the ex-banker went to work for a small local brokerage and eked his way along.
"I was there for a year, and I thought I knew everything," Chee recalls. In 1969, he and two partners decided to found their own brokerage, capitalized with $1,200 and run out of Chee’s apartment.
They intended to call their company Commercial Locations Real Estate, but once they realized they were doing better with residential sales, they called it Locations.
Not that they were blazing a trail through the Hawaiian market, he recalls, using the word "terrible" to describe their performance.
Nonetheless, they plowed on for five years or so, developing a reputation for the brokerage’s youthful outlook.
"Real estate at that time was a business of 45-year-olds or 50-year-olds," he recalls. "Other people in the business would call us ‘the college boys,’ and we would hire people who were our own age."
Then, they got a whiff of what computers might do.
"That kind of changed everything as we started to automate the business in the early ’70s," he said. "We automated the MLS before the MLS was automated. We created a giant database and experimented with giant computers and punch cards."
It was all new, and they feared competition from larger brokers, so they didn’t advertise their electronic prowess, he said.
"We kept the computer in a room that was sealed off," he recalled. "We wouldn’t tell (clients) that we had a computer, we would just walk them into the other room, ask them what they wanted, and the computer would spit out the listings.
"They would be stunned," he said. "We figured if we could coax them into that room, we could sell them a house."
Everything computers did was a novelty then, he said.
"I’m convinced that people bought real estate from us because our (dot-matrix) printer printed backwards, from right to left," he said. "It was the bomb."
And they got the system up and running on their own because they couldn’t find anybody in that pioneer era who knew how to help them. Chee took a class from IBM, where he learned the computer language of the day.
"Nobody saw information as valuable then," he said, recalling an MLS vendor who was exiting the Honolulu market. Chee and partners saw possibilities in the data the vendor was leaving behind.
"We were able to go to his office in California and pick up all the punch cards and get all the sold figures for five years," he said. "We had to bring them home on a plane in boxes."
Eventually, Locations became Prudential Locations, with offices on all of the Hawaiian islands. Chee is CEO. In 2009, Realtor magazine listed the company among the nation’s top 100 brokerages, based on 2008 sales.
He said he still feels strongly about the need to open up information to consumers, he says.
"Our client has changed, he is a lot more savvy about using the Internet," Chee said. "We think people are pretty smart if you give them the information. I can give them a graph of a neighborhood and how it went up and down in price, and he can draw his own conclusions.
"If the customer needs information, we give it to him."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.