CLARIFICATION: The No. 1 office ranking globally, said Ann Beutler, is based around the gross commissions earned in 2009 by agents working out of the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, office.

About three years ago, Ann and John Beutler decided that being No. 2 just wasn’t acceptable any more.

The owners of a Century 21 Real Estate office in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, called their staff together and announced they were all done with the company’s longtime second-place ranking among brokerages in their town. They were going to be No. 1, they said, and that was that.

"Coldwell Banker had been No. 1 for 20 years, and we were No. 2," said John. "We just developed a mindset that we were going to be No. 1, and we were there within two years."

The Beutlers are starting to get accustomed to racking up No. 1 rankings: Earlier this month, Century 21 named the Beutlers’ Coeur d’Alene office the leader in sales production — based on the office’s roughly $10.5 million in gross commissions earned — among affiliated offices worldwide.

That office ranked first among 7,700 Century 21 offices in 68 countries, in 2009. The office also was the brand’s worldwide leader in 2007.

Ann and John Beutler

And John Beutler has carted home a few Century 21 trophies of his own, having been named its top producer in the nation and in the world three times each.

The Beutlers say that attitude, if it isn’t everything, goes a long way toward achieving success, though it must be backed up with agent training and technical and marketing support.

And they take issue with the current bottom-line trend among brokerages to decentralize operations by encouraging agents to work at home.

Not only do they say that office camaraderie plays a significant role in company performance, but a few years ago they also invested in building a sizable brick-and-mortar office facility to accommodate them, they said.

They attribute a part of their success to upgrading technology, and hiring a marketing director who didn’t have a background in real estate, in order to gain a fresh perspective.

Century 21 Beutler & Associates enjoys being the biggest fish in a small pond, though the pond isn’t as small as one might presume for a town with about 41,000 residents.

There are about 60 real estate firms in Coeur d’Alene, although five dominate the market, John said; about 1,200 agents are part of the Coeur d’Alene multiple listing service, according to Ann.

The couple founded their company in Coeur d’Alene about 20 years ago. John had been an agent for several local firms for more than a decade; Ann at that time was employed by a local lumber company, handling real estate matters, she said.

"We opened up an independent office, but we knew we wanted to be part of something bigger," said Ann, who manages the Coeur d’Alene office, as well as their three other offices in downstate Liberty Lakes and St. Maries, Idaho, and in Spokane, Wash.

Overall, the firm has 250 agents; 160 work in Coeur d’Alene. John sells real estate full time and assists with some management tasks.

When the town’s C21 affiliate decided to sell in 1997, the couple jumped at the opportunity to get a franchise, Ann said.

"It was a huge move for us," she said. "We were more of a boutique office, and it was hard to compete with the bigger brands."

The affiliation with a national brand has helped them grow on several levels, particularly by advising them on mergers and acquisitions, she said. She also said the parent company’s website has provided valuable exposure for their listings.

"It’s hard for the little guy these days," she said. "Everything is on such a big scale."

John said having name recognition from a national brand is critical now.

"It costs too much money to be an independent, if you’re doing it right — you’re trying to reinvent the wheel, getting a website presence to the point where people will look at it," he said. "Personally, I wouldn’t want to start an office now as an independent."

The couple said C21 also has helped with ongoing agent training, which they regard as critical. Being able to accommodate as many as 120 people in a single classroom was one reason why they built a sizable office in Coeur d’Alene a few years ago.

The facility also is used by local community groups, which John said has helped build the company’s brand locally.

"We spent more than we probably should have (to build it), but when you give agents the right tools and a nice place to work they appreciate it," John said.

The company has training sessions for agents at least on a weekly basis.

"We have a strong emphasis (on classes) for all agents, not just beginners," Ann said. "The (sessions are) on Internet and social-media topics, prospecting, and so on. Sometimes we bring in speakers about anything they’d need to know — any kinds of tools and systems, sometimes motivational speakers."

In addition to meetings, the Coeur d’Alene office is home base for almost all of its 160 agents. The Beutlers subscribe to a togetherness theory, John said.

"Any time you can bring people around a common center, you create energy," he said. Though it might be economically expedient for brokerages to have agents working in their own homes, there’s a loss of human capital, he said.

"We believe in having people around, having that camaraderie, and there are people talking," he said. "People motivate people. Everybody in our office has a (desk), though there are a couple of people who have elected to work out of their houses.

"You shouldn’t downplay how important it is to network with your local Realtors," he said.

Though their company’s main office landed at the top of the C21 heap last year, sales weren’t as strong as during the boom. The company sold a branch office in Lewiston, Idaho, earlier this year because, they concluded, management was being spread too thin, John said.

"We’ve had to make some cutbacks (during the economic downturn), as all smart companies have, but we still have been strong marketers," Ann said.

She said she’s seen activity pick up recently, though she hesitates to read too much into improved sales because the Coeur d’Alene market traditionally strengthens at this time of year and because of the effect of the first-time homebuyer tax credit.

"I’d say our market is comparable to maybe 2002-2003," she said. "There’s pent-up demand. People have been waiting and waiting. We’re going to have to go through some more of our inventory. I think (recovery) is going to be a long process. It’s all (about) pricing right now."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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