During a visit to Northern California in April, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC President and CEO Sherry Chris spent a day shadowing a Sonoma-area real estate agent and visiting open houses.

She was particularly impressed by one open house in which the listing agent had set up a cappuccino bar for visitors.

"It encouraged agents to stay around and talk a bit," she said, adding that such details can be key for a relationship-based business.

"Providing that extreme service — going above and beyond — needs to happen at the industry level and the agent-to-agent level," said Chris, who has built up the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate franchise network to about 200 offices and 7,000 sales associates, with operations in 21 states, since its formal launch under the Realogy Corp. umbrella in 2008.

Realogy entered into a long-term relationship with Better Homes and Gardens magazine publisher Meredith Corp. to obtain rights to the real estate franchise. GMAC Home Services had earlier licensed the Better Homes and Gardens name for a real estate network, and Meredith had operated its own real estate franchise network from 1978-98.

Other Realogy franchise brands include Coldwell Banker, Century 21, ERA and Sotheby’s International Realty.

The first Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate franchise under Realogy was Wilkins & Associates, a company in northeastern Pennsylvania that had seven offices and about 130 agents when it joined the brand.

In September, the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate network added 36 offices and about 1,900 sales associates as Prudential California Realty and Prudential Nevada Realty joined, rebranding as Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Mason-McDuffie.

Chris had served as chief operating officer for that Prudential company before taking a position as chief operating officer for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC in 2006 — she was appointed to her current position in October 2007.

"We have some very aggressive long-term goals. Our growth will continue to be at an accelerated pace," Chris said, noting that international growth is a part is in the franchise company’s business plan.

"It was our goal to create a strong footprint domestically, first, which we have," she said. "We plan to grow internationally in many countries, like our sister brands," which she noted are collectively in more than 100 countries.

Chris said that the company is planning to launch luxury and urban sub-brands.

Crafting a specialty is key for real estate professionals as the industry evolves, Chris said. "I strongly believe that agents of the future cannot be generalists."

And her franchise company’s access to a rich customer database from Meredith Corp. provides real estate professionals with some unique ways to market to consumers in very targeted ways, she said.

The market’s rapid run-up and steep downturn have created a "new normal," and her advice to brokers and agents is to closely monitor your local (market) and to watch for whether "cash buyers are starting to come into the market. That often signals a bottom."

While economic circumstance and an abundance of foreclosures and falling prices in many markets are an unavoidable reality, Chris said she is encouraged by the agents who focus on those aspects of their business that are within their own control.

"Those who are … not worrying about their (own) business, to me are the ones who are floundering. Don’t concern yourself with what you can’t control. Please don’t be waiting for the market to pick up. This is your market, today and in the future."

Chris regularly meets with agents in the field to see what they’re dealing with first-hand, she said. "I’m a grassroots leader who loves to connect with and talk to the people who are actually doing out there," she said.

"As a result, that helps me figure out and envision what the future of the industry looks like — you cannot do it in a vacuum. I’ve always been a person who has an open door. My cell phone (number) is on Facebook."

She has won honors for her leadership qualities — in November she won a Stevie Award for "Best Executive" among women in business, and she was named Innovator of the Year in 2010 by Inman News. She has also been named numerous times to the Inman 100 list of most influential industry leaders, and the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand has received awards for marketing, communications and Internet presence.

Chris, who has previously served in executive roles at Canada’s Royal LePage and with Real Living, has incorporated social media into the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate business plan from the start, launching a blog, Clean Slate, to promote the brand and share the brand’s voice.

"I’m a huge advocate of social media. That has helped us sell franchises and connect with people," she said, adding that effective use of social media does require "a strategy and a plan — you can’t just be out there talking to yourself."

When she began her career in the real estate agent as an agent in Canada in the early 1980s, mortgage interest rates were just over 20 percent.

"It was a very challenging time," she said, and in those days she recalled a "broker-controlled environment" in real estate. "The broker and agent acted as gatekeepers of information back then." Her first office was very small — it was actually a bedroom within a house that had been converted into the brokerage company’s office.

Gradually, she said, the industry "shifted to more of an agent-controlled environment."

"Agents sought larger offices to hang their awards on. Broker-owners took on more and more space and the risk and responsibility of that. Unfortunately that was the downfall of a number of brokers during (that) recession," she said.

"Now, when you look at the way business is being done (today), it’s rarely in an office environment. Broker-owners are downsizing their office space.

"The consumer has access to all of the information. There was resistance over the years to provide that access and now they have it. The role of the agent is shifting to more of a collaborator — a trusted adviser, intermediary who helps decipher the information for the consumer."

She added, "The agent steps into the transaction stage at a later point … and as such needs to provide" a different range of services.

Using social media strategy is ever important with the new generation of real estate consumers, she said, and her franchise company has built a training program for brokers and agents on how to effectively use social media. All of the franchisees have a Facebook presence, she said, about half have blogs, and more than half have brokerage Twitter accounts.

Brokers, she said, are finding that social media is an important tool for communicating with consumers and agents alike.

Because the Internet has increasingly empowered consumers with real estate information to conduct their own research, "we need to make sure that we keep ourselves relevant and that the consumer continues to see us as a value-add in the transaction," Chris said. If consumers fail to see these benefits, she said, the industry will surely be impacted by a change in sentiment.

Another realization Chris has had in building the franchise brand: "Consumers will go to wherever they have the best search experience, with the most information. So where is that going to be?"

She said she expects to see "a continuation of the consumers going to sites where they’re going to have the best experience," including third-party sites. And if the most-trafficked sites continue to be those that are not operated by brokerage companies, "then we should acknowledge that, accept that, and continue to redefine our role as agents and brokers in the business."

She added, "The best search sites should become our strategic partners, not our enemy." Chris, who has more than 27 years of experience in real estate, serves on a broker advisory board for Zillow and also has served on boards for Trulia and Google Real Estate. She is a past chairman of The Realty Alliance, a network of major North American real estate companies.

Commenting on mobile real estate search tools, Chris said there are many available, and some "have become very complicated." She said she expects consumers will gravitate toward ease of use, and she believes user-generated feedback — "on neighborhoods, communities, lifestyle, and agents and brokers" will be a strong component going forward in mobile tools. Technology has allowed us to (increasingly) collaborate with one another."

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