If you’re going to play on Creig Northrop’s team, you’d better dress the part.
For men, that means a suit and tie — every day.
"For women, that means be professionally dressed, though I don’t know if I can exactly define that," said Northrop. "But you know what it is. I’ve seen jeans and shorts and, oh, my gosh, we don’t allow that kind of thing. If you want people to treat you professionally, you have to look it."
The man is unmistakably confident about what he wants, and projecting a professional image is just one cog in the mega-wheel that is the Creig Northrop Team. Its 40 agents last year racked up more than $308 million in sales, putting the Clarksville, Md., team in the No. 1 spot on RealTrends’ annual list of the nation’s 1,000 top real estate teams, by sales volume. (See related article: "Top real estate agents featured in ‘The Thousand’ report.")
He figured the title was slightly overdue — the team had come in second on the list for four years. But there’s no time to bask in the glow.
"Our goal is to master Maryland," he said. "That’s our five-year goal."
The way he looks at it, he’s halfway there, with the team currently operating in nine of the state’s 24 counties. The Creig Northrop team, he said, wants the whole transaction.
"If you come to us and you live in Howard County and want to buy in Montgomery County, we can help you with both sides," he said.
The group’s affiliation with Long & Foster Real Estate extends his reach beyond Maryland, he said.
"(Chairman and CEO Wes Foster) brings me the whole East Coast, and he also does a big part of the relocation business," Northrop said. "We work together — he brings me relocation, I bring him market share."
A conversation with Northrop inevitably returns to the concept of teamwork. Though he began in real estate 25 years ago by selling lots from a trailer (a project that his real estate agent mother was working on) and then headed his own development company, most of his career has been in residential real estate — and he decided from the beginning that having a team was the way to go.
But the secret to cranking up the volume is to carefully divide and define the team’s tasks, which means that 30 people in administration also work to handle many listing, marketing and closing chores so that agents can stay in the field, selling, he said.
"I broke (my business) up into sectors," Northrop said. "There was a listing coordinator, a settlement coordinator, a marketing department, a courier department, an information technology department."
And within those divisions were subgroups, such as people handling virtual tours and staging (all of his team’s sellers receive staging help with their listings).
And it worked. Mostly.
"We decided there were just too many compartments," he said. The team found that passing the baton from one administrator or worker to the next sometimes led to misunderstandings or to important information going unsaid, he explained.
He consolidated some "compartments" and created the position of "client-care coordinator," who takes that baton from the agent and monitors the transaction’s progress through the various tasks until it reaches the closing table.
"When an agent takes a listing, he or she tells the seller, ‘You’re going to hear from my client-care coordinator, who will be working with you through the whole process,’ " Northrop said. "In addition to the agent, (the seller) always has two points of contact."
Now the system really works, he said.
"We send out surveys on every transaction, and we get 97 percent customer satisfaction — at least," he said.
One of those agents is Northrop himself.
"I never recommend a team leader get out of the business" and become solely an administrator, he said. "If you don’t know what’s going on in the market, you can’t relate to the agent who’s out there doing it.
"I do open houses," he said. "I understand agents’ headaches. I know sellers are tough and buyers want the world. I don’t say (to the agents), ‘Go deal with it.’ I say, ‘Here’s a solution.’ "
To simplify his workload, however, Northrop is almost exclusively a lister, as his schedule just doesn’t accommodate taking buyers to look at homes, he said.
"I always call my sellers every week," he said. "If they know they can reach me, my relationship with them is in good shape."
And, he said, his relationships on the team are strong.
"We really consider everyone in our team as extended family," he said. "Some of them really are our family — my wife, Carla, works with us and both of our mothers work with us, and I have two children working with us."
He said the team isn’t plagued by retention issues, something that dogs many in the industry.
"Our agent retention is impeccable," he said. "Through the recession we lost of couple of agents who realized it doesn’t get handed to you — you have to work for it. Any agents who are strong and very good, they stay with us."
Once a month, the team holds an "Hour of Power" meeting to talk about how to improve performance and to handle problems. The gatherings are particularly helpful to less-experienced agents, he said.
"You get 10 years (worth of) experience in your first year from listening to other people," he said.
His agents, however, tend not to be novices. Northrop said he looks for agents who have at least a couple of years of experience. And they must reside in the area they service, he said.
"We are strategic in that way," he said. "We feel that if you call me up and you are asking me about Ellicott City, you can say, ‘I know it well and I can find a great house for you.’ "
And there’s the wardrobe issue — even if you’re just coming into the office to handle paperwork, he said.
"What if a client walks in and sees you and wants to see a property in five minutes? You have to be appropriately attired," he said. "You always have to be ready for real estate."