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Designing a sleek and hip brokerage from the ground up

Red Oak Realty: 30-somethings rethink real estate brokerage

Walk through the doors of Red Oak Realty’s new office in Oakland, Calif.’s upscale Montclair neighborhood, and you will not see any cubicles, desk phones, desktop computers or agent offices.

You will, however, find a 17-foot-long polished redwood table, a bank-vault-turned-conference room, phone booths, chalkboard walls and a charged-up vibe.

Vanessa Bergmark, 38, and Kevin Hamilton, 37, bought the two-office, 69-agent independent brokerage in late 2009 and have slowly remade it into what they think a modern brokerage should and can be: sleek, fresh, efficient, innovative, mobile.

Hamilton and Bergmark became owners in a tough market, which, they say, compelled them to develop a lean, efficient and intelligent operating philosophy.

"Right after the market crumbled, we saw an opportunity to build the brokerage we wanted while many brokerages were waiting for the market to return," Hamilton said.

"We came in scrappy," Bergmark recalled.

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After the purchase, Bergmark and Hamilton transitioned Red Oak Realty to a paperless transaction management system and removed landlines and desktop computers. They helped agents buy laptops or iPads, and swapped out expensive office-management software for Google Apps.

"The savings were massive," Bergmark said.

Brokerage Timeline

Time Event
Late 2009 Vanessa Bergmark and Kevin Hamilton buy Red Oak Realty from previous owners.
February 2011 Aman Daro joins the firm as marketing manager with a mandate to remake the brokerage’s brand.
September 2011 Red Oak Realty launches new website built from the ground up with 400 custom-drawn neighborhood boundaries.
September 2012 Red Oak Realty opens its new office in Montclair.

With the extra dough, Hamilton and Bergmark reinvested in the company and took steps to mold it to their vision. They hired full-time support staff — the office now has 11 full-time staff members, including a graphic designer, who support its 69 agents.

Hamilton and Bergmark, who worked together at another East Bay firm before teaming up to buy Red Oak Realty, also brought on marketing specialist Aman Daro, 42, to help them remake the Red Oak Realty brand.

After Daro came on board in early 2011, they built a website from the ground up. Launched in September 2011, the website features 400 custom-drawn neighborhood boundaries built using 15 years of sales data. The boundaries allow homebuyers to search for homes by neighborhood, and agents to produce accurate neighborhood-level comparative market analyses (CMAs).

Along with establishing the firm’s new "seriously local" tagline, the site includes more than 50 neighborhood profile pages each with 10 professional photos and a written introduction of the ‘hoods. Twenty of the neighborhood profiles include a minute-long professional video highlighting notable features of each area.

The custom neighborhood delineations allow the firm to produce detailed and extremely accurate and meaningful CMAs, Daro said. East Bay neighborhoods vary widely in character, so accurate boundaries make for accurate market trend analysis.

"Search by neighborhood has been key for my clients," said Julia Temple, who has been an agent with Red Oak Realty for eight years.

Daro said Red Oak’s CMAs have helped the firm achieve the highest list-price-to-sale-price ratio of any brokerage in its market.¬†

The new site, built from scratch, also allowed the firm to have the kind of detailed, pixel-by-pixel control over design that it exercises in other areas of its business. For example, Daro said, the "Contact Us" button on the site’s neighborhood page went through at least 30 iterations of the design itself and its precise location.

In September 2012, Red Oak built out and moved into a new office. At 2,489 square feet, it was less than half the size of the 5,000-square-foot office it replaced, but serves the same number of agents.

The new office "was the first chance we got to show our agents who the new owners were," Bergmark said. Taking inspiration from tech and advertising companies, the office has an open layout and includes a hip and sexy feel, she said. "It’s great for management. I hear and see what’s going on."

Kevin Hamilton and Vanessa Bergmark in the conference room of their new office in Oakland, Calif.’s Montclair neighborhood.

Bergmark and Hamilton did all this while reforming the firm’s culture and retaining nearly all of its agents — 94 percent stayed with the company through the ownership change, Bergmark said.

With the changes has come growth. Red Oak was founded in 1976. When Hamilton and Bergmark took over less than four years ago, the firm did not rank among the top 10 brokerages, Bergmark said.

In 2012, Red Oak handled 331 transaction sides, representing buyers and sellers of properties valued at $209 million. That was the third-highest volume among firms in Red Oak’s East San Francisco Bay Area market, which includes the cities of Oakland and Berkeley.

The 136 sales brokered by Red Oak in 2012 had the highest list-price-to-sale-price ratio of any East Bay brokerage — homes represented by the brokerage’s agents sold for 106.7 percent over list price, on average — $619,944 per listing.

This performance tells Hamilton and Bergmark that what they’re doing — going paperless, streamlining operations, providing hands-on training and responsive managing — is working.

"Basically, Kevin and Vanessa are younger than 95 percent of broker-owners," said Brian Boero, co-founder and partner of the real estate design and marketing firm 1000watt, who helped Red Oak build its new website.

"They come from a different generation, with different sensibilities," Boero said. "Their new office is a physical manifestation of this."

The office

When Bergmark and Hamilton began looking for a place to manifest their vision, they came upon a former bank in a small commercial center serving Montclair, an upscale neighborhood in the Oakland Hills.

They didn’t want it, at first. "We walked in and three minutes later, we said ‘No way,’" Hamilton recalled, flipping through a binder of before-and-after pics of the gutted bank turned boutique real estate office.

After finding nothing better, they decided to make the space work.

They wanted to create a space that encouraged collaboration and was enjoyable to work in, Hamilton said.

For inspiration, Bergmark and Hamilton traveled to Portland, Ore., to check out the sleek designs of boutique hotels and Internet and public relations firms.

"There’s got to be people out there like us," Bergmark said she thought at the time. There were, but not necessarily in real estate.

To guide their growing aesthetic and vision, they pulled images from all over into a Pinterest board online that they used to instill the feel of the brand. From that, they created a one-page design collage that encapsulates the brand, which still guides the firm’s look today. The collage hangs at eye level in the marketing and design office, next to Jenn Kelly, the firm’s in-house graphic designer.

Eight local artisans helped revamp the space inside and out, crafting desks, awnings, and other custom details. They hired a local architect and landscape designer, and an interior designer whose work on a trendy local restaurant they admired.

Where possible, the project utilized reclaimed and refurnished items, and incorporated other "green" features such as LED lights. The new office was green-certified by the county, and green has been good for business, too. Hamilton said the office’s 200 LED lights save more than $1,000 per month in energy costs, while attracting green-conscious clients.

Kevin Hamilton explaining the "living wall" near the entrance of Red Oak Realty’s Oakland office.

The new office’s design touches begin outside. The parking lot features native plants and a "living wall" — a native plant installation that hangs where an ATM used to be near the firm’s entrance. The entrance features a metal awning built by a local artist.

Inside, five conference rooms and an office flank the central space, which is demarcated by the office manager’s desk.

Just past the reception area, the space opens up with a 17-foot-long table, custom-made from a single piece of polished, reclaimed redwood. Natural light floods the area from an east-facing window that stretches to the top of the second story. A small air plant terrarium with sage green plants sits in the center of the table, contrasting nicely with the redwood.

Communal redwood table in the main room of Red Oak Realty’s new office.

Two computers sit toward one end. Otherwise the space is clear and ready for agents.

The office has no cubicles, no separate agent offices, no desktop phones or computers. Top producing agents have their own small section in the corner of the office, adjacent and open to the main space, with their own desks. Other agents share desks in a section next to the large redwood table.

"We built the office for the mobile agent," Hamilton said.

If agents want to make a private call, they can duck into one of two soundproof "phone booths" — small rooms, featuring chalkboard walls, with doors facing the common area.

The heart of the office is what was formerly the bank vault, now a conference room with 18-inch-thick concrete walls and a reclaimed acacia wood table. Air plants decorate one wall, and 27 LED hanging lights and a huge backlit photo of a forest on the back wall floods the windowless room with a comforting green light.

The original vault’s steel-frame door remains in the entrance, adding a chic, vintage touch that fits the firm’s style. The space evokes a speakeasy lounge that’s also a comfortable, authentic and smart place to do business.

Shot of the chalkboard wall and general aesthetic of Kevin Hamilton’s office at Red Oak Realty’s Oakland office.

Upstairs, Hamilton’s office features a reclaimed table and a vintage globe from a former University of California, Santa Cruz professor. A large picture window stretches about six feet to the ceiling above.

Across from Hamilton’s office, Daro and two others in the marketing team have a work space. Across the hall, the firm is in the process of building out a small office for one of its two teams.

Some other notable features of the Montclair office:

  • Bank teller filing cabinets that now serve as locking cubbies where agents can keep their things securely.
  • Light fixtures made from beakers of old chemistry sets.
  • A coffee table made out of safety deposit boxes.

Culture

Bergmark and Hamilton’s vision for the 33-year-old firm required its agents — who are, on average, in their mid-50s — to adapt. The low agent-to-staff ratio of 11 to 1 means the firm can provide a high level of attention to details, and take a hands-on approach to management. Agents feel their questions or concerns will find a receptive ear.

Marsha Quick has been an agent with Red Oak Realty for more than 30 years. Trading in her desktop computer was quite a shock, she said. But she’s learned to appreciate some of the differences in the way the brokerage does business.

Quick says it’s fun to tell people about the website and the neighborhood videos. She’s also doing business differently.¬†Daro’s analytics have helped her understand that in some situations, a home will sell for more if it’s marketed quietly.

She’s also learned that prepping a house for a sale by painting and staging it can help it fetch a much higher price than it otherwise would. Quick, who is in her 60s, said there’s also help when she wants to learn new tools the brokerage introduces.

For example, Red Oak Realty rolled out a customized version of comparative market analysis software Cloud CMA a month ago. Quick said Daro sat down with her and another agent to tutor them, step by step, on how to use it.

"Our voices are heard," Quick said. If agents feel like something’s not making sense, their concerns are addressed and things change.

It hasn’t all been rosy. Going paperless, Quick said, has been a challenge. She likes the intimacy of paper, she said, going over a contract with a client section by section, page by page, and finalizing the deal in person.

But she’s not afraid of the new technology because Bergmark, Hamilton and Daro are so responsive and approachable, she said.

Jennifer Ames, who has been at the firm for two years, says Bergmark and Hamilton’s attention to detail and proactive approach have helped her.

For example, Ames said, last week Hamilton put a note out that he would hire a person to detail agents’ cars in the office parking lot while they were working, if they so desired.

"It’s a small detail, but it made a world of difference," Ames said. As a single parent, she didn’t know if she would have been able to make time to clean her car otherwise.

It’s the beginning of the spring buying season, she said, and "now I can take buyers around in my car."

While the office can be a little noisy and crowded at times, Ames said, she also hears about new properties in the communal space. And she just likes its feel. "It’s a cool space to hang," she said.

Recently, Bergmark offered three-hour, one-on-one marketing training to all agents in the firm on Wednesdays. Every Wednesday for the next two months is booked, Bergmark said. (Adoption is a challenge.)

Temple said she gets ideas for listings from Bergmark and Daro that her sellers end up being really impressed with.

Because culture is so important to the firm, it selects new agents carefully, bringing on only a handful each year.

"Culture fit is the most important thing," Hamilton said.

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