Inman is profiling independent brokers. Here’s Pat Kelly of The Whistler Real Estate Company Ltd.
Why do you stay independent when there are so many great franchises to join?
There is no single factor that motivates us to remain independent, but some of our reasons are that we have a very strong brand presence in our marketplace and have had for over 30 years.
We very successfully compete head to head with a number of franchise operations yet we remain the No. 1 real estate company in our market year over year in terms of both number of sales and the total dollar volume of those sales.
Additionally, we don’t feel that any of the franchise operations can offer us anything that we don’t already have.
We are a specialty, boutique company and we would prefer to use our budget on local marketing as opposed to paying franchise fees to promote a national brand.
We have found that many franchise agreements can be overly restrictive and/or designed to fit the interests of the franchisor rather than the franchisee. Up to this point, no franchise has been able to clearly quantify the advantages of joining them.
When did you decide to launch your independent brokerage and why?
The Whistler Real Estate Company Ltd. was founded as MacGregor Pacific Realty in a trailer in Whistler Creekside in 1978. In 1980 the company became one of the original businesses in Whistler Village.
The name was changed to The Whistler Real Estate Company Ltd. in 1988. The company continues to grow its operations and added a second office in Pemberton in 1998.
When the company was originally started, Whistler was not the world-class tourist destination that it is today. As a very small town, there was a need for a full-service office to handle real estate services, and there was no competition.
What factored into that decision?
I am not the original owner so I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that the opportunity existed. There was a need for real estate services and no one else was filling it. Interest in the area was growing rapidly as more people discovered Whistler and wanted to make it their home or vacation retreat.
Why did you think it was the right time and the right move for you?
The long-term vision for the community was very exciting and it represented an opportunity to play an integral role in Whistler’s development.
How old is your brokerage?
Calculating since its first days we are 37 years old. However, we have existed under our current name, The Whistler Real Estate Company Ltd., for 27 years.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting your brokerage off the ground?
Hiring good salespeople who were as committed to the community as the founders were and getting our message out.
What was the easiest part of getting your brokerage off the ground?
There was not a lot of competition. In our early days, there was only one other firm. We started from about the same place and were able to establish a significant market share quickly.
What’s your approximate agent-to-staff ratio?
We currently have 35 real estate agents, 16 real estate assistants, seven admin staff and three managers (including myself).
Are you part of an independent brokerage network?
We are affiliated with Leading Real Estate Companies of the World and through them Luxury Portfolio. We are also affiliated with the Aventure Realty Network.
What’s the quirkiest thing about your firm?
Quirky? As in strange or different than others? We have a very infamous Christmas party, and we are all very dedicated to the lifestyle our community offers.
We sell aspirational real estate that has elements of luxury, residential and commercial real estate. We also sell benefits rather than features. We are very involved in our community as compared to our competitors.
Describe your office. Where is it located? What does it look like?
We are located in the heart of the village in Whistler, British Columbia. You can find us across the street from the Whistler Public Library and surrounded by some of the town’s finest restaurants and shopping. We are right in the heart of the town.
Our new office is pure Whistler — luxurious and modern with hints of our rustic, outdoor lifestyle. Our workspaces are flooded with natural light and offer a kitchen area and an outdoor patio where agents can work or meet with clients.
What kind of floor plan do you use?
Our office is designed with a semi-open plan concept. In the workspaces, we have several private offices around the outside of the space and our “bullpen” is in the middle.
Each agent has their own private workplace with low-walled cubicles for privacy. The low walls allow lots of natural light to pour in through floor-to-ceiling windows and also provide clean sightlines from one end of the space to the other in order to enhance the feeling of openness.
How many agents and offices do you have?
We have 35 agents in total. Four of our agents are specialists in the Pemberton area and they are based out of our office located in downtown Pemberton, a 20-minute drive north of Whistler. The rest of our agents are based out of our Whistler office.
Of course, we have desks available in both offices so that our agents can choose to work from whichever office location is most convenient to them on a given day.
How do you recruit new agents?
We usually recruit new agents through personal contact. We live in a small service-industry town, so chances are that anyone looking to join our team already knows at least one of our agents or staff members. This word of mouth and recommendation has proven highly beneficial for us.
In addition, our position as the No. 1 company in town is a great recruiting tool that often makes us the first choice for agents looking to move from one of the other agencies.
Where and how do you market your brokerage?
We have found that our marketing is most effectively done in-resort. The majority of our clients come from the lower mainland and Washington state. We have found that they usually don’t think of buying real estate in Whistler until they are experiencing it.
You can find our marketing/advertising in the local newspapers and magazines, as well as an online presence. We also have signage at the local arena and at one of the local grocery stores.
We advertise in many event programs (such as the Whistler Film Festival) and tourism/community guides.
We produce our own real estate magazine four times a year (two full magazine editions and two smaller guide editions) that can be found on stands throughout town and gives us an opportunity for distribution in select neighborhoods in the metro Vancouver area.
Do you have office parties? What are they like?
We have one or two large organized parties each year. We always have a big Christmas party at a local restaurant, and we often have a family summer BBQ.
In addition, we have many informal social events and gatherings. Our Christmas party is famous amongst the real estate agents in our town. It begins with cocktail hour followed by a small awards ceremony and an amazing meal at one of the many fabulous restaurants in town.
Dinner is followed by whatever activities the social committee has organized, including dancing, live music, gambling tables, etc. Let’s just say that there are no cameras allowed after dinner.
Describe your brokerage’s digital presence.
We maintain three websites — whistlerrealestate.ca is our main site, but we also have a dedicated Pemberton website and a dedicated luxury website (for properties listed at over $2 million).
We are also in the process of overhauling all three websites to move to a more modern and mobile-friendly platform. You can find us on social media across multiple platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and Google Plus.
What would you say are the biggest advantages to operating as an independent brokerage versus as a franchised firm? What are the biggest challenges?
We are flexible and quick to react to new ideas. We can easily adapt our marketing messages and refer business where we want.
We are able to position ourselves as the anti-franchise — a truly local company with deep and committed roots in and to the community. We don’t need to conform to franchisor rules and regulations.
The biggest challenge we face is creating consistent referral channels.
What sets your brokerage apart? What makes you different from your competition?
Our market share is twice as large as our nearest competitor. We have the best and most experienced admin/management team in town and we are leaders in adopting new technologies.
We have a very strong history of community involvement and over 500 years of combined real estate experience in our marketplace.
We offer the best office facility and the most complete marketing presence in addition to tremendous name recognition. Finally, seven of the top 10 real estate agents in town work in our office.
What’s the biggest business improvement you made last year? What’s the biggest improvement you have planned for this year?
In 2013/2014 we purchased, fully renovated and moved into our brand-new office location. We have now been operating out of our new location for just over a year. In 2015 we are overhauling our website, refreshing all of our branding, and changing our phone system to a VoIP system.
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