Brokerage

Vanessa Bergmark and Kevin Hamilton on taking the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach to recruiting

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Vanessa Bergmark and Kevin Hamilton are partners at Red Oak Realty.

What sets your brokerage apart? What makes you different from your competition?

If you take a look at the most innovative independent brokers in the U.S., most of them opened within the past five years. Red Oak is unique in that the company was founded 40 years ago, yet was able to transform itself into a more progressive brokerage.

We became the owners of Red Oak Realty in 2009. Our goal was to completely rethink the “traditional” brokerage model, and as a result the company operates like a startup.

If you’ve met either one of us, you’ll see why the company is so different. Vanessa is outspoken and smart as a whip — she is a frequent presenter at Inman and the National Association of Realtors’ conferences.

Kevin is hyperfocused on maintaining a strong and stable foundation for the business, but may be the only real estate CFO with an arm full of tattoos. Neither of us wants to simply grow and flip the company; we want to build something remarkable.

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Since we took over, we have made the company completely paperless, hired a director of marketing (rare for a company of our size), rethought every corner of their business, and as a result we have seen a remarkable growth in the company’s share of market. Red Oak has also been named a “Beta Broker.”

When we rebranded the company in 2011, we took a hard look at their current brand equity and how we compare to the competition. We crystallized their vision with a brand “mantra”: An Authentic Passion for Real Estate.

The key word in that phrase is “authentic.” We don’t believe in B.S. marketing; we believe in truly loving our work, and truly helping clients and agents where they need it most. The mantra also guides the company’s voice to be authentic and honest, and encourages marketing to take a quality-over-quantity approach.

Red Oak's office space.

Red Oak’s Montclair office space.

What would you say are the biggest advantages to operating as an independent brokerage versus as a franchised firm? What are the biggest challenges? Why do you stay independent when there are so many great franchises to join?

Red Oak Realty focuses exclusively on the East Bay. With cities like Berkeley and Oakland in our purview, we tend to work with independent-minded clients. And since Red Oak has been an independent brokerage since 1976, not associating with a franchise is true to the company’s culture.

Franchises offer a global footprint, but in many ways this feature does not actually benefit most clients. Just because a brand is known in other places does not mean a client’s home will be seen in those other places. Red Oak has carefully crafted its presentations to explain the factors that actually get a listing sold, and in reality, a global footprint rarely provides a tangible benefit.

Franchises offer great marketing platforms, but in many cases we believe our team can do a better job building better products on its own. This gives them control to customize their services for their unique clientele and agent needs. Generic services look generic, and that’s not what Red Oak is.

What was the easiest part of getting your brokerage off the ground?

Just like any good startup, Red Oak was launched from a garage. That was back in 1976 — almost 40 years ago. (The entire deal was probably negotiated in a hot tub, but that’s speculative.) The four founders were independent-minded guys who wanted to make a dent in the sleepy Berkeley real estate market. We like to think we’ve achieved their goal.

What’s your approximate agent-to-staff ratio?

Red Oak has 80 agents and 12 staff, so that’s a 1-6 ratio. That’s a large staff for a relatively small company.

This strategy allows agents to focus on what they do best: buying and selling real estate. It also lets the company control factors that greatly affect a company’s longevity, like marketing and compliance.

Are you part of an independent brokerage network?

Red Oak is a member of two networks: Leverage Global Partners and Who’s Who in Luxury Real Estate.

What’s the quirkiest thing about your firm?

It’s a little unfortunate that this could be considered “quirky,” but one pronounced aspect of the brokerage is the fact that agents and staff genuinely enjoy working together. The offices are not segregated spaces where agents need to guard their secrets; it’s a truly collaborative environment with constant crosstalk and input.

Admittedly, it’s a culture that doesn’t work for everyone, but the lack of drama allows people to shares ideas and information openly and focus more on helping clients. It also makes parties a lot more fun.

Describe your office. Where is it located? What does it look like? What kind of floor plan do you use? How many agents and offices do you have?

There are two Red Oak offices: 6450 Moraga in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland, and 1891 Solano on a commercial street in Berkeley. Both were completely revamped in the past two years. With the help of an interior designer, they were laid out to encourage collaboration.

The spaces are open and are focused on a long common table. Agents share desks, have no “offices,” and have no office phones. Instead, people are welcome — and often prefer to — sit at any number of seats. If they need privacy on the phone, they can duck into a “phone booth.” You’ll also find unique touches, like a living wall in Montclair, and restaurant-style booths in Berkeley.

See photos of the Montclair office here and see a virtual tour here; see photos of the Berkeley office here.

Red Oak's Solano office space.

Red Oak’s Solano office space.

How do you recruit new agents?

Recruiting is an organic process. We take the “Field of Dreams” approach: “Build it and they will come.” Red Oak finds recruits by either meeting agents at events and discovering they’re a good fit, or having our agents do the initial recruiting for them (no incentives required).

The goal is to hire agents when they find one we like. That may sound insane to most brokers, but we want to carefully nurture the company culture. Agents generally like spending time together, and a “bad apple” or two can spoil things for everyone else.

We generally like to hire experienced agents, but we have recently launched a mentor program run by an experienced agent that allows them to train and grow newer agents who show drive, smarts and potential.

Where and how do you market your brokerage? Are you active on social media? Which channels?

On an ongoing basis, Red Oak uses traditional marketing vehicles like bus benches. We also promote listings on Zillow, Trulia and display ads in the local newspaper. But that’s not where we stop.

Last year, Red Oak created an award-winning commercial that ran in San Francisco movie theaters (Inman covered it). And this year, we’re running a series of unusual print ads in San Francisco Magazine.

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We are very active on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. We work with a freelancer who focuses exclusively on this medium.

We are also experimenting with native advertising (i.e., sponsored content) on important local websites.

Describe your brokerage’s digital presence. Do you have a website? What publishing platform do you use?

Red Oak designed and built www.redoakrealty.com from scratch. Since its launch, website traffic has increased 30 percent in the past year alone, and sales generated from the site have increased 300 percent.

We work with a freelance developer to build new modules and maintain the site. To make the property search work as well as possible, we custom-generated 400 neighborhood shapes in the East Bay. The site geotags each listing and allocates them to the appropriate neighborhood automatically, and since we were the first to adopt a RETS XML feed in the area, this is done several times a day.

The 50 most popular neighborhoods and cities are highlighted on the site’s Neighborhood Explorer, which won an award for Most Innovative Marketing Technique in 2013. There you’ll see over 20 custom neighborhood videos which are shot in a way that gives a feel for each area (see them here on YouTube).

Last year, Red Oak built responsive single property websites for each one of its listings (example here). Recently, we launched a responsive version of our website for mobile devices, and we are planning on more major updates in 2015.

Do you have office parties? What are they like?

With such a close-knit group of staff and agents, Red Oak’s parties tend to be pretty fun — and wild. Last year’s holiday party was held at a gorgeous new restaurant, Penrose. (They were posted on Facebook under #roholiday2014.)

Additionally, each summer, Red Oak throws a luxurious party for its top producers. Last year we held a spa day at Solage Calistoga. This year’s event location is top secret ☺

What’s the biggest business improvement you made last year? What’s the biggest improvement you have planned for this year?

Last year, Red Oak gutted and remodeled the Berkeley office. We also launched their commercial to San Francisco.

Over the past four years we have completely revamped almost every corner of our business, from branding to intranet, from agent training to staffing. In 2015, we have decided to give their agents a little rest — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, we are planning on launching our San Francisco Magazine ad campaign and rebuilding key sections of the website. Sorry we can’t be more specific, but again, it’s a surprise. ☺


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