It’s Tuesday morning. Real estate agent Michael Friedman is wearing a tie, nice slacks and monk strap shoes, polished so their rich umber brown shines golden.
This morning, he’s bantering light-heartedly with two of his well-dressed agent colleagues at The Grubb Co., Ed Kuo and Dana Cohen, as the glowing San Francisco Bay Area light pours in behind them from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind their desks in the company’s offices in Oakland’s upscale Montclair neighborhood.
The trio’s upbeat vibe and private banker-style epitomize this old-school, 47-year-old brokerage, which dominates its East San Francisco Bay market of Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont.
Its 2014 sales volume of $925 million on 781 transactions represented 13.8 percent of the market covered by its local MLS (East Bay Regional Data) — more than any other member firm (the next firm came in at 10.1 percent, according to EBRD). EBRD covers most of the East Bay market.
The 65-agent brokerage’s success starts at the top.
Earlier in the day, the firm’s president and co-owner, D.J. Grubb, held court in his office, a floor below. He’s here every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and, as he put it, “runs to work.” He bought the company 25 years ago from his father, Donald Grubb, who founded it in 1967.
“I’m on f—ing fire,” Grubb, 60, said of his verve for work, leaning back slightly in his desk chair, gold tie slightly askew.
New-fangled real estate brokerage business models are cropping up like weeds in a deserted rainy lot, but Grubb’s story reminds us that, perhaps more important than model, passion and smarts determine brokerage success, especially independent brokerages. Tami Pardee of Los Angeles’ Pardee Properties and Carol and Amy Bayer of Denver’s PorchLight Real Estate Group also teach us this.
These thriving independent firms share some of the characteristics driving the industry’s independent brokerage boom: passionate, smart leaders, strong attention to brand, careful attention to service and lots of staff support.
The Grubb Co. has 15 full-time staff members who support the firm’s 65 agents with marketing, IT and other services, giving the firm a staff-to-agent ratio of nearly four to one.
This helps agents focus on servicing clients. Agents work with a traditional commission split.
Grubb expects his firm will close 1,000 sides this year, with business split equally between buyers and sellers. That will be an average of more than 15 deals per agent.
Given the area’s insanely high sales prices, that’s serious income for agents and the firm.
Agent turnover is extremely low, Grubb said. It is for staff, too. The Clairmont office manager, Mario Palestini, has been there for 15 years.
Agents at the firm’s two offices have their own desks — complete with computer and phone — and Grubb expects them to be there. Every Tuesday the firm holds a mandatory company-wide, one-hour-long sales meeting at 9 a.m.
“Accountability is huge,” Grubb said, describing his management style as high-touch and disciplined.
“The brand is the company, not the agent,” Grubb said.
Agents’ business cards all have the same style — agent in black and white, faded into the background.
“Nothing casual about it”
The firm presents a white-glove image.
Fifteen years ago, Grubb took a cue from The Wall Street Journal, which used line drawings to represent its reporters.
The firm uses line drawings exclusively for all the listings it markets in area print publications.
This style pervades the company.
“The brand is the company, not the agent.” – D.J. Grubb, president and co-owner, The Grubb Co.
On a walkthrough of the firm’s upstair office space, we passed the firm’s head of IT, who, Grubb proudly pointed out, sported a tie.
Despite the first-glance impression, the vibe at the brokerage is anything but staid.
Low tech, high touch
Like leaders of other thriving independent brokerages, Grubb’s passion and attention to detail bleed throughout his company.
As we spoke in his office, an assistant came in to ask Grubb to approve the marketing spend for ads in a San Francisco business journal. “I handle everything,” Grubb said.
The Grubb Co. doesn’t supply a full suite of technology to agents. They choose, and pay for, their own customer relationship management platforms (if they have one), for example.
The firm does use the digital transaction management platform SkySlope and digital signature technology DocuSign, but paper is part of the firm’s process.
Grubb himself digs into every contract in paper form before entering it into the digital system.
His desk showcases his affinity for the focus that paper brings him. A trifecta spreads before him: calendar, legal pad and paper contracts.
Grubb’s also on the front lines.
The night before, he said, he received a $1.4 million lead at 10:40 p.m. through the firm’s website. He called back within seven minutes and directed the person to an agent and had them reach out.
Grubb’s passion is evident throughout the firm.
The company spends “a tremendous amount of money” on marketing, but Grubb also enmeshes himself in the upper echelons of the Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont society by serving on boards and donating to local organizations, such as schools and the symphony.
The Grubb Co.’s revamping its website to be more mobile-friendly and video- and photo-centric.
It’s part of a strategy to capture the up-and-coming millennial buyers, the firm’s biggest challenge at the moment, he said.
“Luxury doesn’t sell to millennials, but story does,” Grubb said. “It’s a visual market.”
Not resting on legacy
“We can’t rely on tradition,” Grubb said. “We’re maintaining culture, with an eye on the future.”
Grubb’s daughter is not in the business.
We asked if she would be.
“Not yet,” he said. “She needs to enjoy her career — get her sea legs — work for a tough mean boss — appreciate her dad and legacy.”