Stephen Baird, president and CEO of Baird & Warner Real Estate, which claims to be the oldest real estate brokerage in the U.S., hopes he can pass the firm on to the sixth Baird generation.

Whether Baird’s daughter, Abigail, 30, or his nephew, Wyllys, late 30s, end up succeeding him at the helm of the Chicago-based firm when he’s ready to go will depend on their competence, not just their blood. Baird, 62, took over the firm from his father, John, in the early ’90s at around age 40.

Stephen Baird (right) and his father John.

Stephen Baird (right) and his father John.

In its 160 years, Baird & Warner has grown to more than 1,800 agents and one of the largest independent firms in the nation. And the firm has accomplished those goals by doing much more than merely prioritizing capability above nepotism.

The other secret to success? The firm has “always looking forward” baked into its DNA, Baird said.

Because of that eyes-on-the-horizon stance, the firm has looked different from one generation to the next, Baird said.

For example, the firm’s newly remodeled headquarters follows a trend among brokerage office design: an open floor plan with collaborative workspaces and flat screens everywhere.

Last year, the firm retooled its website by simplifying its design and enhancing its focus on neighborhoods with in-house videos, professional write-ups, and neighborhood info and ratings powered by StreetAdvisor.

A focus on company culture is another key to the firm’s hardy lifeblood, Baird said.

Based on a survey of employees at firms throughout Chicago, the Chicago Tribune rated Baird & Warner the top Chicago workplace with 1,000 or more employees in 2014, he pointed out. It ranked No. 1 in 2012 and No. 3 in 2013.

The firm supports and listens to its people, but it also gives them the freedom and space to fail, Baird said. That latter trait helps the firm push the envelop and stay on the cutting edge of innovation, he said.

For example, the firm polled its agents on what would make their lives easier. As a result, Baird & Warner agents were early users of the digital transaction management platform Cartavi, which is now known as DocuSign Transaction Rooms, Baird said.

Acknowledging that it sounds trite, Baird said the firm also maintains a strong moral compass with an allegiance to “doing the right thing” that keeps its integrity, and culture, intact.

Abigail Baird

Abigail Baird

It’s still up in the air whether Abigail or Wyllys — or a non-Baird, if one of them doesn’t measure up — will become the firm’s sixth leader.

Abigail and Wyllys, who are both working on special projects at the firm, shouldn’t start plotting yet, though. Baird said he has a few more years left. In fact, he has approximately three decades to go if he measures up to his forbears, who worked into their 90s.

Email Paul Hagey.

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