Latter & Blum has been around for more than a century, but in her first year as CEO, Lacey Merrick Conway has already made a major splash. Earlier this week, her Louisiana-founded brokerage acquired Gardner Realtors, its top rival in the Gulf South, which could catapult Latter & Blum into the top 20 in transactions in the U.S.
Conway took the reins of the family-run company in January from her father, Bob Merrick, who had run the company since 1986. Conway, who started with the firm in 2005, sat down with Inman to discuss an unusual first year at the helm.
You’ve been with the company for a long time and it’s a family-owned and run company, but it’s your first year as CEO. Is this how you envisioned your first year at the helm?
It has been so fast-paced, but I can tell you, I feel like I’ve been prepared for it. I don’t think anybody could have predicted COVID-19 and everything else we’ve faced.
Even this year, our region was in that cone of uncertainty for hurricanes like seven times. It’s been a lot to digest. Looking back at this point, I’m happy. Bringing these companies together has been maybe the best-case scenario for this year.
And looking back at the first year, outside of COVID-19 and other macro uncertainties, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
One of the biggest initiatives stepping into this that I say I’d really like to see though is, in the past we have operated Latter & Blum as a house of brands. We have acquired many companies and markets throughout Louisiana and one of the things that we did in January was, we basically just branded the house, got rid of going by a different name in every market. We have always operated commercially across the state as NAI Latter & Blum.
Part of the mission was to get everybody on the same page looking in the same direction, eliminating a lot of that, multiple websites, multiple marketing materials, almost confusing the public. Just making it clear what our mission was, where we operated, how we do business and who we are.
How do you ensure that, when you take over the leadership of a company with a rich history and culture that you honor that history, but also sort of put your own leadership stamp on it?
I think I’ve been very lucky that my father is here, we share an office, he’s about a foot away from me at all times. It’s been a long runway to help that leadership change. But there is that challenge of stepping into that long shadow of an adored leader who everybody loves and everyone is like, ‘Oh my god, here’s the next generation, what’s happening.’
Even with this latest acquisition, this is a similar company with a long history, an adored leader, a family, a woman who started it, it’s been family-run since. How to gently honor that history and keep the culture.
We have so many loyal employees, agents, those that are in leadership. We have always believed in having good managers and lots of support. We really stay true to that, to our core as a company, what do we stand for. Not just saying that but showing that.
But it’s an interesting situation given all of the changes in the real estate world. I think maybe it’s helped us get with the program, really step it up and come out of that old-school era having the new leadership but also having the old, wise counsel around.
How hard is it to mesh cultures after an acquisition like Gardner Realtors? I know you said the two companies share a lot, but you’re also integrating a company that you were once competing with and your agents were once competing with for listings and clients.
One of the really beautiful things about this coming together of the companies is that the cultures are so similar that it’s like blinking. One of the reassuring factors is that Chip and Crystal, who are the Gardner family, will continue on with Latter & Blum, so in a way, it’s the best-case scenario. We are taking two icons in the community and they will both in essence live on as one.
Has the pandemic and associated headwinds made it tougher for indie brokerages to compete with some of the biggest or more well-funded real estate brokerages? Or do you not really see that in your market?
We have been lucky that we don’t have Compass in our market. Redfin is kind of in our market but not fully. We haven’t had to face some of the venture capital-funded companies or companies that are essentially paying for agents. That has not been something that we have to deal with. Competition is always out there and always changing, names you know, ones you don’t, but we’ve really stayed focused on our market place and just keeping the stability and commitment to the markets we’re in.
And not just talking about these other brokerages, but some of the disruption the industry faces like the commission lawsuit or changes to commission structure and disruptive real estate tech companies. Does this acquisition provide protection against those types of things, just further entrenching yourself as the top brokerage in your market?
I like to say it does. I think we have such a solid company and a company that our agents and customers who work with us can be very proud of and trust. It’s an ongoing conversation with our agents as far as, what value we’re bringing to them and our consumers.
Running a brokerage today is just so much different than it was 5, 10, 15 years ago. Everybody has to get sharper.