What decisions and paths should the real estate industry be prioritizing? And how can you, whether managing a team or an entire company, bring those best lessons to bear where you work? In February, in advance of building an industry blueprint at Inman Disconnect, we’ll plumb the topic of leadership with Q&As with top industry leaders, contributions from esteemed Inman columnists and more.
In January, New York City-based brokerage Brown Harris Stevens celebrated its 150th anniversary as a company.
To put in context just how old the brokerage is, Central Park was completed the same year — 1873 — when Charles S. Brown founded the appraisal company that would eventually become BHS. To have that kind of longevity while staying relevant and evolving with the times, not to mention maintaining an independent status, is a feat.
Brown Harris Stevens CEO Bess Freedman agrees that the firm’s status and stamina in the industry is one of which to be proud.
“It’s really exciting to be a company that has been around for 150 years and has evolved and changed and grown and thrived,” Freedman told Inman in a wide-ranging interview last week. “Not a lot of companies can say that. [We’re] very, very proud of that.”
The CEO sat down with Inman this month to discuss what that anniversary means for the company, what’s happening in the market now and how technology continues to impact real estate agents in the field. Oh, and that little thing where Ryan Serhant tried to sell her his coaching for BHS agents following a separate scuffle the two had over whether real estate reality TV had any value in the industry. (Spoiler alert: Serhant said yes, Freedman said not really.)
Here’s what she had to say, edited for brevity and clarity.
Inman: What does it mean for an independent company to last for 150 years, particularly in real estate? The firm was in its earliest iteration when Central Park’s construction was being completed, which I think is incredible.
Bess Freedman: While BHS is definitely steeped in history and has an incredible track record and has stuck around and maintained a quality brand and great agents, that comes with a lot of innovation and creativity. So having new leadership and new teams and new people, I think it’s really meaningful for a real estate company to have that sort of heritage [and] legacy.
I always think about trust, which is the foundation of our business, and sort of stacking small moments over time. It’s like if you have a relationship and you build trust with that person each day — and when you break trust obviously you take a step back — but I think of BHS as having built those small moments over time for 150 years, and we have generations of agents.
We have people here who are father-daughter, father-son, that sort of thing. People know us, and I think that’s what it means in real estate, that we have this history of building trust, maintaining it, growing it, and people look at us and they say, ‘Wow, that’s a company that has done a lot, has grown, has changed and has been here for a long time.’
I hear some people poo-poo us and say, ‘You know, they’re old.’ And I always say, ‘Old school is the best school in my opinion,’ because we have experience, we’ve been around the block, we know how to do this. We’ve lived through wars. We’ve lived through changing skylines and technology and all sorts of challenges, and we’re here and will change with that. So I think that’s what’s the beauty of being with a heritage company that’s thriving in this environment.
Absolutely. And when you think about that long history of the firm, is there any one defining moment when you feel like BHS made its firm footprint on New York City and solidified its status in the industry?
In all candor, there’s not one defining moment. In fact, if you look at anyone successful, Steve Jobs or Lady Gaga or anyone who has been successful in any industry, there’s not a defining moment. Progress is all incremental. And it may look like, ‘Oh my god, I made it to Madison Square Garden!’ But all the steps leading up to that is what got you there.
So there’s not one moment, it’s doing the right thing every day, the little teeny things that have been the defining moments. I know we’re in this mindset where people want to see this sort of big boom and it just happened, but it doesn’t … Everything takes a lot of sweat and blood and time, and you’re giving it your all, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to do over time. We’ve stuck to what we care about which is quality culture, doing the right thing, being ethical, taking care of our agents.
We stick to that and we stick to real estate. We don’t try to do mortgages or title or sell couches and furniture — we stick to what we do, which is transact real estate at the highest level and taking care of people — that’s it.
Speaking of anniversaries, you’re coming up on your five-year anniversary as company CEO, correct?
Yes. I was appointed in 2018 and this is my five-year anniversary, which is crazy to me that it has been [that long]. I’ve been at the company for 10 years but five years as CEO, and so many things [have happened], including a merger with Halstead in 2020. It’s really mind-boggling.
That’s great. A lot of CEOs and other professionals have their five-year or 10-year plans. When you think about the last five years, do you feel like you’ve achieved all you wanted to? And what’s next for you in the next five years?
At BHS, I think we’ve achieved a lot of the things we planned on doing, and I want to be clear that it wasn’t me — it was me hiring the right people for things, because I only do certain things well. I know I need to get talent for tech, marketing and communication. So I will give myself credit for knowing to hire great talent — superstars — and assembling a great team that has given us a great platform and technology, great marketing and incredible communication.
I will say the one thing this company has really transformed is communication [between] our agents and our executives. We’re constantly in touch with them, letting them know what’s going on, making sure everybody feels like they’re being seen and heard, and I think that’s something we’ve been able to do really well.
We communicate whether it’s a holiday or something meaningful happens, like the Marriage Equality Act, when that got passed. We sent out things when the horrible tragedy of the murder of George Floyd [occurred].
We communicate with our agents — not being political, we are apolitical — but communicating with them when there’s pain in the air. Or when Roe v. Wade was overturned, we communicated and said, ‘We’re here, we see you,’ and not everybody’s going to agree, but we do share a feeling of warmth and let people know we’re here.
That has been a bit unique to us as a private company. As I like to say, I’m the last woman standing really for this sort of company. Agents tell me all the time, ‘Wow, that note you wrote for Mother’s Day,’ or ‘When you talked about how your dad died in a car accident,’ all that stuff. People connect with it and they feel a sense of humanity. When you can do that in a big company, it’s quite unusual.
We’re going to continue to do that and grow and add markets that make sense and continue to be who we are. And keep hiring good talent, because at some point, they should even replace me with somebody who’s ready to lead us to the next place. You want to always have new talent, new people, new ideas — you have to innovate.
I think that’s what the next five years are going to be — more innovation, more creativity but staying true to what matters to us, taking care of the agents and good culture.
Yes, that’s all very important. I also wanted to ask you about what’s happening in the New York City market right now — here at Inman we’ve seen some places continue to slow down and normalize, while others seem to be picking up a lot, to the point of crowded open houses and bidding wars. Where does New York fall on the spectrum?
I think we’re in a good place. It’s not what it was in the first half of 2022 or all of 2021. Volume has slowed down a bit, which is to be expected, but we’re still in a good place … We’re still seeing some big deals get done. Agents are really busy with offers and open houses, but it’s definitely a different sort of market. There’s ample inventory, which is good, unlike Palm Beach or Connecticut where inventory is stretched … So things are moving.
[Consumer confidence] is not horrible because rates have come down, inflation has come down, unemployment is the lowest it has been since 1969. So there is good news out there despite everyone waiting on edge [for a] recession. Nobody has proclaimed that yet and maybe that won’t even happen.
So the city is doing much better than expected, considering all the headwinds that we faced. We’re already a year into this war that Russia waged against Ukraine, gas prices have come down, inflation has come down, rates have come down from where they were over 7 percent. So people are more committed than ever to the homebuying process.
It’s great for our business. Technology is always going to evolve and get better. You’re going to be able to communicate quicker now that you have ChatGPT and all this stuff. But it will not replace [the agent]. It can help you to empower those relationships, but it won’t replace the personal touch of a person coming into your apartment that you trust, who talked to you about the fact that your mom passed away and you have to sell the apartment, and how to stage … There’s always going to be a human quality to what we do that real estate agents bring. That’s important and essential and I think that matters greatly today.
Definitely. And speaking of evolving technology, BHS recently launched a partnership with the Metaverse Institute. How often do you think BHS agents end up using crypto and Web3 in their business today, and do you think that usage will grow, despite the recent fallout of FTX?
I think blockchain, nobody can deny that’s the future. They’re going to get rid of the middleman and that’s going to be something people are going to have to embrace. Whether we like it or not, I think that’s here to stay. I think FTX was, Sam Bankman-Fried, was sort of like the Bernie Madoff of crypto.
There are plenty of credible crypto companies, like Coinbase, Galaxy, that are quality and people believe in them and are investing in them. I think bitcoin hit $24,000 a share, the highest it has been in a long time. So I think that’s a reality for people, but I do think there are growing pains.
As far as BHS goes in the metaverse, it will certainly take some time. All of that, the learning process, some people won’t accept it, some will. I think younger people are more apt to get involved, but it’s certainly different. We couldn’t imagine, 40 years ago, talking on the phone everywhere … I remember when my dad first got a phone and he carried it on his shoulder and was talking in the car. I was 11 or 12 and was like, ‘Wow, this is cool. My dad’s on the phone.’ And now, everybody’s head is in their screen. So whether you accept it or not, that’s where the world is moving.
Very true. So, I feel like I have to ask about this recent encounter between BHS and Ryan Serhant’s brokerage, SERHANT.
That is so funny. Everyone in media loves this story; they can’t get enough of it. Are you talking about the one where his person emailed us to train my agents?
Yes, that’s the one. Were you completely shocked by that?
Let me unpack it a little. It wasn’t like I got one email. He had been sending me many emails about, ‘Want to train your agents?’ So I kept thinking, ‘This is a mistake, whatever.’ And I kept ignoring it. Finally, I was like, ‘I gotta ask this guy, is he OK? Does he know what he’s doing?’ So I just asked him, ‘Do you realize what you’re asking me? To train my agents? We’re competitors. What are you …?’
So then the banter went back and forth, you know, ‘This is unorthodox, but he wants everybody to be fantastic.’ And obviously, I think it was a mistake on his part. So I just found it to be a bit ridiculous, which is why that famous line [emerged] which everybody thought was so funny, [when] I said, ‘There’s a fine line between being unorthodox and being a schmendrick.’ ‘Schmendrick’ is like a moron in Yiddish. Because it didn’t make any sense. Why would I?
It’s like me going to Corcoran and saying, ‘Hey Pam, are you cool with me training your agents on this stuff?’ She’d be like, ‘No way!’ She wouldn’t even let me into her office to talk to her agents. It’s a very competitive business. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to do business with you, Ryan, yes we do. But you have your methodology and we have ours, and we’ve invested in our training and marketing. So I think it was just a step too far; it was a bit ridiculous.
That’s like Satya Nadella going over to Tim Cook and saying, ‘Look, I want to train your people on Microsoft.’ What are we talking about? Apple wouldn’t be down with that. It doesn’t mean they’re not friends and they’re not happy to compete. I love competing with Ryan, but nobody’s doing that, come on. But moving on … The fact that he wants to train my agents? He should focus on his own company.
Good point. In closing, I’d like to ask what advice you might have for other agents and brokers out there as they prepare for the spring market.
I really believe in office culture. Go into the office — I think that is essential. Talk to your leadership, talk to your colleagues. Find out what’s going on. Spend some time with them. Get out there and see a lot of property — as much as you can. Be fluent with the inventory. Communicate often with your buyers and sellers. Pay attention to the details and be a professional. Call people back.
Punctuality is, I think, underestimated. People who are on time for an appointment, it shows that you’re a professional. I always say, if Oprah can be on time, you can be on time. So be on time, dress the part. I think doing all those things and being prepared is a recipe for success. Not just in real estate, but whatever field you’re in, show up as your best self.
I don’t think you do justice to yourself by sitting at home in your pajamas in front of a screen. Show up as a professional, be dressed. Talk to people, look them in the eye, shake their hand. That is so important. That should never get lost in the pandemic. Showing up in the office, to me, is paramount to anyone’s success in real estate.
Any other thoughts?
I’m just really excited as we enter 2023. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in this environment and it’s an exciting time for us as a company. We have a really great team on board, and I’m excited that it’s the 150th anniversary; we’ve come a long way and there’s a lot more for us to do.
It’s nice to be private in this world of these big public monsters. It’s nice to be ‘the little company that could,’ and focus 100 percent of our energy on our agents and nothing else — not shares, not this, not that, but taking care of agents day in and day out and clients. It’s a gift, and I’m glad we’re able to do it better than anybody else. And we’re going to continue to.