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Liz Gehringer has a lot to do.
Gehringer serves as the president of Coldwell Banker Affiliate Business, meaning she works with the company’s franchisees and as chief operating officer for Coldwell Banker Real Estate. She has held both roles for years now after initially starting at parent company Anywhere more than a decade and a half ago.
But of course, the current market is unlike any we’ve seen recently. Rates are up, prices are stalling and most real estate companies — including Anywhere — are grappling with what to do about slower sales and higher losses. And it’s against that backdrop that Gehringer is tasked with growing the company, rallying the troops and maintaining Coldwell Banker’s key spot in the pantheon of industry giants.
Inman recently asked Gehringer about how exactly she’s doing those things and what she thinks 2023 might look like. The takeaway from this conversation is that she has noticed her agents working harder than ever this year, and that luxury, international buyers and diversity are all potential growth opportunities for Coldwell Banker. And while Gehringer was reluctant to offer a specific forecast of the 2023 housing market, she was ultimately upbeat about the future.
What follows is a version of Inman’s conversation with Gehringer that has been edited for length and clarity.
Inman: I know you have some growth plans, so talk me through what’s going on in 2023. What’s on the agenda?
Gehringer: So a lot of the work I do is on franchise growth. In 2020, we launched a program for inclusive ownership, so for diverse owners. It’s a series of different things. It’s not just financial incentives, which do exist initially. But it’s really about putting together a whole entire first-year transition program where we’re teaching people in brokerage how to use Coldwell Banker.
The inclusive ownership program is attracting some smaller companies. In the past, Coldwell Banker would have affiliated with the biggest company in town and then there wouldn’t have been another Coldwell Banker for quite some distance.
But what we realized is that we could really bring on some smaller companies, but we needed to make sure we gave them love and care and attention. So we spend a full year with people so they don’t come in and not use the tools or not go to the events. We really onboard people with a lot of care.
Those companies that come in with the inclusive ownership program are among our fastest growing. That has been a really successful part of the growth plan. We’ve sold over 30 franchises in Coldwell Banker under that program. So that is a continued area of real opportunity for us.
Speaking of growth, thinking about either the number of franchises or the number of agents, how is this year going to play out? Are Coldwell Banker’s numbers going to be higher? Lower? Obviously, the market is having a harder time and there’s speculation people will leave the industry. How will that impact you?
It’s hard to know because we’re in this bigger macro environment. With real estate agents, there’s always a group of them who are part time or who are not as fully committed to the full-time career. So there’s always movement of agents in and out of the business.
I will say that you’re always chasing the productive agents. You’re always chasing the productive agents by units, or by volume — the people who are getting business done. That’s really where we focus and keep an eye out.
What’s your secret sauce when it comes to retaining agents? What do you do to make sure the most productive people want to stay with you?
It’s really two things. It’s deeply personal, and it’s personal business growth plans.
The deeply personal is the network to other agents across not just their office but across a bigger picture. It is through events and introducing people. There’s such a huge variety of events that we do. It’s bringing people together so that, say, they’re doing business in Texas and people are moving from California to Texas. So, it’s making sure they particularly know California agents who might be sending people to Texas.
That personal connection— that is a business connection for them.
The business growth plan is that they need to understand the migration trends, they need to have the expertise, they need to know who is on both sides of their likely transaction. And it’s showing them their growth path. In January, it’s getting them to focus on their full year. Productive people love to be goal oriented, and they also love to be coached. So we just focus on that as a big part of the culture.
I find that agents are really great about that. They really like to be held accountable. People who are in that category do like to drive toward a number and are productive against goals.
You mentioned the kind of network effect you have. I’m wondering how Coldwell Banker differentiates itself compared to other companies, like say an eXp Realty where agents are in these big hierarchies and teams, because the network effect is a big part of other companies’ pitch too. How does Coldwell Banker set itself apart?
We aim to provide really full service and to connect full-service agents to other full-service agents and customers craving that deep level of, ‘I’m looking in that market. These are the amenities I’m looking for. This is the community I want.’
These full-service agents have really deep expertise. They have the time to spend. They’re deeply connected to their communities. They know what homes are coming available.
I don’t spend time comparing the models. I focus on the success of our model and I see what really works for our customers. And they are looking for a more educated level of expertise all the time.
Let me pivot a little bit. What does the international buyer scene look like right now? How will it shape up this year?
We did a survey of 1,200 high-end consumers over $1 million in net worth and looking to spend over $1 million on a home in the U.S. What we saw was you get a huge percentage of people who think it’s a safe time, or a good time, to buy in the U.S.
That is of comfort to us. People were looking for different reasons. That is the investor mindset. The U.S. is viewed as safe for real estate investment because it stands over the course of time.
Some of the international investors are looking for generational wealth. There’s also the idea of renting out the home. If you’re buying your fourth or fifth home, you’re not likely to spend time in all of them, so there’s definitely a lot of investment property and renting out of homes.
There were segments too that became interested because of work and business in the U.S.
People seeing certain markets on television was also driving a lot of interest, which I find super fascinating. So, 34 percent of people identified American television series as a reason to want to invest. Because these are people who want to invest anywhere, and some of our television shows this luxury lifestyle that could be of real interest to people.
There were also issues like safety, security and privacy.
But it differed depending on where people were coming from. We saw people from France say that they were interested in Aspen. They come from a skiing place and want to go to a skiing place. People from Costa Rica were interested in waterfronts and views and Miami. We saw interest from Mexico and Spain in New York City. We saw interest from Argentina in Chicago for its architectural elements.
It was really different based on where people were coming from. And it goes back to having that insight into your buyer and why they want to be where you are and why the buyer is interested in their market.
Do you have a sense of how interest from international buyers compares to before the pandemic?
I think we’ve always had international buyer interest. I think what has changed is there’s more of this category of the ultrarich. Wealth is growing across the world. And so there’s more of this interest in multiple homes.
There’s more interest among younger buyers, like millennials, in diversifying their portfolio and buying homes for rentals. So like the Airbnb concept.
Our role is to remember that people, they have real needs to move for work or family reasons. But also they can just move. And I think COVID really opened our minds to that. There’s so much more dreaming and moving.
Let’s talk about domestic luxury real estate. What are you hearing from your luxury agents?
I think our luxury agents are working more carefully and more closely with sellers and buyers. I think that is the reality. I think there’s just harder work to do.
I talk to our luxury agents across the country and my sense was that they’re worriers anyway. They believe they will never sell a house again in the moment, and then they’re fantastically successful because they’re driven people.
A lot of that is through hard work and relationships. We’re working with agents every day to get their piece of the luxury market. There is plenty of opportunity, there is plenty of the luxury market. And so we’re working with our agents and customers to focus on share and not just on the bigger volume picture or the bigger price picture.
We surveyed our global luxury property specialists about their expectations for the year, and they felt that prices would essentially be flat in 2023 or maybe slightly up over 2022. And they’re pretty close to the business. So that’s what I’m looking at and it’s still early in the year.
When you talk to agents generally across the brand, not just in luxury, what kind of mood are you picking up? Are people nervous, upbeat, somewhere in the middle?
I think they’re working. It’s interesting, I was talking to someone in the Carolinas, near Greenville, who was checking homebuilder permits. So they were paying super close attention to what the builders are doing, where the builders are heading, where the market is going to be strong.
So people are paying attention to things like that: Where the builders are going, where permits are being applied, even where city planning is heading.
The good agents are doing that. They’re working. These are hard-working people. The only impression I have of agents is that. I get to see them being extremely skilled with customers, but I also get to see the incredible hard work behind the scenes. They do a significant amount of business planning, they are spending a lot of time building up their business on social. And there’s also the return to traditional hard work.
Real estate is fascinating in that if you work at it and put some opportunity in front of people you can create it. The business isn’t happening to you and I think our agents understand that. You are making it happen, and I’ve seen that happen time and time again.
So I think they’re out there working.
The idea of checking building permits is a cool tactic. Are you hearing about any other tips or tricks or hacks from your agents?
It’s interesting. They’ll know school enrollments. They’ll know country club membership applications. They’re deep in community-level activity. They also know contractors, so they know who is working on their house, who is getting ready to sell.
There is a part of the business that is resulting in data. And then there’s the whole forward part of the business where you’re not just working your sphere, you’re working all the information that’s available in your community.
Correction: Thirty-four percent of Coldwell Banker’s respondents cited TV as an inspiration for investing. And respondents from Argentina expressed interest in Chicago. This post originally quoted Gehringer as providing slightly different information, but Coldwell Banker reached out after publication to provide updates.