RE/MAX Gold Nation’s James O’Bryon on growing a top real estate brokerage
If you added up the impact that HousingWire’s Vanguard winners have had on the industry, you’d likely have a comprehensive list of the initiatives that have moved markets forward. These are the leaders who have dreamt, shaped and molded a better way to execute the home-buying journey. From injecting technology into the mortgage process to redefining the real estate agent and home shopper relationship, these leaders have laid the foundations for millions of homeowners. HousingWire sat down with three of these leaders: James O’Bryon, RE/MAX Gold Nation CEO, Cathleen Schreiner Gates, SimpleNexus CEO, and Phil Shoemaker, Homepoint president of originations, to learn more about the housing trends they’re closely watching, what they think will define 2022 and what they hope people remember them for when they retire.
Here is the interview with James O’Bryon, CEO at RE/MAX Gold Nation.
Brena Nath: First off, congrats on being named a 2021 Vanguard. Who would you want to thank for helping you get where you are today?
James O’Bryon: In that question, I would change one word, and that would be the “You” because really, there’s very little about me that allows me to win this award. It’s my partners. It’s the executives who lead this organization. It’s most obviously the 2,700 agents who are a part of the organization who perform at an extraordinary level consistently.
In everything we do, I can find a person who has done the heavy lifting, which I end up getting credit for, but I didn’t do it. So, the most obvious answer to the question would be, my partners, our leadership team, our incredible support group, the agents, it’s a community of 3,000 people. Because I’ve been in the industry as long as I have, I know what they do, and I know how challenging it is. I’ve done most of their jobs at one time or another. And I recognize that every single thing that each of them does, in its own way, is as challenging as what I do. And so, I get the collective credit for what it is that they’re all doing.
Brena Nath: What’s one accomplishment in your career that you’re really proud of?
James O’Bryon: This ties back to your first question. The thing that I’m most proud of is I have developed and kept relationships with people for decades. The relationships that I’ve been able to build and sustain are absolutely, above all else, what I’m most proud of.
And then secondary to that is the fact that those people have entrusted each other and entrusted me to build a vision, which has been consistent since its inception. So, the vision was to build the largest, most powerful, RE/MAX branded real estate organization in the world. And that vision was established in 1995, and it survived for 26 years. It survived, not by being the weight on my back, but also by being the weight on this collective back. Absolutely. The thing I’m most proud of would be those people that we talked about in question number one, combined with the fact that they were so indulgent with me when we first started talking about this concept when it seemed like it was crazy.
BN: How are you helping move markets forward?
JOJames O’Bryon: Historically, a brokerage in our industry was a single woman or a single man on an island attempting to drive a company. And historically, the amount of synergy it took to take different mind trusts and different perspectives and mesh them into something really extraordinary, it didn’t exist. I mean, it was this little company and a bunch of little fiefdoms out there trying to do their own thing. In terms of moving the industry forward, what we’ve managed to do is create a brain trust, which covers five states, and I’m anticipating will cover many more as the time goes by, with brilliant people who have different perspectives and come together to create this juggernaut presence. When we have meetings, we’ll come out of them smarter, stronger and more capable of driving this juggernaut than if we were trying to do it individually on our own.
I have the luxury of that with leaders across five states. The collective IQ becomes incredibly powerful because it’s not just me trying to figure out how to do stuff, or just me and our executive team trying to figure out how to do stuff. It’s their executive group and somebody else’s executive group. So, somebody will say, “Have we tried this?” And part of the leadership group will say, “I didn’t even know that existed what you’re talking about.” And then in some cases, we’ll try it, and it’ll be great. In other cases, we’ll try it, and it won’t be so great. But it moves the conversation forward because together, we’re so much smarter than we are individually.
BN: What are two trends in the mortgage and real estate industry that you’re closely watching?
James O’Bryon: One is just the overall global change that we’re seeing in a variety of different areas. So, the most obvious is the pandemic. There’s also, regardless of what one attributes them to, all of the natural disaster changes that we’re seeing. California right now has a 3-to-4-month fire season that it didn’t have 5 or 10 years ago.
So, the things that are global, that are largely beyond our control, and yet, we must accommodate. And usually, change that’s beyond our control is the most challenging and paralyzing because we figure that we can’t do anything about it. And in these instances, there’s very little we can do about a pandemic, and there’s very little we can do about the natural changes in the environment. There’s also is very little we can do about regulatory change, but we have to adjust and accommodate each of those things.
So, watching those things and how they impact our market and what needs to be done in the future, that’s probably for me number one, right now. Much of what else we do, we can control to some extent or another, but those previous things, we really can’t, so we need to figure out a way to accommodate. It’s kind of like a river. Sometimes the river can flow and break down rocks, but sometimes it’s got to go around rocks. So, those things are like the rocks, we’ve got to figure out a way for the river to go around.
Then the other thing is much more pragmatic than those. It’s the overall issue of housing affordability. I recognize each state is different and each region is different when it comes to housing affordability, but across most of our existing footprint, housing affordability has become a pretty compelling issue where many of those who otherwise would be able to buy homes just aren’t able to. And as a result, they become generational renters, and then pass it on to the next generation. So, working toward creating a system for the creation of affordable housing, that is something that I am definitely watching, and I think a lot of people in our industry are watching right now and to some extent.
BN: The past two years have been filled with a lot of uncertainty; what factors do you think will define 2022?
James O’Bryon: I think the year ahead is going to be a time of great healing. I think 2022 is going to be our opportunity to get some things right. And I think it’s going to be our opportunity for people to relearn social skills, social graces and the ability to get along with one another to coexist in the same space.
I do believe that people are going to, as soon as they possibly can, and feel safe about doing it, go back to being in each other’s presence. And we’ve seen that sporadically in other venues, like the restaurant business. It’s a feast or famine thing right now, where if the restaurants are open, they’re packed.
A lot of the things we’ve seen in the last year and a half, in terms of our industry and our environment, have been driven by a set of circumstances, which is extremely artificial. So, in 2022, I believe people will want to go back to social environments and they’ll want to be in group settings. They’ll tune more into what their true focus is and why they’re in the business.
So, without even speaking to all of those things that we cannot control, I think in the areas that we will be able to control if the pandemic relaxes enough that in 2022 people can return to some state of normalcy, it’s going to be a spectacular year. I am very much looking forward to it.
BN: After you’re finished with your career, what do you hope people remember you for?
James O’Bryon: I reduced it down to one thing, “He did the right thing.” Because in meetings for years, and the group that I directly work with, they all know these words. When we’re talking about a dilemma, or a crisis, or litigation challenge, or a client issue, or a vendor relationship, what we’ve consistently said over the years is, “Okay, what’s the right thing to do?” And then even if it costs us money, we do it. And that has worked so consistently, and it’s become so sustainable that I suspect that, you know, if we put something on my gravestone, I would want it to be, “He did the right thing.”
BN: To wrap, what’s one piece of advice you would give people in this industry?
James O’Bryon: No matter what your role in the industry is, whether you’re a real estate agent, real estate manager, a real estate executive, or in the horizontal part of our business, which is the brokerage business, or the vertical parts of our business, I think it’s very important to define what your role is going to be.
It’s important to define that for yourself, and then, share that with others. Then, do everything you can to commit yourself to that role and to act accordingly. And I’ve seen that work consistently over the years, and it is certainly what’s worked for us.
And what I see not working consistently over the years is where people define, then redefine, then redefine their roles and jump around to the extent that all they’re really ever doing is attempting to gain proficiency or expert status in a different environment or something new.
What I see in our mission and the definition of our mission is primarily to serve our agents in serving their clients.
And that’s how I would describe it. And as such, we have extraordinary agents who receive extraordinary reviews from their clients because their clients know why they’re in the business.
So, their clients don’t think, “I wonder if my agent is in the business for selfish or individualistic or ulterior motives,” they understand, “My agent has chosen to associate with RE/MAX Gold Nation to serve me.” So, there’s no lack of clarity as to what the objective of the agent is or what the objective of the organization is. So, my advice to anybody who plans on making a career of this, choose it, define it, share it, stick with it.
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