Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 11, 2019

Moving on: A decision that’s never easy

Real estate team weighs loyalty against what’s best for them

Michael, Sherry and Doug Lawrence

Some days are like any other. They proceed from dawn to dusk and end without distinction. Other days redefine lives. The members of the Lawrence family have just had a day that has irrevocably changed their bearing.

It’s 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 2, and Doug, Sherry, and Michael Lawrence are taking a moment to let what they have done sink in. Doug, the father and a veteran of the corporate world, looks as calm as quiet waters; he’s been through a thing or two in his day, and he’s handled rougher seas.

So has Sherry, the mother, but she looks tense. She’s trying to relax with her husband and son, but there’s a lot to do, and she wants to get to it.

Michael, the son, mirrors his father’s demeanor as he sits calmly between his parents at a small, round table in the kitchen at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices J Douglas Properties.

Together, these three Realtors form the heart of The Lawrence Team, which, until 11 a.m., was operating out of the Signal Mountain office of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Realty Center.

Doug and Sherry had been with Realty Center, owned by Ben and Karen Kelly, since 2003. Michael joined his parents in 2014.

But as they take a moment to breathe, their new reality dawns on them: months of analysis, debate and planning are over, and they are in their new professional home.

A late-morning phone call from Doug to Byron Kelly, president of Realty Center, got the ball rolling. “Will it be a good meeting?” Byron asked after Doug said he wanted to meet.

Doug said no.

As Doug tells this part of the story, his voice drops. “The meeting with Byron was emotional. Working for the same people for 15 years creates strong bonds,” he says. “The Kellys are a wonderful family, and they’ve been good to us, but it was time for us to move on.”

Breaking up was hard to do, and in his efforts to cushion the blow, Doug gave Byron a version of the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” speech. But no matter how soft his words, Doug could not sand off the jagged edges of what he was really saying: “We believe J Douglas Properties can do things for us and our clients no other brokerage can.”

This notion began to percolate at the start of 2018. Doug and Sherry had already come to the realization that their years as spearheads of The Lawrence Team were numbered, and that it was time for them to begin forming a group that would be able to grab the baton and keep running when they were ready to slow down.

“Doug and I love this business, but we can’t do it forever, and we’d love for our family to carry it forward,” Sherry says.

Part of that transition would involve moving to a new brokerage sooner rather than later. “We had grown as much as we were going to grow at Realty Center,” Doug says. “If you’re not being fed, then you’ll shrink and eventually die.”

Doug, Sherry and Michael covertly evaluated several real estate companies in the Chattanooga area. Their criteria included a centralized location for meeting with clients, technology that would boost their listings to greater visibility, and training that would teach their agents how to grow their businesses.

One company quickly rose to the top of the stack: J Douglas Properties.

Owned and operated by George, Grace and Doug Edrington, founders of The Edrington Team during their years at Realty Center, J Douglas Properties had emerged in 2018 when the Edringtons left Realty Center and launched a competing Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices franchise in Chattanooga.

Doug, Sherry and Michael had seen The Edrington Team’s considerable growth at Realty Center and been impressed. In discussions with his parents, Michael touted Doug Edrington’s coaching and training, which had worked wonders at Realty Center and was now empowering a growing stable of agents at J Douglas Properties.

“Doug [Edrington] speaks with such clarity and vision, it was easy for me to see how he’s built the success he’s had,” Michael says. “I thought, ‘If we’re going to develop a team and position ourselves for the future, we need to listen to what he has to say and learn how he runs his business.”

Doug’s years in the corporate world had taught him the value of due diligence, so he considered his son’s proposal with a dose of skepticism. But the more he weighed J Douglas Properties against other companies, the more he was convinced it would the right home for The Lawrence Team.

“We had seen how they developed people, and we had seen their numbers,” he says. “And I thought, ‘This is not a fluke; these people know what they’re doing.’”

Although Doug was nearly convinced, Sherry resisted the change. In addition to feeling loyal to the Kelly family, she likes consistency and is happiest when things are running smoothly. She knew a move would be disruptive.

“I didn’t know if I could do it. Doug and I would talk, then we’d talk with Mike. We went back and forth for months,” she says.

But the more Sherry listened to Michael, the more her thinking shifted. “I realized he was making valid points,” she says.

Michael eventually won over both his parents. “We have to make the right decision for our clients, and after looking at everything we decided we could serve our buyers and sellers better here than anywhere else,” Doug says.

Doug and Sherry repeatedly say their clients were at the heart of their decision to switch companies. Like a mantra, they say moving from Signal Mountain to the NorthShore, where J Douglas Properties set up shop, will give them a home office that’s accessible to more people, that the technology now available to them will act like r ocket fuel on their listings, and that the training they receive will create efficiencies that will benefit their buyers and sellers.

Doug says he believes J Douglas Properties will give them an edge in a market defined by a tight inventory by sharpening their skills at acquiring listings.

“We’re going to become better at contacting people who want to be in the market but don’t know how to get there,” he says. “Perhaps they’re thinking they can’t sell their home for the amount they need to buy another one. We’ll be able to help them figure out how to do that.

“We’ll also be able to find buyers for people who tried to sell their home two or three years ago, to no avail,” Doug continues. “Our expertise in taking stale inventory and turning it over faster is only going to improve.”

“We’re going to make ourselves more visible to more people who might not know that their house is worth more than they think,” Michael chimes in. “They might hear us knocking on their door to let them know we have buyers looking in that area.”

While there’s no doubting The Lawrence Team is focused on customer service, Doug, Sherry and Michael are also aiming for a sizable jump in revenues. The team is selling close to $22 million a year in real estate, which Doug says, “isn’t bad for a team of four agents.”

In 18 months, Doug predicts The Lawrence Team will be pulling in twice as much annual revenue. Achieving that bump will require more than better customer service and greater efficiency, Doug says; they’ll also need to grow the team.

At present, The Lawrence Team consists of Doug and Sherry (the team leaders), Michael, and four additional agents, including Marie Lawrence (Michael’s wife), Melanie Molander, Iqbal Khan and Dakin Cranwell.

Two additional agents will soon join the team, but Doug and Sherry decline to say who they are, as they are not yet licensed.

What Sherry will say is that The Lawrence Team will eventually include “people who have bought houses from me, friends, and kids who grew up in our neighborhood.”

Unlike teams that divide the stages of the home buying process among its members and administrative staff, The Lawrence Team consists of self-sufficient agents who are available to assist other team members when needed. There are no administrators, buyers’ agents, or dedicated sales directors. Even Doug and Sherry continue to work with buyers and sellers.

However, the move has already sparked a shift in the nature of the team, with Michael taking charge of recruiting. Also, Michael says the team will be adding administrative roles as it grows, bringing it closer in structure to teams that assign people to specific roles.

Although the day has been emotional, it has brought the team to the end of one chapter and the beginning of another – a process with which Doug and Sherry are very familiar.

A native of Detroit, Doug labored on the assembly line at Chrysler Corporation when he was in college, then moved into the company’s corporate center after graduation.

For the next 26 years, Doug worked for a variety of automotive companies, including General Motors Corporation, American Honda Motor Corporation and BMW of North America. Before coming to Chattanooga in 1986 to enter the retail side of the business as a general manager for The Village, Doug and Sherry moved a dozen times.

Sherry fell in love with city No. 13. “I tell our clients who are moving here that they won’t find a better city. I’ve been in 13 of them, and Chattanooga is the best,” she smiles.

Eventually, Doug wanted more than a regular paycheck from the automotive industry, so he became part-owner of Cleveland Village Honda and Oak Ridge Honda. Emboldened by his success in those ventures, he opened VIP Mitsubishi in 1988.

Four years later, on Sherry’s birthday (Jan. 11), Doug shuttered the business after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The personal price tag for its collapse: $7 million.

Instead of being daunted into financial submission, Doug and Sherry started a multi-level marketing effort selling nutritional supplements and herbal therapy for Enrich International. Showing remarkable wherewithal, they built a distribution network of 10,000 people from their kitchen table and, in time, eliminated their massive debt.

When Enrich removed one of its driving products in 2003, Sherry saw the writing on the wall and quit. Her next venture: real estate.

“I love bringing people together and building large organizations,” she says. “My youngest son, Jon, was getting ready for school, and I said, ‘Would you be OK with me going into real estate?’ He said ‘Mom, do whatever you want.’”

Doug was drawn to real estate after Sherry sold her first property only a few weeks after becoming a licensed agent. Excited about the new chapter in their careers, he suggested they build a team. “I said, ‘This business is wonderful! We need to bring in more people,’” he recalls.

By 2005, Doug and Sherry were leading a team of nine at Realty Center’s Signal Mountain office and had their sights set on even more growth. The Kellys, however, discouraged the expansion, and even asked them to reduce their ranks.

“The company said, ‘You’re a team inside a business that’s taking over the business, so we would rather not do teams,’” Doug remembers. “The other agents in the office were worried about us getting all the business.”

Two years after they had started building their vision, Doug and Sherry acquiesced to the Kellys and dismantled their team.

Fast forward to 2014, and The Edrington Team had built at Realty Center’s downtown location what Doug and Sherry had taken apart at Signal Mountain: a team of nine people. And, like The Lawrence Team at that stage, the Edringtons were just getting started.

“They were blowing everyone away,” Sherry says. “We admired what they were doing. It was intimidating, but impressive.”

So, Doug and Sherry decided to form another team. The cornerstone of their rebuild: Michael.

Michael was in his late twenties but had already proven himself in the business world by graduating from college, working in food distribution and doing well in medical sales. But he wanted to work with Doug and Sherry.

“I grew up watching my parents work off the kitchen counter. The phone would start ringing at 7 in the morning and it wouldn’t stop ringing until 2 in the morning because they were doing business around the world,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’

“So, while I was working for other people, I always told dad, ‘I want to work with you and mom. These companies can’t teach me what I want to learn; I want to learn from you.’”

That opened the door for Doug and Sherry to invite Michael to join the new team.

That transition wasn’t easy, either. Michael and his wife were living in Knoxville, and Marie was pregnant, so he would spend a few days in Chattanooga and then briefly return home. In time, Marie quit her job and earned her license as well so they could both join Doug and Sherry.

“Now my wife and I are working off our kitchen counter,” Michael says. “Working with my parents has been amazing. There’s nothing better than learning from them, and for two veteran agents to be just a phone call away.”

Michael says one of the things he’s learned since joining his parents is how well-known and respected they are throughout Chattanooga. “I can’t do a deal without the other agent saying, ‘Say hi to your mom and dad for me. They’re the greatest people.’”

Byron agrees. “All of us at Realty Center are looking forward to seeing the evolution of The Lawrence Team as they build on the amazing legacy Sherry and Doug established from our Signal Mountain campus,” he says. “It’s never fun to lose the personal, daily contact with Realtors who switch firms, but ours is an industry of entrepreneurial spirit and leaps of faith.”

Because of their long-term ties to Realty Center, Doug and Sherry are expecting the news of their move to J Douglas Properties to surprise people. “They’re going to be shocked. They’re not going to understand it,” Sherry says.

Doug feels differently, saying their friends and associates will come around. “At the end of the day, it’s because we believe in the company. We believe in its results. You can’t deny that.”

No one is concerned that the public won’t sense the team’s change in identity since it’s moved from one Berkshire Hathaway franchise to another. The Lawrence Team might be working under a different umbrella, but their yard signs are still maroon.

“I think that’s a plus because the move is going to be transparent,” Doug says. “People are simply going to see that we’re doing things better than before.”

“And the people who don’t know us now are going to know us soon,” Sherry adds. “We’re going to become more visible.”

For The Lawrence Team, it’s been a day that has changed their lives. But it’s becoming clear that it’s over, and even Sherry is breathing easier as she begins mentally moving unfinished tasks to the following morning.

The only thing left is dinner at Las Margaritas – a Wednesday night family tradition for 26 years. For Sherry, the move has been more about her family (which includes a daughter who’s living in New Zealand) than anything else.

“Our family is everything,” she says. “Moving was hard, and we wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for them.”