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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, August 10, 2018

A new, brash approach to local, national real estate


Edrington seeks to transform teams from here to California



Doug Edrington is on the phone, getting bad news. “The world is falling apart,” the caller tells him, “and I can’t stop it.”

Edrington listens patiently on his earpiece as he walks in slow circles inside a small meeting room. The caller is an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices J Douglas Properties, and she says she believes a transaction has gone irreparably south.

When it’s Edrington’s turn to talk, he draws a breath and then does what he does best: change the caller’s perception. The situation doesn’t change as he talks, but the Realtor’s assessment of it does. By the time Edrington is done it’s gone from deal gone bad to problem with a solution.

“Sometimes, I have to sit down with an agent and deal with their mindset,” Edrington, 33, points out. “A lot of leaders simply try to motivate their people, but that’s not always possible.

“However, I’ve been successful in altering the way my agents view their problems. My goal is to get them to see the glass is half full, not to tell them the glass is half full.”

Edrington is settling into his role as CEO of J Douglas Properties, the real estate brokerage he and his parents, George and Grace Edrington, launched this year.

It’s a step up in scope from being CEO of The Edrington Team, which he helped to grow into Chattanooga’s top real estate crew while it was headquartered out of a different Berkshire Hathaway franchise – the Ben and Karen Kelly-owned Realty Center.

Instead of leading one team, Doug is now guiding a community of 35 solo agents and team members. The Edrington Team is among them, but Doug has turned the reins of that group over to its director of sales, Kevin Jennings.

“My job is to focus on growth, culture and innovation at the company level,” Doug explains.

The new venture has nonetheless caused some head scratching around town. Questions have ranged from, “Are you still affiliated with Realty Center?” to “Who’s ‘J Douglas?’” to which Doug has replied “no” and “me.”

“We have no relationship with Realty Center; we’re both independently owned and operated,” he says.

The “J” in “J Douglas” refers to his first name – James. He simply goes by Doug.

The notion of starting a new brokerage germinated in Doug’s mind for years. But he and his parents didn’t take the leap until last September, as The Edrington Team was having not just the best year it had ever had, but the best year any team in the city had ever had.

The Edrington Team sold 491 houses in 2017 and tallied nearly $100 million in sales with a roster of just 14 agents. Its slice of the pie was close to $3 million.

The numbers were phenomenal, Doug says, but there was a problem: the team was growing agents that, on average, were leaving after 18 months to start their own group.

While Doug says a strong, nurturing team is the best environment for a fledgling agent to learn the real estate business and develop the skills he or she needs, many of these agents were leaving the nest too soon.

“Once they were on their own, they’d fall to the ground. They weren’t waiting until they had learned to fly,” Doug adds. “So, we asked ourselves how we could put ourselves in a position to help them, and that sparked the notion of starting our own brokerage.”

Before Doug jumped out of the nest he and his parents had built to begin their new venture, he wanted to make sure he was ready to fly. A firm believer in the benefits of coaching, he reached out to his mentor, nationally renowned real estate coach Tom Ferry, and said, “I need help.”

“The Edrington Team was good at what it was doing, but we weren’t running a brokerage,” Doug says. “Teams and brokerages are two different animals.”

As Doug focused on learning how to run a brokerage, he traveled almost weekly for six months to meet with a different brokerage, CEO or large team and pick their brains. These sessions planted a lot of good ideas in his fertile mind.

One particularly beneficial trip took Doug to Washington, D.C., where he met with the broker of a popular Century 21 franchise. There, he saw the machinations behind a massive real estate business with 500 agents and 30 teams, and learned about the benefits of having minimum standards. “They don’t allow just anyone to come in the door and hang their license,” Doug points out.

Doug was also inspired by what he called the firm’s “very sexy workspace.” But this turned his thoughts to what he believed was a problem at the company.

“Their big push is 100 percent shared space. No one has their own space,” Doug recalls. “That benefits the brokerage because brokers that offer desk space to every agent eventually run out of square feet and have to buy or lease another building.

“Then you become like some of these monsters in Chattanooga that own multiple offices but can’t provide the services or resources the agents need because all their money is tied up in mortgage payments.

“I’ve been part of a team, and they need their own space,” he continues. “Their employees need to physically be somewhere.”

Meanwhile, Doug and his parents shopped for a franchise. They wound up choosing the company they already knew from years of working at Realty Center – and that knew them. “Berkshire Hathaway believed in my vision to carry the brand forward in the way the company wants,” Doug says.

Mom, dad and son also shopped for a home for J Douglas Properties. In the end, the company purchased the Northshore community’s most iconic structure – the twin buildings at the corner of Tremont Street and Frazier Avenue, including the one with the murals of the founding fathers of technology on the side facing Frazier.

Combined, the buildings offer 12,000 square feet of work space – not counting the loft that connects them and offers views of Northshore, the Tennessee River and the heart of downtown Chattanooga.

Each building is not only a separate structure, it has its own function as well. Taking a cue from Century 21’s concept of shared workspace but also avoiding the pitfalls he identified, Doug has divided the buildings into spared workspace and dedicated offices, giving him the best of both worlds.

Following months of renovations, the building adjacent to Frazier offers a tall, spacious lobby outfitted with modern furniture and restaurant-style booths for working agents, a sizable conference room and a third space consisting of a mock neighborhood, complete with three offices designed to look like homes.

Climbing the stairs located at the far end of the lobby takes Realtors and clients to an open concept training room that gives Doug’s agents a space to learn new concepts and skills.

Circling behind the training area takes agents and staff to a door that opens to the loft, where the company hosts “Thirsty Thursday,” a monthly catered event that brings everyone at J Douglas Properties and their families together under one patch of Northshore sky.

The entrance to the north building is not far from there. Beyond that door, agents like Kelly Jooma, leader of The Jooma Team, have their dedicated spaces.

Doug’s office is located in that building as well, tucked away in a corner that doesn’t offer great views but does have a dedicated heating and cooling unit.

All told, the buildings and everything they contain represent an investment of $3 million. “We’ve acquired some debt, but it’s good debt,” Doug explains.

The plan for repaying that debt and remaining fiscally healthy is simple, Doug says. “We want to stay conservative and have The Edrington Team support our overhead. Then, the sliver we get from Kelly Jooma’s sales, for example, will be profit for us.”

J Douglas Properties also wants to enable its agents and teams to realize their goals, financial and otherwise. To do this, Doug plans to offer the knowledge and insight he’s acquired during three years of learning directly from Ferry to them.

“Every successful person in the world had great mentors,” he says. “I’ve made it a goal to expose myself to people who are going to help me see what others can’t and then pass that on.”

Doug has not only learned at Ferry’s feet, he’s risen through the ranks of Ferry’s company to become one of his top coaches, putting him in a position to mentor promising teams and brokerages around the country.

One of Doug’s biggest coaching success stories is the Seal Team, a group of six women who operate out of a RE/MAX franchise in Chico, California. “They’re rock stars. Their whole business revolves around community events, social media and attracting people to them. They don’t buy any leads,” Doug points out. “Since I’ve been working with them, they’ve doubled their business.”

Doug says the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the women he mentored; he merely worked with them on the structure of their company and helped them to pinpoint their goals.

“Success is about becoming super clear on your goals,” he adds. “When Tommy started coaching me three years ago, I told him I wanted to sell a thousand houses. He said, ‘Awesome. Become the cheapest company in town and everybody will want to do business with you.’

“When I told him I didn’t want to do that, he said I was unclear on what my goals actually were. I had to change that.”

Doug is bringing the mentoring he’s received from Ferry and provided to 20 clients across the country to the local level. For example, during weekly, one-on-one meetings with the team leaders at J Douglas Properties, he’s helping his people understand what they’re trying to build.

“Most agents who become team leaders didn’t become team leaders because they wanted to grow a team; they created more business than they could handle so they started surrounding themselves with people. Then they looked around and said, ‘What have I created?’

“They were trained to be good salespeople, and they are, but they were never trained to be a team leader. We want to bring people to a place where they’re happy again.”

Doug is not limiting his local mentoring to J Douglas Properties; he’s also working with agents at other Chattanooga brokerages. As his company shifts its focus from renovating its buildings to recruiting, he’s hoping these relationships will encourage some of those agents to leave their nest and join his flock.

“My goal is to offer agents better coaching and training than their own leaders,” he says. “There are people who are happy where they are but are still looking for answers.”

Claiming to offer better training than other brokers is bold, but Doug says it without blinking. He then uses one facet of his training to support his statement.

“None of the owners or brokers across Chattanooga have sold a large number of homes in today’s market, which is all about digital media,” he notes, still without blinking.

“I’m not disrespecting where they are in their careers; they deserve to be there. They put in their work back in the day and made their money. I just don’t think they can help their agents understand how to leverage social media to generate business, how to leverage the major lead sources, or how to figure out the cost per lead, appointment and sale.

“But if I can help an agent grow their businesses, then it will be only a matter of time until something happens at home and they pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m ready to come over.’”

One agent who’s already made the leap is Jooma, who switched from Keller Williams Realty Chattanooga to J Douglas Properties after encountering Doug at various training events and becoming drawn to his mentoring. In the few months since Jooma brought her team of ten to the new brokerage, she says Doug has changed the way she does business – and she couldn’t be happier with the results.

“I’ve become a more efficient team leader, and through Doug, I’ve been introduced to technology that has streamlined how my team members work together,” Jooma acknowledges. “Through this process, we’ve created a better experience for our clients and hit listing and sales goals I never imagined were possible in such a short time. “We’re excited about seeing where this journey goes from here.”

Doug will have to convince about 65 more agents to follow in Jooma’s footsteps, as he intends to have 100 agents working at J Douglas Properties by the end of 2018.

He hopes to lure them with not only his coaching but also access to the people who run his firm’s marketing, sales and transaction coordination departments.

The goal is not to allow newly arrived team leaders to leverage those departments, he says, but for the leaders of those departments to teach the new recruits how to build those positions in their own team.

“If you bring your team here and you’re thinking of hiring a marketing director, we have a marketing director that will help you hire and train one,” Doug says. “That will get you to where you want to be quicker than if you do it yourself.”

While the climb to 100 agents by Dec. 31 will be steep, J Douglas Properties will not be collecting agents like cattle. Rather, Realtors who want to work alone will need to meet a specific set of standards, which Doug says are high but achievable by agents who are committed to improving their lives.

“We want to make sure we’re giving clients the level of service they deserve, and I don’t think someone who’s doesn’t meet our minimum requirements has the experience to do that,” Doug adds.

That said, there is a way for agents who don’t meet the minimum requirements to get their foot in the door at J Douglas Properties: join a team.

“In today’s market, a team is the entryway into this business. You have to be a little crazy to want to get into this business for the first time without ever having sold anything,” Doug says. “I think people should enter a team environment and have someone close to them help them learn the business and then mature out of the team – if they chose to.

“There are people on The Edrington Team making $200,000 a year, and they’re happy doing that.”

While setting high standards can be risky for a brokerage, Doug makes decisions with tomorrow in mind. It’s a future many economic pundits, including Berkshire Hathaway owner Warren Buffett, says will include another recession in 2020.

Doug isn’t worried about that day, though, because he’s preparing for it. “[American actor and author Sean Patrick Flanery said], ‘Do something today that your future self will thank you for,’” he says. “I like that because agents in this industry tend to forget we’re in the relationship-building business.

“Our goal at J Douglas Properties is to create enough healthy relationships that, in 2020, those people will know who we are and will want to do business with us.”

One company J Douglas Properties is ready to business with today is their former home.

“They gave us a healthy environment in which to grow up, and there are agents over there I respect and to which I would gladly refer a client if I felt they would be a better fit for someone than we are,” Doug says.

Byron Kelly, president of Realty Center, feels the same, and adds that there’s enough business out there to allow both companies to thrive.

“Chattanooga’s marketplace is large enough and client demand for Berkshire Hathaway’s cabernet yard signs great enough to accommodate two places of business,” Kelly says.

Kelly is so certain of his appraisal of the market, he’s not changing his business strategy in response to his new competitor, which is operating under the same franchisor and whose office is located a mere mile away. “This circumstance changes nothing in regard to how we practice real estate,” he says.

The departure of The Edrington Team from Realty Center did, however, remind Kelly of the impermanent nature of the real estate business.

“When your firm attracts great talent and helps them grow, external opportunities will pop up for a certain percentage of your agents,” Kelly continues. “It would be folly to appreciate your independent status at tax time while lamenting the many choices your independent sales force has besides your own.”

Given this reality, Kelly was not surprised when Doug said he was leaving and diplomatically hopes for the best for J Douglas Properties.

“Doug is a smart, energetic young man, and like many entrepreneurs who have established their careers at Realty Center, he wants to make a mark in our industry,” he adds. “We wish him and his team well and look forward to cooperating with them on future sales.”

While being CEO of J Douglas Properties is a step up from leading the Edrington Team, it’s an even bigger step up from putting signs in yards, which is where Doug began after joining his mother and father on their new business venture in 2005.

After Doug, who studied electrical engineering in college, became a successful agent in his own right, his parents turned control of The Edrington Team over to him. Since then, the only direction they have traveled is up.

They fully expect that to continue – through 2020 and beyond. “We created the number one team,” Doug says, “and now our goal is to create the No. 1 company.”