In 2009, in the throes of the Great Recession, @properties made the decision to expand its residential brokerage business from the city to the North Shore. In September of that year, as the housing market crumbled and real estate brokerage firms across the region retreated, @properties opened its first suburban office in Evanston.
Their competitors said they would never make it; they were too young, too city, too techy, too trendy. Six years later, @properties is the top-producing brokerage firm in New Trier Township, as well as the #1 broker in the city and the largest independent real estate firm in Illinois.
What is it about @properties that has enabled it to accomplish in 15 years what most companies can’t achieve in a lifetime? Is it technology? Is it marketing? Is it the people? We got exclusive access to company co-founders Thad Wong and Mike Golden and set out to discover…
How did @properties come into existence?
TW: Mike and I were selling real estate at a small brokerage firm in Bucktown. We were the only two guys in the office who wore ties to work. We decided to partner up, and we’ve been 50-50 ever since.
MG: We carved out a niche selling new-construction developments, and we were generating a ton of business for the firm, but we weren’t receiving any support. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real estate company that worked for the brokers instead of the other way around?’ So we started @properties.
It took @properties less than 10 years to overtake other brokerage firms in the city that had been in business for decades. How did you do it?
TW: From the beginning, our focus was on what we could do to help brokers serve their clients better and create more hours in the day for brokers. A lot of it came down to marketing. And because we were new in an industry that was very established, we knew we would have to market at the highest level to compete at the highest level.
MG: Fortunately, we had this new-construction experience where the marketing was very sophisticated. We committed to bringing the same level of sophistication you’d see for a $50 million high-rise to a home worth $500,000. It worked, and things just snowballed.
So in 2009, you’re the #1 broker in the city, but the financial and housing markets are melting down around you. You decide the time is right to expand into the North Shore. Why?
TW: We originally looked into opening a North Shore office in 2005, but we thought the timing wasn’t great. The problem was homes were selling too easily. The market was irrational. When your value proposition is built around marketing, and marketing isn’t valued, what have you got? But when the downturn came, we felt there were a number of factors working in our favor. Because there was stress on the market, we thought sellers would give greater consideration to which brokerage firm would provide the best marketing and resources. We were confident we could win that argument.
Still, a lot of the blue blood firms up here predicted your rapid demise. What did they miss?
MG: One of the most surprising things we discovered when we got here was there was almost this unwritten code of non-competition. The established firms were very happy with the status quo. On the other hand, we were coming from this incredibly competitive environment in the city, where twice as much work went into marketing homes worth half the price.
TW: On the North Shore, we saw almost nothing being done outside the box in terms of marketing and sales. We thought if we can bring city expectations to the North Shore we can grow our market share quickly. And the one thing I can tell you about how I know our approach was right is that every single one of our competitors provides a better product today than they did back in 2009. We forced the competition to up its game.
The notion of expanding in a recession looks brilliant now, but it must have been a little nerve wracking back then. Was there ever a moment where you were thinking, ‘What are we doing?’
TW: As challenging as that time was, we never had second thoughts. Our expansion occurred faster than we intended because the demand from the brokerage community was so great. Brokers were approaching us and asking us to open an office so they could get on board. As long as that was happening, we felt good about continuing to grow.
MG: Our competitors were closing offices, reducing staff and reducing services, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a recession. And we were doing the opposite. Going back to our commitment to our clients and brokers, we were increasing staff, increasing services, increasing training and education. What resulted was a flight to quality.
Let’s talk about culture, because that’s a big buzzword in business, but @properties actually seems to walk the talk. What is the @properties culture?
MG: We started out as this small, boutique company with four people, and today, between brokers and staff, we have more than 2,000 people. But we still see ourselves as a boutique start-up. And I think that’s one of the keys to maintaining the special culture we have.
TW: One of the most unique aspects of our culture is a kind of fearlessness. Not recklessness but fearlessness. We encourage expression. We encourage communication. We embrace competition – even among ourselves – because that’s how we grow and improve. And, very importantly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
That brings us to your advertising. You’ve done some pretty off-the wall campaigns, like your new “love” ads. What does love have to do with real estate?
TW: Sometimes it’s good to just stop and look at an image or a word that makes you feel something. We’re not just a company. We’re people. And if we can elicit an emotional reaction from our ads or from the word “love” painted in giant letters on our office in Bucktown, then we feel like we’re connecting with our clients on another level. The “people connection” is really important to us.
A lot of people might be surprised to learn that so far this year, @properties has closed more sales for homes over $2 million than any other brokerage firm on the North Shore. How have you been able to establish such a strong position in the luxury market?
TW: It goes back to our marketing – and the caliber of broker that recognizes the value of that marketing. The notion that you’re going to make out great by selling your home to your tennis partner or office colleague is history. A home is going to sell for the highest price in the shortest amount of time because it receives the greatest level of quality exposure. Period. There is a direct correlation between marketing and offer price. That’s why our luxury listings sell for the highest percentage of original asking price in the market.
You mentioned that you still view @properties as a start-up. Coincidentally, you’ve been promoting a number of local tech startups through your business. Talk about that initiative.
TW: We became really interested in Chicago’s startup community about 5 years ago, and began talking with tech entrepreneurs about innovations that could move our industry forward. We partnered with a company called Yapmo to develop a communications app for brokers. The product was so successful we brought it to other brokerage firms across the U.S., and when our exclusivity period expired in Chicago, a number of our competitors adopted it. Another startup we’re involved in is TurboAppeal, which uses big data analytics to increase the success rate and savings for residential property tax appeals. So far in 2015, TurboAppeal is generating tax reductions that are more than double the benchmark rate on a per-square-foot basis. They have the highest success rate in Cook County for singlefamily property tax appeals.
You have another interesting partnership…with Bulls center Joakim Noah. What’s that all about?
MG: We’re working with Joakim’s Noah’s Arc Foundation to raise money for art and sports programs benefiting at-risk kids in Chicago. In general, philanthropy is really important to our identity as a local company. Our livelihood depends on the community, so we feel like we owe the community a debt of gratitude. We want to feed the local ecosystem on all levels.
And the definition of “local” is expanding for you, right? You now have offices in Southwest Michigan and in Lake Geneva.
MG: Yes. As the housing market recovered, more and more of our clients were looking at vacation properties in harbor Country and lake Geneva. having the #1 market share in the city, and a large presence on the North Shore and in DuPage County, we felt like we could cross-market second home opportunities to our clients very efficiently.
So you’ve got the city. You’ve got the North Shore. You’ve got Harbor Country and Lake Geneva. What’s next for @properties?
TW: We’re opening a Northbrook office by the end of 2015, and we’re looking into several other office locations. We’ll go where demand leads us. We’re also looking to increase our relevance to the community in a number of different ways, whether that’s providing content or additional services or access to new technology. Inevitably, it all boils down to providing added value around real estate.
And the question you probably get all the time… Will @properties grow beyond the region?
MG: It has always been our commitment to keep our offices within driving distance of our homes. The more you expand horizontally, the harder it is to maintain the quality and culture. It’s much more important to us to make sure the markets that have been good to us are taken care of at the highest level.
TW: Every other company that has achieved our size has done it through mergers and acquisitions. But all of our growth has been organic. We’ve never imposed our brand or culture on anyone. @properties has grown because – and only because – brokers and clients have been attracted by what we have to offer. As long as that continues, we know we’re on the right path.