“I do not understand the word ‘can’t’”

Roberta (Bobbi) Pickens, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Treasure Coast in Hobe Sound, FL, is used to blazing her own trail. She learned how to stand tall early in her career in industries once dominated by men like medical equipment sales and oil/gas refinement. “There were no women in sales in either industry, so making headway was a challenge. But I was a tough cookie, and learned to handle myself with confidence. Men and women bring different skills to workplace, so I needed to play on those strengths. I was quickly a top saleswoman in these industries and promoted to regional management positions,” Bobbi said.

During tough times she branched out, sharing “I got into real estate because the oil industry is cyclical. We were in a down cycle and facing layoffs. There were no budgets for new refining equipment, or research and development. With a son in college, I needed something else to do. So I trained for my real estate license, worked for a small builder in Chicago and enjoyed it. I moved to Arizona, and got my license there. I researched possible franchises opportunities and found Help-U-Sell and John Powell (coach, long-time corporate executive, and franchise owner). I met with him to review what I wanted and liked, asked tough questions and got John’s ‘always straight’ answers.”  

Based on that meeting, Bobbi purchased a franchise in Hobe Sound on the east coast of Florida and opened Help-U-Sell Treasure Coast office in June of 2004. “The market was thriving and my business was doing great. Then cue the hurricanes! First came Frances, followed by Jeanne, both were direct hits and eight weeks apart.  That was a crazy time, as there hadn’t been any hurricane activity in this area for over 50 years. We were hit hard. There were a ton of blue roofs everywhere, so many houses were covered in tarps. People wanted to view and buy the properties, but we couldn’t show them. I switched to selling lots in a partnership with a developer during this long recovery period. When the market was good, Help-U-Sell was well received as the new kid on the block. When the market crashed I had to let the franchise go. Homes just were not selling. I kept busy on a smaller scale, selling real estate for friends and their relatives, and making sure people in difficult situations got the right help by doing a lot of short sales,” she explained.

In 2016, the Help-U-Sell Corporate Office reached out to previous owners, inviting them to come back and Bobbi happily returned. She said, “It was a great time to re-open. I wouldn’t want to be doing this as an independent in this market. Business picked up nicely this year, and doubled over last year. I hired a licensed assistant, Samantha (referred to as Saint Sam), who handles administrative details and is the buyers’ agent as we build the business. I recently sold all my inventory, but we have six or seven listings coming up, so the pipeline is nicely filled. I’ve been getting buyer leads tied to my Facebook advertising. I just didn’t have time for them, which is why I got help.”

The market has a wide margin of housing prices in Martin County versus Port St Lucie, where buyers have choices and flexibility. Bobbi stated, “In Martin County, you’re looking at a lot of waterfront and high-end properties that can go as high as $28 million. There’s not nearly enough housing in the lower price markets. We are seeing properties in all price ranges: one came in at $1.7 million and the newest is at $180,000. People from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the Northeast are selling their homes for $500,000 or more, coming here and buying a $300,000 -$400,000 home here instead. We are attractive to home sellers with the middle ground and above average values because the savings really stands out for them. Port St Lucie offers bigger homes for the price and it’s easier to find buyers homes within their budget that they will love. “

“Living Magazine” ad example

After the recession, many people moved out of state. Creating exposure was a priority for Bobbi. She explained, “I took a shotgun approach. I had my mobile office wrapped immediately and that gets a lot of attention. I advertise in the coupon books called ‘Living Magazine,’ they go to every mailbox two times monthly in both counties.  The half page ad explains what we do and what a seller gets. The full page ad has the listings and ‘just solds’. Sellers like seeing their home in the ad. When people call from the half page ad, they usually just ask us to come out. It rarely takes more than 3 minutes to get the listing appointment.”

Mobile office…wrapped!

Elaborating further, she said, “The market is changing constantly so you expect the ups and downs and you need a reason to be. Because this isn’t a big market, people need to see how busy you are. I don’t do flashy ads, just a straight-forward, matter-of-fact approach because there is no con. When I come to a listing appointment after a competitor, I always ask what they are getting for those extra thousands of dollars. That usually seals it in our favor.”

It has been a challenging year for Bobbi. Her longtime partner, Phil, suffered a stroke after open heart surgery in February. As the caregiver, she oversees his therapies and doctor appointments but reports he is progressing nicely. Additionally, her mom died in June and she is the Executor of her estate. “In honor of my mother’s passing, I sponsored the first two sessions of a new program with Love and Hope In Action. A friend is teaching culinary job skills for their homeless clients at LAHIA, so they can be re-enter the workforce in the food service industry. We live in a great community and I love that so many people are committed to improving the lives of others. I plan to have them cater some events planned for the office.” 

People persevering also aptly describes Bobbi: “Whatever’s going on, I can handle it. I concentrate on what needs to get done, put my head down, and do it. I do not understand the word ‘can’t’, but I have learned to say ‘no’ to listings that are unreasonable and refer to the ‘Realtor’s Serenity Prayer’ [God grant me the serenity to accept the listings I can sell, the courage to refuse the listings I cannot; and the wisdom to know the difference]. I really enjoy helping my sellers through the journey of selling their homes. Everyone has a story.  I love disrupting the marketplace. Thank you Help-U-Sell. I love this model and I’m glad to be home.”

Ahead of the Curve

Not quite a year ago, Jeff Hedberg of Help-U-Sell Real Estate Masters opened his office in Port Huron, Michigan, but he did so with decades of real estate experience before opting for the set-fee business model Help-U-Sell created. Jeff chose real estate early, he was only 21 years old. “I won a sales contest in college, in a class that was taught by a broker, and the door to real estate opened for me,” Jeff remembered.

In 2013, it was time for reinvention. “I had the largest office in St. Clair County, and at one point I had 40 full-time agents. I loved working in this area, but I wanted to live in Florida. So my family moved and got settled, while I planned on setting up a real estate office there. The call of family brought us back to Michigan sooner than anticipated. I sold my previous business to a competitor, and had to wait out a non-compete clause,” he said.  

This time around, Jeff wanted to do real estate in a different way. He continued, “I think the industry has been broken for a while and brokers have gotten away with overcharging people for a long time. I started checking into Help-U-Sell, partially because I wanted the brand recognition and I liked the model, and didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Once situated, we just started with word of mouth publicity.”

An important element of success for Jeff is having associates with the same commitment to serving clients. He added, “They share that sense of loyalty and drive to do right by our clients. Whenever I meet with a potential new agent, I ask, ‘Do you believe you are worth 6%? Do you believe the industry is going to change?’ I have three agents with me, two of whom are experienced, and one is just starting out. I don’t do co-listings; I currently have 21 listings myself, with many more in the pipeline. At a minimum, I’m anticipating 50 units for the year, and I will achieve that. I am currently number two in closed units in my county and number five in overall sales and listing volume.”

While pricing and inventory are common obstacles in many markets, Port Huron is more nuanced. Jeff explained, “The challenge for us is that Port Huron is a 180-degree market. There is a river here that separates the United States from Canada. The median house price is $175,000 but it can commonly be as modest as $118,000, when compared to prices in Venice, Florida, where I just moved back from; Houses there average about $280,000. We see a lot of first-time buyers. I’ve already saved people over $128,000 in commissions in my first seven months. I am confident we can capture 30% market share in three to five years.”

Building a business takes time, but Jeff is confident sellers will catch on quickly. “I’m not short-term focused. I have not yet captured the volume I know I’m capable of achieving. When my business was here originally, I had 33% of the market share and closed $110 million in volume. After the economy crashed, the business model changed and there was a definite shift in expectations from the consumer standpoint. Home sellers wanted full service brokers at a reasonable rate. Consumers are putting pressure on the 5-6% model, and this is a fair way to do it. It’s hard to argue with that,” he stated. 

“What I like right now is knowing I am ahead of the curve, and that I will be competitive in advance of other brokers in this area. They are fighting the change. I’m here now and the race will be won in two or three years. Not offering a low set-fee is greedy and short-sighted. We can easily give people what they want once we have their attention.”

To get that consumer attention, Jeff has changed his old marketing practices also. He continued, “There was a time when I was paying for five full pages of newspaper advertising every week, but now I’m taking a different approach. I often use the ‘just listed’ and ‘just sold’ postcards from Excel printing. I made a heavy investment in signage, and it’s worth it because people tell me they see my signs everywhere. Client testimonials drive traffic back to my website and create a lot of viewings. I am also fond of the ‘good, better, best’ brochure. Nothing quite illustrates our offering as succinctly as that.”

Part of great marketing is having the presentation down. “I have perfected my elevator pitch, and have developed several tailored versions which shows the traditional fees, and people saving two or three times the amount using our services versus a competitor. When I am in front of a client, I don’t lose the listing. Sometimes home sellers will get guilted into using a friend or family member who dabbles in real estate part-time. The question I always ask those folks is ‘If this person is a friend, why are they not charging you a friendly fee?’ The savvy seller wants to save money,” he said. 

Subject to many influences, real estate can sometimes be a precarious industry, which Jeff anticipates. He said, “There are always highs and lows. When times are tough, I do what I’ve always done and more. I pray, and make it a point to give more than I take. To the victor goes the spoils.”

The Magic is Set-Fee and Great Service

Walt Hippauf of Help-U-Sell Peoples Real Estate got his real estate license in 1986. As a diverse young man, a job in manufacturing prompted an interest in design drafting. He pursued an Associate’s degree in engineering and formed a small weekend band where he played the saxophone to help pay for college.

After his engineering career, Walt started a catering and music service for weddings. While that business was not meant to be, the entrepreneurial spirit had taken root. He next turned to selling insurance, and a client invited him to join their real estate business. He did both for a while, but eventually devoted all his time to real estate. “I took to real estate like a fish to water. I discovered a new market for modular housing, and purchased buildable lots where I offered buyers the lot and designed a custom modular home. I’d built upwards of 25 homes at the time, but unfortunately lots were few, so I pursued other real estate opportunities,” he recounted.

Walt received his Brokers license in 1994 and opened an office in 1996. Catering to first-time home buyers in the inner city, Walt sold and listed homes for under $50,000. He explained, “Because of the low price, I had a $3,000 set fee, with the commission split between the buyer agent and selling agent. I was handling 70% of the real estate sales in that community and was doing great. In 2001, the economic conditions shifted so I moved the brokerage to Northeast Philly. My brokerage name was overshadowed by traditional big-name players. I looked for a franchise with name recognition and met a Help-U-Sell Real Estate regional manager. I loved the Help-U-Sell model. It allowed me to offer sellers a well-received choice and I was doing 50 to 100 sides a year.”

The Philadelphia housing market covers high, middle and lower markets. Walt said, “Home prices here are all over the map. Some are $70,000 and many average out at $300,000. Look again, and you’ll see homes that are $500,000 to $1 million. That is irrelevant to us because we concentrate on promoting full service for a set-fee. We are great at convincing people to list with us when we show them the full marketing plan and the savings.”  

As 2007-2008 revealed the early stages of the recession, Walt did not take the threat lying down. “Collapse seemed imminent, but I was not going to hang it up. The business slowed down by half, and I had to lay off staff. I kept everything simple. I looked into doing REOs, but there were many big companies already handling those transactions. Before the recession, I had a good business, so I kept doing what I know how to do. I tapped my Center of Influence contacts, and stayed afloat with referrals. I was also doing full page ads in the real estate magazines, and had leads from the internet. I stayed in a bare bones mode until June 2009,” Walt explained.

Just as the economy and home sales were picking up, Walt suffered a personal injury. He shared, “Once again, it is not in my personality to give up. I ran my business from my laptop while convalescing in a nursing home. Tenacity is everything: I quickly got three listings, three houses under contract, and three settlements. I conducted my meetings through GoToMeeting and became a master at e-brokering with the help of DocuSign. I thought, if I can achieve all that under trying personal circumstances, what can I do once I’m able? I did listing presentations online and met the client in person to sign contracts, take pictures and install signs. I’d send the buyers the contracts via DocuSign.”

Recently, Walt’s thoughts are on the next steps for his business and life. “I originally planned to be out of real estate by 2020. However, a previous client approached me with the idea of mentoring their son, who had an interest in learning real estate. Henry Rutledge wanted a career change from engineering, to which I could relate. At 30 years old, this young man is just getting his feet wet. When he is fully acclimated, he is looking to buy my business in 2022,” Walt shared.

While Henry is learning and chasing leads, Walt stays busy managing the business. “Not including what Henry achieves, my goal is to personally do 24 to 30 closings for the year. My operating costs are low, so I’ve given Henry the lead to expand our marketing initiatives. This includes blitz signs and targeted marketing. We’re looking to do more with YouTube, Facebook and text messaging. I’m not turning down any leads, and passing many over to Henry. I like the drip emails; I use them for the holidays, indicating that I’m still here and looking for referrals. All of our leads go into the drip email list immediately. I also use the Arounds postcards. Lead tracking and Center of Influence contacts are a huge piece of what Jack Bailey emphasizes in our weekly coaching group. I’ve been in Jack’s group for over 10 years now. He is a great guy and we have a wonderful group for bouncing ideas off each other,” stated Walt.

Having spent the last 33 years in real estate, Walt added, “I’ve done everything. I’ve tried everything. There is no magic – aside from the set-fee and great service. I used to enjoy golfing, dancing, and going to the casino, very often winning; those things are no longer possible. I’ve been married to my bride, Marci, since 1982. Between us, we have two sons, three daughters, 6 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. I’ve built a business I have enjoyed and a plan for passing that on to someone who is as passionate about it as I am, so I am still winning.”

Going Above & Beyond in Edmond/OKC

Lana Erwin is on a roll this month. As the broker/owner of Help-U-Sell Edmond/OKC in Oklahoma City, she had five houses listed, and was on the cusp of listing three more at the time of this interview. She’s been cultivating her Help-U-Sell business for 16 years now, but Lana’s background was quite varied before her career in real estate.

In the late 70s and 80s, Lana worked for several companies in various computer and accounting jobs. Oil was the primary industry in Oklahoma, and the oil bust during the 80s forced many of the top employers and banks to close. Many people left Oklahoma to seek new employment. At 29 years old, Lana sold everything except what would fit in a one bedroom apartment, and moved to Largo, Florida. She briefly sold used IBM equipment, but soon discovered a market for used CAD equipment and started a company. Relocating back to Oklahoma in 1993, she continued the company until the onset of IBM Pentium products made mainframe systems obsolete and it was time to reinvent the future once again.

“I always had an interest in real estate. After flipping a few houses, I decided to get my license and become a Realtor. A friend of mine was working for Help-U-Sell, and I worked as a buyer’s agent for 2 years. When the office was put up for sale, I got my broker’s license and bought it,” she said.

Not only has she persevered, but Lana’s presence has grown over the years. The volume of incoming calls for listings has been steadily on the rise, and her ability to close the sale has landed her on a recent edition of our Top Producers list. “Some of the people whom I served well keep coming back to me. Someone I helped years ago kept my number and just called me. One new listing was a random call. Another client I sold a home to a few years ago called because he needs to get his mom’s house on the market. Some of my business comes from people who have moved here from somewhere else, and they used Help-U-Sell in their previous city and liked the experience. My referrals keep me busy. When I bought the office there were two other offices in Edmond, one in Oklahoma City, one in Norman, one in Stillwater and one in Tulsa, but I am proud that my office still stands. I believe the longevity, brand recognition, savings, and service account for a lot of that,” Lana explained.

To push name recognition beyond referrals, Lana uses social media advertising. “I focus the most on Facebook. I regularly do a lot of paid boosts featuring houses that have recently undergone a price reduction or to advertise my open houses. That is where I get the most traction,” she shared, “When the market gets tight, there is certainly an advantage for consumers to seek us out. This is aided by the Help-U-Sell website. It is one of the things corporate does really well and it has worked great for me.”

Situated in a mid-level market, the median price range for a house is around $250,000. Last year, Lana closed 40 transactions and knows she will do at least that same this year. She added, “There are a lot of players in the real estate industry here. There’s a company billing themselves as flat fee. There’s another business that will do ‘listings only’ on the MLS. There are a few realtors who would negotiate commissions if consumers knew that they could do that. People don’t want to pay the 6% and that fact keeps me competitive in this market.”

Difficult times often spurn people towards ingenuity and streamlining their processes to become more efficient. “During slower times, I’ve been a combination of dedicated enough and lucky enough that I always made it. During the recession specifically, I did my own thing and kept the doors open. What I learned during that time is, once I started doing everything myself, I wound up preferring it that way. Initially, I followed a lot of what I was shown by the previous owner, and that has worked well for me. However, when I was passing tasks off to others, I felt like I was wasting time waiting for answers. I discovered I like knowing everything going on about a deal. If a client has a question, I like that I don’t have to call someone else to find out the answer or status of something. Since I’m handling everything, I know everything. I’m on top of everything. That streamlining became a lot easier for me when I moved my office into my house. It allows me to be home more, even though I work longer hours. I don’t mind doing it, of course, but if I’m going to, I definitely want to be comfortable,” Lana said laughing, “Besides, my dogs appreciate it, too.”

Ultimately, Lana has learned to take busy times and slow times in stride. She explained, “I call on my old clients. I keep well apprised of the market and trends. What I’ve come to realize is when people move, the market moves. That’s how you know the economy is doing what it’s supposed to do. I have clients tell me I am really thorough and go above and beyond; Then they tell other people and my business does well.”

“I Love What I Do”

Beverly Sonnier, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Southeast Rita Ranch Realty, has been serving the Tucson, Arizona area with her brokerage office since 2003. She and her husband, Jimmie, received their real estate licenses in the early 90s. What makes Beverly a standout from other Help-U-Sell broker/owners is that she is part of an elite club of people in real estate who have only ever worked within the Help-U-Sell system.

Beverly got her start as a mortgage banker. She met one of our long-term pillars of the Help-U-Sell community, John Powell, back when he was running his own office. It was through John that she became interested in real estate. “I was running a little Cajun restaurant at the time, because I like to try different things. I was already intrigued by the prospect of real estate, but John talked me into it. I decided to close the restaurant and learn something different,” Beverly said. After working with John’s office for a number of years, Beverly wanted to open her own office. Jimmie was a government retiree from both the military and the United States Postal Service. He wanted to stay active, so it was an easy post-retirement transition for him to make.

Beverly’s office appeared on a recent edition of our Top Producers list, noting that she has a goal of 25 to 30 closings for this year. The median price for a home in her market is about $190,000. She shared, “Right now we are experiencing a shortage of inventory. There are roughly 5,000 homes in my market area and as of this minute there are just 26 listings on the MLS. Homes don’t stay on the market very long – about 24 days. I have an advantage over my competitors when the consumer is educated. My goal is to give sellers knowledge of the savings conveyed by selling your home with us.”

When it comes to getting the word out, Beverly has learned diversification is key. “We are lucky to be in a very active market, but I’m always looking for ways to beef up advertising. We’ve tried many methods to find the most effective outcome, and we’ve been taking more risks to find that surprise result that will grab the right attention. My most recent endeavor is handing out the cloth reusable grocery bags, because people now must pay for the plastic bags from the grocery store. We’ve been getting a lot of positive traction off those bags, and of course we add some extra goodies in there to make it interesting for people,” Beverly explained. “I tried advertising on the sanitation station at the grocery store. We advertise in our local newspaper; which has a circulation of about 12,000. I’ve been running ads there for about a year-and-a-half.”

She continued, “We do the ‘Arounds’ postcards once a month. One of the things I learned early on, is that I don’t like postcards with a lot of verbiage on them. White space is valuable, because people don’t have the time to read a lot of fine print. If you can’t get your message across quickly and efficiently, the cumbersome language is a turn-off for them.” Her advertising message centers on: “Stop paying 6% to sell your home. Pay $3,950 instead.”

She added, “Everything has a learning curve in terms of discovering what will or won’t work. We try a little bit of everything and see what takes off. The reusable grocery bags did really well for us, and we got a listing and leads off that. However, the corresponding sanitation station hasn’t done as well for a variety of reasons, primarily poor location and visibility. Our concerns are being addressed and we expect to get the contract extended since it was a substantial investment. It’s all a part of the learning process.”

Being personal gets a lot of mileage for lasting impressions as well. Beverly sends out handwritten cards, but also enjoys cooking and baking. She is known for making candy, especially around the holidays, and makes a habit of handing it out to old and new clients which is always well received.

Jim and Beverly’s strategy for working together starts with collaborating in the morning to get the details of the day in order. “I do all the listing, selling and administrative duties. I send Jim out with buyers because he has a special touch with them. He puts up all of our signage and goes out on inspections. He’s great at filling in the gaps where is necessary,” she said appreciatively.

Beverly is still learning and has no plans on stopping. “I have many friends in this industry, my relationships with them help keep me apprised of how the market is fluctuating. I work to stay on top of our market so that I can provide expertise to our clients. I’m not a person who is driven by money, real estate is my passion. I’ve been doing this for so long now I don’t know anything else. That’s why at 75, I’m still working. I love what I do.”