By Susan Doran (Photo by Elijah Shark)
As recipients of the Re/Max organization’s inaugural Founders Award, Frank Polzler and Walter Schneider have reached the Re/Max world’s accolade summit.
“We’re breathing very thin air,” says Schneider.
Co-founders of Re/Max Integra, the largest master sub-franchisor within the entire Re/Max system, the pair was integral to ReMax’s growth into Canada and overall success here and in the U.S. and Europe. They were presented with the Founders Award at Re/Max’s annual international R4 convention in Las Vegas a few months ago. The award honours Re/Max trail blazers who have played critical roles in the company’s early survival and continued success.
Schneider (Re/Max Integra president) and Polzler (chairman) have been partners for 38 years and counting.
“I’ve been business partners with Walter longer than I was with a woman,” says Polzler, whose wife died many years ago.
Adds Schneider: “We are very lucky. We have an incredible partnership, we are great friends and we both have kids in the business – we have our own succession plan. It’s an incredible journey in an outstanding industry.”
Based in Mississauga, Ont., Re/Max Integra has the brand rights for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, as well as Europe, multiple U.S. states and parts of the Middle East. It represents 30 per cent of the Re/Max network worldwide and has roughly 2,900 offices and 40,000 sales professionals in 36 countries.
But when Polzler and Schneider joined Re/Max in 1980, the then-embryonic organization feared that bringing them on board was a huge mistake. Polzler recalls Re/Max founder Dave Liniger saying, “You’re broke, Frank. How are you going to do this?”
“Then we saved the company,” says Schneider. “Our sales helped dig them out of debt.”
The powers-that-be at Re/Max have been quoted as saying that if it wasn’t for Polzler and Schneider’s expansion efforts, the entire Re/Max operation might have collapsed in the early days.
Back then Re/Max was almost unknown in Canada and many people cautioned Polzler and Schneider that it was the road to bankruptcy. But the pair liked the business model and saw the growth potential.
“We ramped up pretty fast,” says Schneider. “When we saw opportunity, we seized it.”
They certainly can’t be accused of being afraid to take risks.
“Before we launched in Europe, we had several feasibility studies done. All of them came back saying that the model would not work in Europe,” says Schneider, laughing.
But it has been successful, despite Europe’s hugely dissimilar marketplace, where word is that consumer information is hard to get, licensing is inconsistent and there is essentially no MLS system. All this aside, the fact is that Europe is an “incredibly dynamic market,” with higher rates of ownership than here, and an abundance of opportunity, Schneider says.
That suits the partners just fine. They both describe themselves as highly driven and relentless.
“I don’t think the word ‘retire’ is in either of our vocabularies,” says Schneider, 64. “I don’t know what I would do if I retired. Golf? My game is pathetic.”
Polzler does admit to slowing down a little in recent years and even occasionally uses the term “semi-retired.” Not that anyone seems to believe it. After all, this is a man who survived a plane crash 35 years ago (“maybe because I had a mission to take this thing to Europe”) and continued working in his hospital gown.
Polzler recalls that a few years ago the “younger folks” suggested he step back a little at work. He considered this tantamount to a “palace coup.” Before Re/Max Integra, Polzler had his own brokerage (with Schneider as manager).
Now 85 (“Don’t say years OLD!” he admonishes me), Polzler spends most of his time in Europe, has residences “everywhere” and is a great-grandfather four times over.
“I am the Colonel Sanders of Re/Max Europe,” he says. “I just show up for the people.”
Calling me from Italy for this interview, Polzler says, “It’s a different game here in Europe, a different attitude. When I first came here I felt like Captain Kirk. Everywhere the market is different. Here they close at 2 p.m. and don’t re-open until 4 p.m. There are different cultures and different dialects everywhere you turn. I used to run around with eight different wallets with eight different currencies… Brokers don’t co-operate with each other. Crazy business practices. We’re trying to change all that. We started For Sale signs here and exclusive listings.”
He has been in the real estate business since 1958, having arrived in Canada from Europe several years before that, speaking no English, with a green suitcase in his hand and $40 in his pocket. Of Austrian heritage (as is Schneider), he recalls when a triple bill at the movies cost only 35 cents in Toronto, the average house price was around $16,000, and there were hardly any women in the real estate industry.
Trained to be a baker (“I still like making dough,” he jokes) but not thrilled with how early he had to get up for that job, he eventually found his way into real estate, despite the fact that at that time and long afterwards, “a real estate agent was on the same level as a used car salesman.”
He recalls paying $5 for his real estate license.
“I’ve been through so many recessions I can’t even count them,” he says. “You can still make money. When things are bad people need good agents.”
In his opinion, one of his strengths has always been that people look to him for leadership. “I’m a good delegator,” he says.
When asked about the biggest change in real estate over the years, Polzler says “prices.” Technology is another, although Polzler feels that its importance can get “overblown.” It is a phenomenal tool, he says. “But buying property is still an emotional decision and you need a professional guiding you.”
Schneider entered real estate in the late 1970s, and he has witnessed a major “redefinition” of the industry as well, with intensification and urbanization of cities across North America, as well as much different demographics. But like Polzler, Schneider finds that the fundamental role of the real estate salesperson as a guide and support for clients remains the same.
“The business and the tools have changed but the energy around ownership has not,” says Schneider. “The agent should never forget the emotional side of sales. It is not a clinical process.”
Not content simply to be a big deal in real estate, Schneider is also the honorary consul general for Austria in Toronto; runs his own family charitable foundation (and sits on the boards of various others); is always looking for investment opportunities; has a book pending; and has received various honours for leadership and wide-ranging business and humanitarian efforts, including a David Foster Foundation Visionary Award. (Yes, that David Foster – the multiple Grammy Award winner.) Foster praised Schneider as “an absolute visionary, with unparalleled accomplishments as an entrepreneur.”
The key to success in anything, both Schneider and Polzler believe, is perseverance.
“Just keep going,” says Polzler, whose persistence is legendary, by the sounds of it. “If there is a traffic jam I will drive over a field. What makes a good salesperson? You do not give up. There is almost always a solution.”
Schneider feels the same.
“The secret of success is getting up every morning and going to work. Start there,” he advises.
“Be passionate. Have goals and re-jig them constantly. Be able to change and adapt your product – we have never resisted change.”
Schneider believes that as the industry continues to evolve, “we will move into an era of agent rating,” where the services provided by agents will be rated and reviewed by clients, as is frequently done with doctors and many other professionals today.
“Agents will need to be better trained and more informed. It’s just a matter of time,” he says. “Consumers will demand it.”
He adds that what he believes attracts clients to the Re/Max brand include customer service, “outstanding sales and the Re/Max tool box.”
But no matter how well stocked the tool box, there will still always be challenges.
“Some people think that if you buy a franchise it’s a magic wand. But it’s not. You have to work hard,” says Polzler.
Schneider adds, “Nothing stays static. And it is never the right time.” He has developed a list of maxims along these lines. “These are the three things I have learned in life and real estate,” he says:
- It will always take longer than anticipated;
- It will require more energy and input;
- It will go over the allotted budget.
“We always do projections but there is always the unforeseen,” says Schneider. “Business plans keep you between the guard rails. But things will never fall exactly where you plan.”
Ain’t it the truth.
At a birthday party for Schneider once, Polzler observed to him jokingly, “Going forward from here, all it is is maintenance.”
If so, they both seem to be maintaining at full tilt.