Chances are that as you are reading this, Gary Simonsen and his wife Kathy are basking in the sun in Thailand or taking in the sights in Singapore. Days after formally retiring from his duties as CEO of CREA, the couple got on a plane for a two-month tour of the far east.
“I think it’s important that when you make a change, you don’t just go home and say, ‘I’ll have a coffee and read the newspaper. That is going to last for a very short period,” says Simonsen.
He started his career in organized real estate in 1984 at the Winnipeg Real Estate Board and came to Ottawa to work at CREA in 1997. He became CEO of the organization in 2011.
A few weeks before turning over the reins to new CEO Michael Bourque, Simonsen sat down with REM editor Jim Adair to reflect on his term at CREA and the changes he has seen in organized real estate (ORE) and the Canadian real estate industry during his tenure.
“When I started, the manner in which brokers conducted business was kind of similar – now there is a real diversity of business models,” he says. For an association to serve all members with different priorities “becomes much more complex…to provide and deliver services – particularly because ORE is not just a typical association, it’s also a provider of very significant business services that members are using.”
He says evolving technology has had an obvious impact, “both in terms of the role of the Realtor and how ORE itself is using technology.” The evolution of social media has both good and bad implications, he says. “The ability to reach folks who were difficult to reach before” is good, but “it also enables somebody who’s got a crazy wild idea to simply provide misinformation about something. It creates this unnecessary churn because somebody has misinformed a bunch of other folks, and then you are trying to manage that by correcting the misinformation.
“In terms of being a forum for intelligent discussion and debate, it has at times undermined that. In the past you would provide a written document, you would send it out to everybody, they would provide a written response….”
Now, “people don’t want two written pages, they say just give me a tweet. And that is supposed to capture what can be a pretty complex issue.”
Simonsen says the business has also become more adversarial. “With the evolution of agency, where you have agents on either side of a transaction and they are representing different fiduciary responsibilities…. you see from a transaction perspective as well as sometimes from an association perspective, where it has become a little more adversarial.”
The increase in government regulations has also created tensions in the industry.
“So, from mortgage rules, FINTRAC rules, privacy rules, anti-spam rules, to the regulation of education, dual agency…to a whole bunch of simple things likes like the signage brokers can use in their community, municipal bylaws – all of a sudden, there are a plethora of regulations…You see all three levels of the government imposing new ways to regulate the industry.”
Within ORE itself, Simonsen says one of the most positive changes is that “there has become an awareness of the importance and impact of good governance – having directors who are well trained, who understand their roles and responsibilities, who can hold folks like me to account, but do so in an appropriate way.”
When Simonsen started at CREA, there were about 65,000 members. Now there are 124,000 and the numbers are still growing, although the association expects it to stabilize over the coming year.
Where does he see ORE in 20 years? Simonsen says advocating for the industry will continue to be the association’s raison d’être. “There is nobody else who can play that role on a national basis.
“On the technology front, that’s ever evolving. There has always been concern that, wow, does CREA have plans for a national MLS? Who knows, it may evolve to that at some point. Is that going to be in my lifetime?” he says, laughing. “Probably not! But there will continue to be changes to technology.”
Simonsen says one of the best parts of his job “was a unique opportunity to see the country one end to the other and lots of places in between.” He estimates that he took about 70 plane rides per year, including transfers. All the travel and meeting members made him proud to be a Canadian and to represent ORE. “The fact that we own the MLS trademark and the Realtor trademark, and how we are structured and organized here…we are the envy of countries around the world,” he says.
The volunteer members and peers he has worked with are an “outstanding group of individuals…people who are committed and care,” he says. The CREA staff is a “wonderful team” and their “care, compassion and dedication” were demonstrated when they sponsored a Syrian family to settle in Canada.
What won’t Simonsen miss about the job?
“To use the Spiro Agnew phrase, I won’t miss the negative nabobs – the naysayers, the doomsayers,” he says. “I won’t miss spending a lot of time in airports. And the nature of this job, and it’s partly self-imposed, but it’s 24/7. You are on call and dealing with stuff seven days a week.”
He and Kathy also own a home that’s 90 minutes away from Ottawa, which meant that Simonsen didn’t get home very often. “I’m looking forward to having one place to hunker down.”
When he returns from his vacation, Simonsen will begin working with consulting firm TNG, dealing with associations and not-for-profit organizations, and “hopefully with clients in the real estate realm.” He will consult on matters such as strategic planning, facilitation and governance reviews.
Simonsen says he leaves CREA with “nothing but positive feelings and I hope that in my new role there is a way I can continue to contribute to the Realtor community.”