By Don Procter
It is a brand-conscious society, Brian Walker will tell you.
That’s why the 61-year-old broker closed the doors a year ago on his long-time brokerage NRS – a name once recognized as one of the largest realty companies in Canada – and re-opened shop as a Re/Max West Realty office.
The move to Re/Max West was a no-brainer, says the Richmond Hill-Ont.-based broker. “What’s happened in the brokerage business is that the weight and expectation on brokerages has become greater and greater as the margins these brokerages collect dwindle,” he says. “It was becoming a ball and chain to run a small office,” which is what NRS had become. “In this business you have to go big or go home.”
NRS was not always small. When Walker opened NRS Select as a franchisee in 1991 the company “had the systems in place and the power to move forward.” NRS (National Real Estate Service) had about 7,000 agents at its peak. In the 1970s it was identified with actor Raymond Burr, who played lawyer Perry Mason, and who also did commercials for the firm.
By the mid ’90s, however, the franchisor was in a tailspin and two years after West Coast investor Ron Dixon took the helm with an ambitious restructuring agenda, the company was dead. Walker stubbornly hung onto the name at his realty office in Oak Ridges – a small community at the north end of Richmond Hill – even when he was confronted in the mid-2000s by a B.C. broker demanding he stop using the name because he claimed to have the rights to it under the logo National Relocation Service.
“I didn’t figure I would be carrying on for long but lo and behold, I kept the name (until 2017).”
Last August he signed on as a broker under the banner of Re/Max West Realty. “They totally refurbished my office, allowing me to work at the same address with the same phone number.” And he kept his wealth of contacts – integral to his continued success.
“In the last year we’ve been able to up our game because we have the bigger brand and we’re in a brand-conscious society.”
He says at NRS it had become difficult to keep up with fast-paced technological and regulatory changes. A case in point is FINTRAC compliance requirements, which have become “increasingly onerous” and owners don’t see a payback.
The Ontario Real Estate Association has been “pretty effective” at addressing many government initiatives but government keeps knocking at the door says Walker, who is a past president of the association. For example, he says the Ontario government’s minimum wage hike on Jan. 1 “puts a huge burden on brokerages operating from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.”
Whenever there was a change in the industry, Walker’s office, like many small brokerages, was left scrambling to adapt.
“It was easier to be a Mom and Pop shop” in the 1990s, he says. “Now when there is a technological glitch…when your computer goes down you have this expense of pulling your tech guy in.”
He forged on, however, in part because his secretary – “the anchor of my brokerage” – took care of everything from booking appointments to operating Lone Wolf (back office accounting software). “That is unheard of now. I was spoiled,” he says. After 17 years his secretary retired, influencing his decision to close NRS Select.
He says to replace experienced personnel in today’s market takes time and training can be costly for smaller brokerages. At Re/Max West his transition has been smooth because the company provides administrative needs and has someone continually recruiting agents and training staff for its 10 offices. “As an office for Re/Max West, my company hands off all the administrative duties to them. It is a well-oiled machine.”
He says while he has to pay for the Re/Max West banner, the price is “not that high” for the services provided. Fees he paid when at NRS for accounting software and an answering service alone were significant.
Walker says another reason small independent brokers might consider moving to a big brokerage is if they are extensively involved in other time-consuming activities. For example, he was the president of his local board in the 1990s and president of OREA in 2007 and then spent four years on the CREA board. “It takes a lot of focus away from running your brokerage, from selling real estate.”
He believes there is room for agents who don’t heavily rely upon the latest technology or social media to drum up business. “Skills of good old-fashioned networking and belly-to-belly contact are still important. Instead of things going one way, things are just more diverse.”
Walker sees himself in the industry for years to come. “The challenge is keeping aware of changes. I enjoy being a sponge . . . keeping up on things.”
When the broker is not selling real estate, he is often picking leads and strumming rhythm on his Strat or Tele with his band Shakey and the Bluenotes – a group made up of Realtors that has raised about $60,000 over the past dozen years for the OREA Realtors Care Foundation through an annual musical jam.
This year the jam will be held in late November at Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street in Toronto. “At this stage in my life I am pinching myself that I am getting out and doing this. It is still a novelty,” says Walker.