Interview by Jim Adair
CREA president Laura Leyser comes from a third-generation family of dairy farmers. She lives with her husband and children on a farm near Stratford, Ont. A sales rep with Re/Max a-b Realty, she has been a Realtor for more than 24 years and was previously president of the Ontario Real Estate Association and the Huron Perth Real Estate Board.
“Behind every successful person is a strong supportive family, and if it weren’t for my family I would not be able to do this for the members,” says Leyser.
“Whenever I speak, I tell everyone in the room that I am like each and every one of them. I get up every day and I sell real estate. So any of the programs or tools that CREA is providing, I’m using on a daily basis….When I give a message to a room full of Realtors, I say I know exactly what you are going through because I’m going through the same thing.”
Recently REM interviewed Leyser in Ottawa, along with Gary Simonsen, CREA’s CEO. The following is an edited record of the conversation.
REM: A year ago when REM interviewed immediate past-president Wayne Moen, many of our questions had to do with some Quebec boards leaving CREA. This year that issue is back, with Quebec City and Montreal stating they will leave CREA at the end of the year. What’s the latest with that situation?
Laura Leyser: We have been in conversation with Quebec for 2½ or three years regarding their concerns and the conversations continue. We have had ongoing dialogue trying to address their concerns, but at the same time we are keeping in mind that we have the entire membership – the entire country – to think about. When you work to address their specific concerns you have to make sure it will work for the rest of the country.
So, for example, Webforms is a tool we offer at the national association but unfortunately Quebec’s regulator precludes their licensed agents from using Webforms, so we are trying to accommodate suitable arrangements that recognize that. Another area would be our national ad campaign – in the past we have worked together with Quebec so they can produce a French version.
REM: What seems to be the major sticking point in your discussions?
Leyser: There are certain regulatory restrictions – things that are permissible across the country through regulators in other provinces that are not permissible in Quebec. We are trying to address some of their regulatory concerns.
REM: What’s your gut feeling? Will they be leaving CREA?
Leyser: I feel our conversations have continued to be at a positive, higher level. We still have some time before the end of the year comes and I feel very positive that our members will remain as part of the CREA family.
REM: At a recent Toronto Real Estate Board Annual General Meeting, we heard you promise that regardless of what happens with Quebec, members’ dues will not be going up this year.
Leyser: Absolutely. When any of your membership comes to you and says they may be leaving, you have to take precautionary measures – take a look at everything across the board, and pick and choose things that perhaps you won’t move forward with or perhaps will put on hold depending on if all our membership remains. So we have done that and we are in a position that we will be able to maintain our current dues structure for 2014.
REM: What’s the impact on CREA if they decide to leave?
Leyser: It’s sad that some people who have been members for years will no longer have the services that CREA has produced for decades – they just won’t be part of our family. We are a national association and we are stronger together.
Gary Simonsen: We have talked about the impact upon consumers. The brokers would lose access to the most popular website in the country and they would lose use of the MLS trademarks. That’s important with respect to the kinds of services being provided to the consumers.
REM: One of the things the Montreal board has asked about is an expenses review. CREA is often accused of spending too much money and being overstaffed. Is CREA lean and mean or is it the bloated bureaucracy that you are often accused of being?
Simonsen: It’s a fair question. Every association has to be accountable. We do a zero-based budget every year so we take a look at what are our expenses, what are the priorities. We align those with our strategic plan and staff accordingly.
I think the Board of Directors and certainly the staff is very cognisant of how we spend the members’ money and making sure that they are focused, prioritized appropriately and that we are making best use of the money as possible. I think we have been very frugal and effective. We’re even more effective with some of the changes made under Laura’s presidency and some of the work that went on prior to Laura’s presidency.
Leyser: One of the priorities is our full governance review. It wasn’t just our Quebec members that were questioning; it was other members coming forward. So we moved forward with the Board of Directors and are doing a full governance review. With the changes that have just occurred at the Special General Meeting, it allows us to change the structure, make the board leaner. It will be financially beneficial for our membership.
REM: Did this come out of the Futures initiative?
Leyser: Yes. That’s been going on for 2½ years now. When people ask, what’s the final outcome of the Futures – it has not only given us chance to look at the governance structure of our association but also to open up whole new lines of communication. We now communicate directly with all members.
When we have our strategic planning sessions in January, we’re taking what we have coming from the Futures and weaving it into the governance.
The majority of recommendations (from the Futures initiative) have already been implemented or put in place in an operational manner so they can move forward without full approval.
Simonsen: One of the big changes is to ensure there is an alignment and better connection and collaboration with the three levels of organized real estate. Each plan is not done in isolation but where they complement one another. We must make sure there isn’t duplication, or in fact very different messages being delivered to members. We’re now seeing that.
Leyser: We have also seen some real estate board amalgamations, which has been very positive. Some of the boards who were having a difficult time functioning as a smaller board now have an opportunity to be part of a larger board.
Simonsen: So we’re seeing more shared services. Instead of each board doing everything itself when sometimes it doesn’t have the resources, now it can make better use of members’ money and provide better service by taking advantage of scale and size.
REM: Another issue that often comes up has to do with the directors of boards and associations attending conferences and events. This fall some of them flew to the CREA meeting in Vancouver and two weeks later to the National Association of Realtors conference in San Francisco. Should directors be taking all these trips?
Leyser: It’s a good question. I hear it all the time. As part of our governance review, we’re going to be looking at our representation budget. We feel that with technology, now you have the ability to sit in an office at home and watch a conference rather than attending it in person. We’ll be looking at that.
REM: What’s the main message you would like to get out to Realtors?
Simonsen: There is clearly a dearth of information for most members about what CREA is or does. We are trying to open up those lines of communication to make sure they are aware of our services – so not only is there awareness but with that comes accountably, so they can hold us accountable for what we are doing. So that has been a critical point, to raise that level of awareness through direct communication.
REM: At the TREB meeting we were surprised to hear that TREB now has more than 38,000 members. There has been a lot of talk on remonline recently about professionalism and training issues. Do we have too many Realtors? Is it too easy to become a Realtor?
Leyser: My personal opinion – I would liken it to the medical profession. For a hospital to function you have everything from doctors to nurses to surgical staff to the people who take care of the patients afterwards and people who clean and the people in the kitchen. It takes everyone working together to make it what it is. It’s the same in our industry – whether you are full time or part time or come from a large board or a small board, we are one profession. I don’t feel that there are too many Realtors and I’m open to many different business models. It’s refreshing to work with so many people who are so diversified and come with such different backgrounds.
REM: Whenever REM publishes a story about a Realtor who does something else outside of real estate, we get lots of complaints from readers, telling us not to feature part-timers.
Leyser: It depends what you consider part time. There are Realtors out there who may only work 10 hours a week because they have other commitments or they have a family…but they can still be very productive and very knowledgeable and with today’s technology, we all have access to the information. I guess I just don’t see that as a problem when I’m out trading in real estate.
Simonsen: This was one of the areas not done yet in the Futures project – the issue of professionalism and what are the core components of being a professional. The Ontario Real Estate Association has done some interesting work in that regard and we are looking at that, to identify what is the role of organized real estate at all levels in terms of enhancing the cultural perspective that real estate is indeed a profession.
REM: Member apathy has often been an issue. At the TREB meeting, someone pointed out that of the 38,000 members, there were maybe 250 at the meeting. How do you get members out and to give a damn?
Leyser: If you really want to get people out, there’s going to be a contentious issue on the agenda. If many of the members are not there, it means things are working well; they are out selling real estate.
This year, however, we have had many requests from boards and associations for us to come and speak to them – more than we ever have. We have a full Board of Directors and we delegated more this year and have attended far more functions. As president I can’t be in all places at all times so it is crucial to engage the directors and send them and have them give updates. It has proven to be very beneficial – now our membership is more engaged, they know what is going on and we are getting feedback.
REM: It must take a lot away from your own business when you serve as president.
Leyser: Being the president is a privilege. I don’t look at it that I’m here to make a lot of changes come to fruition or that I’m going to make the industry better – it’s made me better. It’s something that I can take back and share with my colleagues and my consumers. Often colleagues will ask, why do you do it? Don’t you want to be out there selling? I am out there selling but if it’s going to make me a better person at what I do then it’s going to let me give back. I’m here because I care about our profession and I’m looking forward to getting out there and sharing our message for the remainder of our term.