Recently REM editor Jim Adair interviewed CREA president Beth Crosbie at the association’s offices in Ottawa. Crosbie is a sales representative with Coldwell Banker Pro Co in St. John’s, N.L.. Also sitting in were CREA CEO Gary Simonsen, vice-president of government and public relations Randall McCauley and media relations officer Pierre Leduc.
Jim Adair, REM: When you started your year as CREA president, what were your goals?
Beth Crosbie: Under president Laura Leyser in January we did a five-year strategic planning session, and it was a thing of beauty. It’s one of those things that once you make a change, you wonder why you didn’t do it far sooner. This time, rather than just having the CREA directors and staff dealing with it themselves, we invited members and association and board staff from across the country. We had somebody from NAR, we invited a franchiser (and some other consultants) – so we brought a lot of outside stakeholders into the room.
We established that we have one key stakeholder – the Realtor, our member. The beauty of that is, once you have established that’s the person who you are planning your tools and services around, then as you consider anything new you say, “Does this benefit the Realtor?” and secondly, “Are we the right organization that’s in a position to provide that tool or service to them?”
The other piece that came out of it was that over the years we got to the point where we talked about levels of organized real estate, but we are all serving that same client. It’s really a community of associations that is working on behalf of the Realtor.
So once you understand that you also can look much more collaboratively on how you bring those tools and services forward and who provides what. I thought it was an excellent exercise and we’ve seen some spinoff where some other associations and boards are inviting outside stakeholders into their meetings as well, and it’s really formed a nice foundation on how we are building over the next five years.
Adair: How do you deal with members from different parts of the country? With big and small boards?
Crosbie: I think you have to go back to basics. Our association is all about the Realtor. They are our key member – and Realtors face very similar challenges across the country and yet there are always challenges they face that are specific to their area. So I think one of the key pieces we have done is increasing our commutation and having a two-way dialogue – and not just explain what we are doing and the value we are bringing, but also the why behind what we do. We concentrated a lot since the beginning of (the Futures initiative) on communication and better understanding and I think at this point we are really seeing some dividends from that.
We are now doing Open House sessions with members across the country. As Realtors we know that getting in front of the client and understanding them and dealing with them face-to-face is the best way to build a relationship, so the Open Houses are reaching out both to leaders and to members directly to explain some of the tools and services that CREA is offering. We are tying those meetings into existing provincial or local meetings. We’ve done it over the last couple of months and I think it has been very successful.
Crosbie: Because of anti-spam legislation and FINTRAC we’ve had staff attending a lot of meetings across the country, trying to build the understanding of what those changes are and what they mean to Realtors.
In the Open Houses, I think the members are enjoying all the information but what they are really responding to is just having somebody explain, “these are some of the tools that CREA is offering and this is how I use them in my business.” And you can almost see the light going on for people in the audience. They’re thinking, I could do that. Most of it is very easy; it’s just an awareness issue.
Adair: The membership in CREA keeps growing (it’s currently more than 109,000). Is it hard to keep staff levels down and keep costs in check when there are so many more members?
Gary Simonsen: We pay great attention to our financial situation. We look at things related to best practices, such as for a non-profit organization, what’s the portion of our annual revenue that is dedicated to staff costs. There are some benchmarks in the industry and we pay attention to those and make sure that we are bettering those benchmarks.
One of the advantages of the planning sessions, the outcome is very focused and that’s to insure that we deliver on those things that we can do very well, and not try to be all things to everyone. Sometimes that’s a danger with associations, because you want to make everybody happy. The reality is that nobody can do that so you have to pick those things that are most valued by members and that you can execute very well. I think that for technology products and services, federal affairs and our lobbying efforts, statistical information and research, we do a great job. That’s where our focus will continue to be.
Adair: One of the issues that was much-discussed during the Futures sessions was governance. Is that still an ongoing discussion?
Simonsen: Last year our Board of Directors was reduced from 19 to 16. That was one of the initial pieces of the governance review, to try and have as effective and responsive a board as possible. You still must be able to insure that you have the appropriate input coming from across the country.
Crosbie: We have a very active governance committee – and we’re continuing to work on looking at what we need to do to put ourselves at the forefront of good governance practices. In Banff (at the Western Connection conference in January) we are going to take the entire governance committee and meet with the board and get them up to speed on what we are looking at. It’s always about trying to streamline and make sure the practices we have in place are the right thing for the members.
As we went through the Futures initiative, it became apparent that sometimes there’s duplication (in organized real estate) that is necessary but sometimes it isn’t – and if we work collaboratively we can reduce some of the duplication and also magnify the results – that’s something that all boards and associations are trying to focus on.
Adair: In 2012 and 2013 when we interviewed the presidents of CREA, a big topic was about the Quebec boards leaving the association, but now it seems there is peace.
Crosbie: Both parties have worked hard to ensure our relationship is growing stronger. We are very happy to have them back with us and moving forward.
We learned a lot from the experience – lessons we are taking across the country.
Adair: This year there were questions in the media about CREA’s statistics and a suggestion that CREA was protecting its president so she wouldn’t have to talk to the media. Was there any kind of attempt to avoid the media?
Pierre Leduc: It’s not a question of protecting the president, it’s more a question of making sure the proper expert is available. We have a chief economist, Gregory Klump, who is well-known, who does presentations to banks, the IMF and CMHC all the time, talking about the stats and how we collect the numbers. He is the numbers guy.
So when media keep calling and say we want to talk to Beth about what you are providing and not providing, we are not going to have Beth talk to that because it’s not her bailiwick. It’s Greg’s decision what numbers we make available to our subscribers and what numbers we keep to ourselves for our own analysis.
Simonsen: There is a real misnomer and there is misleading information with respect to the whole issue of statistical information that is being provided by CREA. It is the best, bar none, in this country. When our Housing Price Index was created, we used the best experts in the world. We had the whole methodology feted through Statistics Canada, the Department of Finance, the Bank of Canada, CMHC. We wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just good, it was great.
All of those folks have had input into verifying and validating that the information we are producing is absolutely valid. So the notion that has been portrayed by some people who are quite frankly ill-informed and certainly not experts in the field is completely fallacious. We stand by both the quality and calibre of the information that we provide and Pierre is absolutely right – I can’t speak to someone about the methodology of the Housing Price Index, I’m not the expert in it, but I certainly know the process that we went through for the creation of it and the credibility of that information.
Crosbie: My job… For one year I chair the board, which I consider to be one of the most important pieces of what I do, and I am spokesperson, but I’m not an expert in any of these other more technical fields. We as an organization believe in having experts deal with the various things that we’re looking at, so it’s wrong for me to step in and speak when we have an expert in our offices.
Adair: Another always controversial topic is CREA’s consumer advertising campaign. I thought the SWAT team ad was the best one ever, but how was it received?
Crosbie: It was very well received, both by the public and by Realtors. You never get unanimous support of something like this, and the thing to remember when people do have differing opinions is that it’s not really about what they are thinking; it’s about what we know. And we know that campaign is doing its job.
The purpose of our campaign is to help convert those people who are sitting on the fence about whether or not they will use a Realtor. And we’ve seen significant numbers from this campaign. We’ve had the biggest amount of recall – 39 per cent in our target age range recall the ad, which is an important piece of selling the message. So we are very pleased with that ad. And I still chuckle every single time it comes on.
Randall McCauley: I think one of the interesting things is the feedback we got from across the border from NAR. We showed it at our AGM with senior NAR officials in attendance and it was so well received. It got a spontaneous round of applause. Several states expressed an interest in using the ad. You can’t get much better than that, when you have NAR with an ad budget that’s (up to) seven times ours, saying your creative is so good, we want to use it.
Adair: What are the main priorities for CREA’s government lobbying?
Crosbie: We’re concentrating a lot on the lobby for indexing the Home Buyer’s Plan. We have an election a year out, and this is a prime opportunity to speak to government and opposition parties on that subject. I think even Realtors sometimes forget that we originally initiated that plan. We’ve seen over two million people use it over the years and so the ask is just to see that it doesn’t lose value because of inflation.
We have also started the Realtor Action Network, which is a way for every Realtor in this country to participate in our lobbying. It’s an opportunity to have your voice heard.
McCauley: The Realtor Action Network is a unique tool that only organized real estate has in Canada. It’s a technological tool that we brought in from the United States, modeled on what NAR does – and it allows all members equal access to all of our lobbying efforts and it allows them to reach their MPs directly. A lot of them don’t know that they have the ability to do that. They don’t know that CREA built this. It takes them 30 seconds to sign up and through our collective efforts, we can message like no one else in Canada.
Realtors need to know that there are effects of dealing with the government on a constant basis. You have seen that with FINTRAC and anti-spam, with nine and 10 changes to the regulations and legislation to each one. Their participation helps us to do those things. The efforts we can deploy on their behalf on spam and FINTRAC will save them time and effort that they can spend elsewhere.
Adair: How has your year been? Fun, a lot of work?
Crosbie: I do put a lot of time in on the road. I have done 80 flights. I’m a bit different than others because I’m coming out of Newfoundland so it adds that extra distance for me. But I really enjoy getting out and meeting the members and having an opportunity to speak to them and (explain) what we are facing and why we dealing with it the way we are.
This is something I knew I was signing up for. I don’t really look at this as my year as president, I look at it as time I have had on the board – a seven-year landscape of being involved at this level. It’s been great, I love what I do. When I got up to this level I invested a lot of time trying to be on top of the files and reaching out to understand member concerns. I’m quite enjoying my year and I take the responsibility and the trust very seriously. I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity to do it.
Adair: Are you able to keep your real estate business going?
Crosbie: No. I had plans in place when I knew I was going to be doing this – so my business is referred at the moment.
Adair: So if someone wants to be involved in organized real estate, do they have to be prepared to sacrifice their own personal business?
Crosbie: I don’t see it as a sacrifice. It’s like public service in any area, there are tradeoffs you have to make and if your only concern is the bottom line, there is some loss, there’s no question. But there is also a lot of benefit to better understanding the whole business. The building of relationships is what Realtors are all about and that’s what this side of things is all about as well, building relationships both internally and externally and with government, as well. I see it as a win-win.