For 27 years, Pierre Beauchamp has been in an executive leadership position with the Canadian Real Estate Association – first as executive vice-president and then as CEO. For this 20th anniversary issue of REM, Beauchamp and REM senior editor Kathy Bevan discussed some of the transitions he’s seen over the past two decades, within CREA and Canada’s real estate industry.
REM: What would you say has been the change that’s had the biggest impact on Realtors over the past 20 years, since REM first began covering Canada’s real estate industry?
BEAUCHAMP: We’ve gone from pagers and fax machines to Blackberries and other tools that technology has provided to us, and that’s changed a lot of things. It’s put a lot of pressure on everybody to be sharp and to be able to react more quickly than ever before.
It wasn’t so long ago that we went from tear sheets to Realtor.ca for exposure of MLS. The public now has access, particularly in the past 10 years, to superb information that they can consult from a site like Realtor.ca. They no longer have to go into a broker’s office, like they did 20 years ago, to look at tear sheets and catalogues.
Realtors themselves have changed too. Back at the end of the ’90s, less than 50 per cent of Realtors at that time had an Internet or email address. In 2007, our statistics for members stated that 99 per cent have an email address – that’s a huge difference. In 1998, less than 10 per cent of Realtors had a website. In 2008, 70 per cent told us they have at least one website that they use for business purposes.
REM: With the sense of empowerment that technology and information access gives to consumers today, is it becoming an increasing challenge for Realtors not to get pushed out of the buying and selling process?
BEAUCHAMP: Back in the ’80s and ’90s, there were many who said that technology will wipe out the real estate business and Realtors will be out of a job. In the mid-’90s, when we came out with MLS.ca, exactly the opposite happened. The same thing is happening now, with the new wave of technology.
Technology is great, but at the end of the day what the public does is pick someone who is going to provide a service that’s a complicated one, more than ever before. It’s not just a question of finding a property, it’s a question of what does the consumer do from there, whether they are selling or buying.
With time and with technology, Realtors have had to differentiate their service. Your information has to be well organized, impeccable, accurate and clear for the public to understand what you have. Consumers choose a Realtor like they would choose any other professional, to provide the service. They have to have someone they can trust, someone who is going to understand their needs and understand the market and provide them with advice that is going to help them either sell or buy their property.
We end up today with Realtors who are really specialized. Today, you are a specialized condo person, you’re specialized in senior houses – more market niches are being recognized and pursued, so you end up in being specialized in marketing property.
With first-time homebuyers there is definitely a greater appetite now and greater demand for market insight and analysis. What’s happening out there, what’s happening in the market?
Especially with the times we’re in now, with the economic downturn. There’s also recognition that many Realtors have much more to offer than just access to information. I think that’s been recognized and I think it’s for the reasons we’ve been successful as an industry – not just for first-time homebuyers, but generally speaking for the public.
You have to be flexible to adapt, or say, “This is the service I provide, this is how we work within my brokerage” and offer that to the public. But you have to be in a position to compete.
Always remember, Realtors are probably in one of the most competitive businesses in the world. They compete against each other, yet they share their stock on the shelf. Who else does that – think about it. Realtors as well are people who only get paid when they perform, they don’t get paid otherwise. Those are elements that don’t change.
Due to competition, brokers and sales reps are going to come up with ideas to better serve the public and to offer what they feel is within their field of specialization to the public and then build a clientele and work with them over time. Because when you start off, you don’t have 200 clients who will come back to you every four, five, six years – you have to build that up.
Good Realtors who stay in the business go through the good and the bad times. We happen to be in a downturn right now, but there are already signs that we’ll be pulling out of it. But at this stage, we’ve gone through a downturn and hopefully by this time next year things will have improved. Realtors who have been around for a while and Realtors who are competitive are going to make it through those tough times as well as stay during the good times.
REM: Do you think the federal government’s Competition Bureau will ever agree that organized real estate is competitive enough, whatever the market and economic conditions?
BEAUCHAMP: The bureau’s job is to ensure competition in every industry – that’s really what they’re trying to do. The job of Realtors is already a very, very competitive business. Our challenge in many ways has been to demonstrate to the bureau the nature of that competition and how diverse the services and businesses plans are that exist in the real estate industry, to serve consumers. At times, there have been disagreements about that aspect; that’s why we keep plugging at it, trying to show what it is that Realtors do in selling real estate.
We own the MLS trademarks and we’ve been appointed by our membership to protect those trademarks. Those trademarks mean we’re going to have certain limitations, because a trademark is designed to distinguish itself from anything else that is in the market.
We’re there to maintain a trademark within a competitive business and we encourage that competition. CREA does not dictate what business plan a business is going to have; everybody is welcome, provided they are prepared to adhere to the basic rules of our trademark. It’s a co-operative system that has served the public very well in our country.
So we keep answering the questions of the bureau; we keep co-operating 100 per cent with all departments at the federal level, whether it is finance with the anti-money laundering, where we’re involved as far as we can go to work to ensure that these programs are in full compliance. There are compliance programs within RealtorLink for competition, for anti-money laundering – it’s all there and we try to help members, through negotiation and discussion with the Competition Bureau, the Finance Department and FINTRAC, to solve these issues.
We’re a big country – the challenge for a national body is to come up with policies and directions that are going to satisfy everybody. How can you do that in a country the size of Canada? It’s difficult, because no matter what you do, you’ll have some people who will not be totally in accord with where you’re going. But at one point or another, you have to consider what is the best thing to do. That’s what we do, with the best legal help, with the best minds around and obviously with Realtors looking at the vision that they’ve created and finding ways to better implement it.
REM: CREA’s federal efforts aren’t limited to discussions with various federal government departments and agencies – your association also continues to actively lobby the federal government at all levels, with some notable results. To what do you attribute CREA’s success to date with those lobbying efforts?
BEAUCHAMP: We are very aggressive with that. And at our recent PAC (Political Action) Days in Ottawa, Prime Minister Harper came to visit us and agreed to have his photograph taken, spending over a full hour with delegates from every province in Canada. We had about 300 people in the room, and the prime minister and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stood in the room for photos with all these groups from all the regions of the country. We’ve have prime ministers visit before, but we’ve never had them stay and have pictures taken with us.
That night, we had a major reception for all MPs on Parliament Hill in the West Block and Michael Ignatieff dropped by to say hello, as did many ministers and senators. We had the best attendance at this reception that we’ve ever had.
We’ve had a lot of success with our lobbying efforts over time. Part of the reason for that success is that the files we take on – the issues that we deal with – are always designed to stimulate the economy. The Home Buyers’ Plan – that’s an old one now – it’s been in since 1992. That plan may have been good for Realtors, but it sure has been good to consumers. We’re now suggesting the Home Buyers’ Plan withdrawal limit be permanently indexed to inflation, so we don’t have to come back to the federal government to change the numbers. We’re also suggesting that they consider changing the plan to make it applicable to all homebuyers for two years.
We’re also supporting a reinvestment in real estate program, which would allow a person to roll over the capital gains tax to a new rental property when they are selling their existing rental property. That’s a file that would help get the big engine going for commercial property and help the residential sector. Too many people today are holding onto the commercial property that they own because the capital gains tax on it is going to be so huge that, after they’ve paid the capital gains, it would make no sense for them to reinvest and buy another revenue property. If they were allowed to simply postpone the payment of that tax, it would encourage quite a number of people to get involved.
The files that we adopt are not necessarily things that are going to benefit Realtors – that’s important. We do all kinds of things that go beyond just plans that might directly or indirectly help Realtors. For example, for about 15 years now, we’ve been sponsors for parliamentary internships here in Ottawa. Our Realtors Care programs are designed to show the public and the media, via promotional material about Realtors, what it is that Realtors do to support good works in communities across Canada. Under Realtors Care, we’re going to include aggregate numbers to show what all real estate boards and associations do in Canada to help their communities. Realtors are very involved in community work. It’s good for their business, but they also enjoy getting involved in this way with different programs.
All of this to say that our lobbying efforts are not just based on making money, they’re based on making a contribution as Canadian citizens, wherever in the country we happen to be.
REM: There’s a lot more on the plate of an executive officer now than when you were hired by CREA – when you eventually step down, what will the job description for the next applicant look like?
BEAUCHAMP: When I applied, there were close to 250 applicants, but CREA decided it would be useful to work with someone from the industry at the time, as that would fulfill one of the needs that they had. But remember, in those days CREA did not have a lobbying movement that was as strong as it is today, we didn’t have PAC days, technology was not there, and the legal framework was totally different. I think that those things have structured the national body in a totally different way.
We’re now involved, for example, with the Realtor.ca site; we’re involved in the daily affairs of Realtors, whereas we were not as involved in that way in the past. While we still work through the real estate boards, we have more impact – particularly with the laws at the national level, for example the anti-money laundering laws, the competition laws, and so on. We have impact that was not needed in the early days of our association.
The people who will succeed me and many others will be individuals who will be required to have a good deal of vision. Planning will be the key, because there are so many different directions an association like ours can take, whether in the technology or the lobbying field. They’ll have to create visions to follow and have strategic plans that reflect what the expectations of members and consumers are going to be in future.
Volunteers also must be taken into account. Finding willing volunteers is obviously going to be a challenge; once they’re found, the idea will be to try to spend enough time on training through leadership programs that are now available. That’s something else that wasn’t here 10 years ago. The Ontario Association has written programs that we’ve sponsored jointly, specifically for the training of the elected leadership. It’s important for those who are going to be presidents, vice-presidents and directors of associations and real estate boards to clearly understand their role – an extremely more complicated role than it was way back then. We’ve established courses to lead people to better understand the role function and responsibilities, and help them to work as directors of organizations.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that everything was done wrong before! I’m simply suggesting that this is part of the natural evolution, given the demands that are going to be made in the future.
REM: What has given you the greatest personal satisfaction so far, over your past three decades of serving CREA and the real estate industry?
BEAUCHAMP: Basically the success that we have – whether it’s through lobbying or watching my unbelievable staff flick the switch on a new piece of technology that at three o’clock in the morning is going to be seen by 3,000 people who are all on the system at that particular low point in the day. That’s what happened with Realtor.ca, so we could continue to work the bugs out.
I get satisfaction out of seeing the industry evolve in all these different directions and in coming up with solutions to the various challenges that we have, whether they be technological, political or legal. It’s been kind of fun to help build and participate in what we’ve done, to end up where we are now.
In just 10 years, we’ve doubled our staff; we’ve more than doubled the budget we had back then, because Realtors want more service. We provide services at a rate that is cheaper than almost any other country at the moment – certainly cheaper than what Realtors to the south are paying for their technology.
I’m proud of those accomplishments because they’ve put us into a leadership role in the world. We’re in demand in other countries that want us to tell them how we do things. I love it when associations in other countries come and see us and say, “Your PAC program and PAC network visiting MPs across the country has worked so well, tell us how do you do it?” We’ve had 25 years of doing it and I think we’ve got it refined enough that, as happened this time, we had a PM join us to shake hands with 300 people. I’m proud of those things and I’m happy to be part of what made them happen.