By Susan Doran
Century 21 Heritage House has had a 40-year run to date, but former general manager/partner Michael Slager says the brokerage almost got stuck at the starting line.
“Interest rates were 18 per cent in 1980 when the company started,” he says. “We had only one sale in our first month. It was an “Oh-My-God moment. It took us a year and a half to get back on track.”
Century 21 itself was relatively new on the scene in Canada at that time, and its goal was growth. In keeping with that mission, Heritage House, headquartered in Woodstock, Ont. (an hour-and-a-half drive from Toronto, between Kitchener and London), has gone through a series of mergers, expanding its footprint over southwestern Ontario.
The brokerage currently has 150 agents across four main offices and several satellite branches and is consistently a member of Century’s 21’s chairman’s circle. Translation – it’s among the franchise’s top 30 offices in Canada (No. 10 in units sold in 2019), which on occasion means there are opportunities to help shape national brand policy.
This level of success calls for celebration. Heritage House’s 40th anniversary festivities are on the back burner until the fall, when there will be a cake-cutting ceremony at the brokerage’s annual picnic. According to the management team, the theme will be something along the lines of, “reflecting on where we came from.”
Slager, now “pushing 73,” has been doing a fair bit of reflecting himself. He continues to sell. But he stepped down from overseeing day-to-day operations when he turned 65, taking advantage of Heritage House’s non-traditional ownership structure, which allows approved top sales reps and brokers to hold shares as partners and then, when they retire, to sell their shares to others.
“Shared ownership has been in place since day one,” says Slager. “It’s unique.”
And indeed, although not unheard of, it is uncommon in real estate brokerages. An investment opportunity that provides a way for younger agents to have a stake in the company and older agents to have an exit strategy/succession plan, this business model means that the success of the operation is not in jeopardy when a partner moves on or falls on hard times, says Slager.
“Here, we have people in line to buy shares…And we don’t end up with a lot of 85-year-olds who can’t leave.”
There are currently 13 shareholders involved (which may explain why Slager jokingly replies, “There are more titles than before,” when asked to describe changes he has witnessed at Heritage House over the years).
All in all he likes what he’s seeing in the industry. “New agents coming in are more educated, better trained and full of energy.”
His tips for them? “Repeat business is where it’s at.”
Heritage House’s long-time broker of record Nick Lalli was well aware of the brokerage’s reputation before he joined. (“Big presence. Small town,” is how he puts it). But he’d been unaware, he says, of how highly the brokerage is regarded “by national standards by the Century 21 organization.”
He credits Slager for much of that. “He always put the agents first,” says Lalli. “The office is successful because we’ve focused on making the agents successful.”
Lalli continues: “We draw agents in to be part of a team. They are not just working alone in a basement. We provide tools, and teaching and knowledge – we promote working in the bullpen. Having a professional manager is also a plus… I think it’s not great that the industry is moving away from centralized benefits provided by the brokerage…Teamwork at the brokerage level is gone in many brokerages. We are trying to hold onto that and foster it. And that ties in with our ownership strategy, another opportunity for agents, providing security.”
Agents need to be the right fit to become shareholders though. High production is an asset but other criteria, including being a team player, may be deemed equally or more important.
But knowing all the words to Are You Lonesome Tonight? is not a point of comparison, which may come as a relief to some, seeing as Lalli and a broker who preceded him both enjoy dressing up as Elvis for charity events and the like.
“There’s a joke that to become a broker in our office, you have to be an Elvis impersonator,” Lalli reluctantly admits. Apparently he has yet to perform at the brokerage’s signature charity event, the Heritage House Golden Gala. There’s no word on whether that’s in the cards.
When Lalli first became a Realtor he’d had concerns that he’d be “lost in the shuffle” at Heritage House. “It’s by far the biggest brokerage in the Woodstock-Ingersoll District Real Estate Board,” he says. For that reason, he initially started out with a smaller Century 21 operation, only to find that company absorbed by Heritage House within a month.
“So I ended up here anyway,” he says. “I came with fear. My fears were unfounded.”
The local market in the so-called “dairy capital of Canada” has changed, increasingly attracting commuters from the Greater Toronto Area seeking more affordable prices. Lalli says this is known in the office as “drive west until you qualify.”
“We are seeing more buyers being represented by reps from other boards,” Lalli says. “But we still have a large market share.”
So all appears to be well in the Heritage House world of market dominance. Several years back, the brokerage experienced its biggest growth to date with a merger that opened up the Kitchener-Waterloo market and beyond.
Is there more to come?
“We have more irons in the fire. We’re just waiting for them to get hotter,” says the company’s COO, Anthony Montanaro.