Leap of faith

It’s a hot June afternoon. The streets of Toronto are muggy, but Ron Hunter is keeping cool on the 11th floor headquarters of Coldwell Banker Canada Ltd., located just behind the Sheraton Centre.

In a couple of hours, however, Hunter will be on Lake Ontario soaking up the late afternoon heat.

A local franchise of Coldwell Banker — one of this country’s Big Six real-estate companies with 220 offices, 3,200 sales agents and about $4 billion in annual revenue — is hosting a booze cruise for employees, and Hunter is invited.

Real estate is a people business, and Hunter — a chief operating officer with closely cropped, reddish hair and a greying goatee — never turns down a chance to press the flesh. Indeed, he spends a quarter of his time on the road, interacting with agents and brokers at networking events and leading educational workshops. The focus of these workshops is primarily technology and teaching agents how they can harness the power of the Web and the company’s various intranet tools — many of which are designed to save time by automating mundane activities such as ordering personalized marketing material, or e-mailing newsletters — to rise Hulk-like above their competition.

Agents are naturally gung-ho about anything that allows them to get out in front of more potential clients and to market themselves more vigorously, right? Wrong.

Over the years Hunter has learned that technology is a hard sell in the dog-eat-dog world of residential real estate.

“”My biggest challenge is getting realtors into a room for a day to learn about some of the new IT tools we have developed,”” says Hunter. Still, he understands the power of technology, and the critical role it will play in his industry’s future even if his sales force does not. And he is taking important steps to ensure the future does not slip out of his hands.

“”About 70 per cent of home buyers do their tire kicking online,”” says Hunter. “”The next step after that is calling an agent.”” The implications of this new kind of buyer behaviour are enormous for Hunter’s business. At the very least, it means you need to have a slam-dunk Web site with up-to-the-minute listings. The wider implications are that agents need to be tech-savvy operators who can access any kind of transaction document or piece of information necessary to close a deal from the curb or a client’s kitchen table.

Hunter knows information is power, and as a result he has made IT the central pillar of his company’s strategy for building brand equity and market share. In financial services or telecommunications that kind of thinking would be considered astute. In real estate, it’s down right visionary.

“”The companies and agents who embrace technology will be the winners,”” says Edward Barisa, chief executive of the Ontario Real Estate Association, which represents 32,000 agents and brokers. “”The more tech savvy you are, the better able you are to meet the needs of your customers.””

At present, Coldwell Banker has an eight per cent share of Canada’s $79.2-billion residential market. But over the next three years the goal is to double that figure to 16 per cent. Given all the weight technology is expected to pull, it is perhaps surprising that Coldwell Banker has an annual IT budget of less than $1 million.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Coldwell Banker has since 1996 outsourced its entire IT operation. The conventional wisdom is you don’t outsource business-critical applications because if something goes wrong, your whole company could go up in smoke.

These considerations do not appear to worry Coldwell Banker in part because the company’s head office is so small — there are only 12 people including support staff — no room for an IT department. How can Coldwell Banker hope to be on the cutting edge of technology without any IT professionals on its payroll?

In the past Coldwell Banker did not turn heads with its technology initiatives. But that changed in October 2002, when it hired Toronto-based Fort Nocs Networks as its primary service provider.

“”We work within Coldwell Banker’s budget to hit strategic hot spots,”” says Sean Hutchison, director of business development at Fort Nocs Networks.

“”We don’t waste money on functionality unless we know it will impact the business.””

Since winning the account, Fort Nocs Networks has beefed up Coldwell Banker’s Web site by streamlining navigation and adding a video capability to the online presentation of properties. These changes have struck a chord with home buyers. The company’s Web site received 14 million hits in March 2003, a 250 per cent increase over 5.6 million hits in the same month a year earlier. In terms of online sessions — the more important metric — the year-over-year figures for the same month have grown to 400,000 from 160,000.

The increase is not entirely due to a stronger online presence — Coldwell Banker has also pumped more money into advertising — but the improved Web site has pushed the numbers up.

Some of the Web-based intranet tools developed by Fort Nocs include a listing application that allows agents to post a client’s home to Coldwell Banker’s Web site in minutes. And a paging/messaging application immediately notifies agents of in-coming e-mails from prospective clients.

“”These days if you do not respond to an e-mail within 24 hours you lose a lead,”” says Hunter. “”The new paging/messaging system will help agents capture as many leads as possible.””

On deck for later this year is an application that will provide wireless access to the MLS (multiple listing service) data base in each agent’s territory from cellphones and PDAs, and a financial management system designed to make the reporting process from franchisee to franchisor a snap.

However, the application that most interests brokers is Web-based telephony. It is unclear though when that will come on stream. “”I recently visited a Coldwell Banker franchise in Albany, N.Y. with 22 offices that have their phones hooked up to computers,”” says David Pauls, COO of Coldwell Banker Pinnacle Real Estate, the company’s biggest franchisee, located in the Toronto-Hamilton region.

“”If I could eliminate the phone company from my business I would save a lot of dough.””

Pauls, who has been in the business 28 years, says there are days he wishes computers had never been invented. “”Over the last six years I’ve been investing tons of money in systems, and I’m just now beginning to see a return.””

And herein lies the root of Hunter’s struggle for the hearts and minds of agents. “”No one says it, but I can sense there is a revolt against all the computer hype. Agents are thinking, ‘It’s costing me time and money, and I’m fed up.'””

Pauls knows there is no escaping the fact that technology is a permanent fixture of the new economy. But he thinks agents need to hear the technology gospel in a different way.

Hunter clearly has his work cut out for him when you consider the primary responsibility for evangelizing 3,200 front-line troops rests with him and three other executives at head office, including CEO Gary Hockey.

Is the answer an e-learning application that allows agents to catch up on new technology at their leisure? Perhaps. In the meantime Hunter has a lot more flesh to press.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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