The Real Estate Dish: 20 Minutes with Jennifer Horvat of Michael Saunders & Co
Join QuantumDigital’s EVP and CMO Eric Cosway as he gets the latest dish on real estate trends and technology with Jennifer Horvat, CMO of Michael Saunders & Co, a real estate brokerage that serves the Greater Sarasota real estate market in Florida. With over 4 decades in the region, it has nearly 24 offices and 700 real estate agents serving South Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Eric: Jen, welcome to the podcast.
Jennifer: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Eric: I wonder if you could give our audience a little, brief overview of your background and your current role as CMO for Michael Saunders & Co?
Jennifer: Absolutely. I would love to. I’m a 20-year professional in the marketing and advertising industry, although my path here has been a little untraditional, if you will. I’ve always had a very fortunate experience to build upon experience after experience. And so I started, actually, as a technical recruiter and I started kind of learning about sales, and sales management, and negotiation. And then I moved into an advertising agency, which then led to a nonprofit, where I sold sponsorships, which then led to working in NASCAR for a few months. It’s a pretty storied past, but everything’s always built upon each other, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to get some great experiences. Now, as Chief Marketing Officer at Michael Saunders, my job is to manage a brand that is 43 years in the making, and also support and position ourselves as the in-house advertising agency for over 700 real estate agents on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Eric: That’s a big responsibility. I think you mentioned to me before, you have about 10 staff, and the style that you provide is, as you said, it’s very hands on, high, high-touch concierge service. Tell us about that in terms of providing that service, the highlights and lowlights of that. Those are big expectations.
Jennifer: It is. We have a brand that’s 43 years old, and one that is so well known in the local market. You have to really determine how you’re going to position yourself, both for the good of the brand, but then also for the good of your 700 independent real estate agents. And, in the end, they all want to have their own style, and their own custom look. But yet, they want to be able to leverage a brand name that’s so synonymous with Sarasota and our Gulf Coast. So, we have to be very careful to give them what they need, but then also protect what we have, and protections for the brand. But, certainly, we make sure that we are fair, but also careful, if you will.
Eric: Recently, your company went through a brand refresh. I really liked it. I think some of it was “Nowhere but here”... was one of the campaign themes. Can you tell us about that experience? Because that was really well done.
Jennifer: Thank you very much, Yes, we decided about a year-and-a-half ago that, among many other things, to remain competitive and hold our commanding market share, we needed to make sure that we were saying the right things with our brand. And, as I’ve mentioned with being a company that as old as we are, 4 decades, we don’t want to get complacent with who you are and what you do. And so, we decided that the best thing we could do to stay competitive, and remain relevant, was to measure our brand and fix anything that was maybe needing to be fixed, but then also just highlight what needed to be highlighted. We actually worked with a brand agency out of Portland, Oregon called “1000watt.” And we worked with them on a very intense, one-year process to look at our brand, and it really broke down into 4 areas. The first was discovery. They actually came into the market for 5 days, sat with our agents, sat with our staff, sat with our management. But then they also stayed in an Airbnb, and they would ask neighbors, consumers, restaurant help—anybody that they ran into—what was the impression of Michael Saunders & Co? And they went away, and they were able to put that into words for us, and really encapsulate what the key benefits of our company were, and the key benefits of who we were. And they came back with strategy, recommendations, creative and production work for us, and ultimately settled on a campaign, and a brand awareness called “Nowhere but here.” “Nowhere but here” is a statement, if you will, to the level of… There’s “Nowhere but here” is Sarasota, Florida, one of the most amazing places on earth. There’s “Nowhere but here,” our company, which is a testament to a brand that supports our agents. “Nowhere but here” is a place that employs over 200 people, in addition to our 700 agents. So, we’re truly a part of our community.
Eric: So, as you went through that brand refresh, I don’t think it was your first. You had mentioned you had been in a couple in your career. What were the top lessons learned of this particular year-long exercise?
Jennifer: So, the two other brand exercises I had gone through… one was with Quicken Loans back in the mid-2000s. That was before they had Rocket Mortgage, and they were trying to define who they were. And the one previous to that was actually with a museum out of Detroit called The Henry Ford. At that time, they were in a quandary because they had 7 properties, not just The Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village. So, I was able to use those two experiences where I was kind of a part of the experience. I didn’t lead the experience in those two. So, this time around we’re leading this charge. I knew, from experience, what to expect, which was use a third party to help you really identify who you are. You cannot do it if you are in the company. You’re way too close to it. You’re way too invested in it. And you will cloud the feedback. And so, using a third party to do that discovery was critical. And then also, be more open to their analysis I guess, if you will, of that information. You have to be able to let go of past experiences with your own company when you get to that level, because they’re going to tell you things that you may not want to hear, but things that are on the surface that you need to listen to. And so, using a third party to help with that was critical.
Eric: Yeah. As you sat through the summary sessions of all that discovery work, I imagine you’re taking notes. Were there any “a-ha” moments when they provided feedback and your sort of smiled and took note of that?
Jennifer: I don’t know if it was “a-ha” moments as much as it was “Yes! That’s exactly the way I’ve been feeling, but haven’t been able to articulate it.” You know they also came back with 6 pillars, or 6 foundations of our business. And when we tried to do that, we came up with 26 foundations. And the hardest thing was always just to come back to what are the 3 to 6 key ones. And they really helped us do that. And I think it was more just this clarity. It was like this turning of the lens where we went, “Okay. We’ve been saying the right things, but we just weren’t concise in how we were saying it. So, I think that was the biggest “a-ha” moment.
Eric: So, if you had any insights or recommendations to other brokers—and there are a number who are probably going through something similar, or just getting started—what would be your one or two pieces of advice?
Jennifer: Yeah, I think the biggest advice is finding a partner who really gets it. And, in our case, using 1000watt made sense. We had used them for our website redevelopment about 8 years ago They knew our business. They were friends of the business. They really got us, which was important. We had looked at other brand agencies that were equally as talented, equally as experienced, and it could have gone either way. We were really on the fence. Should we use somebody that knew nothing about us, so it truly was a remarkable discovery? Or should we use somebody who at least knew the industry? And when we really broke it down, we said we really need somebody who really gets the industry, and we wanted somebody who kind of knew us. Because we almost felt like, if they did discovery, they might go “Oh. That’s not what we thought about Michael Saunders & Company.” And they may find something different. And I think we kind of liked that, in that they understood us. And then the other thing is just we had regularly… and this sounds so simple, but regularly scheduled meetings every single week. Even if we had nothing to review or talk about, we just sat and discussed previous week’s kind of doings. So, that way, we didn’t have any surprises. And keeping leadership involved the entire way. Michael Saunders, or CEO and Founder, and Drayton Saunders, our President, they were involved every step of the way. And , that way, they never were surprised or shocked with any of the information.
Eric: You know, that’s a great lesson I too have learned. Never surprise your organization, including the top-level management above you, so hats off. When you and I talked before, in the role of CMO, you described yourself as a project manager and this sounds like one of those threads. Can you dive into that a little bit more?
Jennifer: Sure. A lot of times, anybody who meets a Chief Marketing Officer, or Director of Marketing, or anybody in a marketing position, they automatically think “Oh, they’re creative.” And I want to say that I’m creative, but I think I’m more creatively project-oriented, meaning I’m more of a problem-solver. I like to take a problem, tear it all apart, fix it, and put it back together, and say “Ta-da!” And I find creative ways to do that. But if I really sat down and said, “Gosh, am I a creative person?” I wouldn’t say I’m overly creative. I think I use my resources really wisely, and I think I’ve learned from experiences. But I think, ultimately, I’m not going to sit down like my designer... I’ve got an amazing creative director on hand, he can take nothing and make it into something because he’s so creative. That’s not where my skill set is. And I think it’s important for people to know where they sit. Why I have a creative director is because he can look at the brand materials and say, “No. That color doesn’t go there.” And “This swatch doesn’t match that.” And “This font isn’t quite right.” And I look at it and go, “This is beautiful.” I look at it like a piece of art. He looks at it as a piece of marketing and brand.
Eric: Have you always been a strong delegator?
Jennifer: I think one of the downfalls of any person in management is keeping hold of things too much. But I definitely have learned, over the last 6 to 7 years, you’ve got to use the people that work with you. Because, ultimately, you all have a role for a reason. And that’s the other special thing about our marketing teams. I’ve got 10 extremely unique people who all have a trait or an ability that I hired specifically for. Because that was necessary in their specific job and specifically what they do. And I want my creative director to look at a color and go, “That’s not right.” But I want my project manager to look at this and say, “How can I be better at customer service and make this exceed this person’s or this agent’s expectation?”
Eric: We have the same title, but obviously different roles. How do you balance the time that you provide the agents and your more corporate consumer-oriented marketing?
Jennifer: That’s a good question, too. One of the strong points of our company is that we are a Ninja Selling company. And, even though I’m not in sales, I actually sat through the Ninja Selling 4-day training installation. And what’s interesting is, the program is all about compartmentalizing and programmatically figuring out your profession—whether you’re in sales, or real estate, or whatever it may be—and I actually was able to apply a lot of that to my job. And part of the program is doing daily gratitude, and giving gratitude to who you are and what you have. Part of it is doing daily affirmations, you know. What am I grateful for? And what am I going to accomplish today? And then the other part of it is just literally scheduling out your week. And so, what I try to do is say, “Look. I need to spend 20% of my time on my team, 20% of my time on my business, 20% of my time on agents, 20% of my time on the industry stuff, and then I need to save some time for myself where I can just reflect and enjoy the position.” And that’s what I try to do. Am I perfect at it? No. But I have a little reminder up on my board that just says, “Have you done this this week?”
Eric: Oh, very smart. I’ve been exposed to Ninja, too, and I’m actually impressed by the entire methodology. Because, it seems to me it’s more than just a selling system, as you alluded to. It’s got components of actually how you live your life.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s a relationship management tool. It’s funny, I always tell agents I went through it and I just became a better person, I feel like. Because, ultimately, it just helped me strengthen my relationships.
Eric: So, how long have you been in Florida now?
Jennifer: We moved here 8 years ago and never looked back. I loved the city of Detroit. I thought it was one of the most amazing places to grow up and live. I just don’t like winter. At all. My husband and I are golfers, and lovers of outside sports, not including snow. So, we decided 8 years ago to pick up and relocate to Florida.
Eric: Wow. So, do you miss the potholes in Detroit? Every time I go to Detroit, I’m amazed at all the potholes there.
Jennifer: No. Detroit has a wonderful trucking industry and automotive industry. But, unfortunately, the potholes are something to contend with. That is for sure. I’m amazed every time I go back.
Eric: So, I know you’re not only active at work, you’re active in your community… is it Lakewood Ranch?
Jennifer: Yeah. Lakewood Ranch is one of our local communities here. It’s actually… we call it east of the interstate which, this part of Florida when it grew—obviously it started its growth along the Gulf of Mexico, and as it started to grow outward, one of the communities that evolved from it was Lakewood Ranch. And I’m really proud to say that, for the last 5 years, I’ve sat on the board of the Lakewood Ranch Community Activities Group. We put on about 10 non-profit events throughout the year. One of them coming up this week is “Boo Fest” where we have about 5,000 kids, adults, families coming into our Main Street area for trick-or-treating and events. So, as the board president over the last 2 years, I’ve been very fortunate to be active in the growth of a great community of Lakewood Ranch. And then, of course, I’ve also extended my experiences into downtown Sarasota. It’s a great way to get to know an area, especially if you’re new to it, is just to get involved right away.
Eric: And I assume there’s a golf course within the community. Correct?
Jennifer: There is. There’s lots of golf courses within Lakewood Ranch. I happen to be a member of a golf course just north of there. We live just outside of Lakewood Ranch in a city called Parish. And I’m very fortunate. I have a wonderful circle of friends at a golf course there called “River Wilderness Country Club.” So, very fortunate. And I also sit on a couple of homeowner panels and some different things that I’m helping out in our neighborhood with, too. I have a very busy schedule, both personally and professionally, but they all tie together. It’s about being involved. However you can be involved, it just helps to grow your experiences.
Eric: I don’t play golf well, but is there anything that you’ve learned or picked up from golf that you apply to the business world?
Jennifer: Absolutely. I’ve always said that golf, for me, it was a great sport that I got into. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my dad was a huge golfer. He worked at Ford Motor Company and he would take the afternoons off and come and grab me in the summer. And he and I would run up to the golf course around three o’clock, and we’d get out, and we’d play a few holes. He got me involved in junior golf right away when I was small, and I think… what was interesting about that is junior golf taught me that you have to work up into positions. Meaning, in junior golf, you start at 3 holes, and you graduate to 5 holes, then you graduate to 7, and then 9. Then you take lessons so that you can be an 18-hole golfer. And I feel like work is the same way. Like, you can’t just step into a marketing director position. You have to work your way up. You have to earn your way into those positions. And you have to work really hard to master the different stages. So, I think I learned that from a really young age, and I think that’s really helped me in my career. The other thing I think sports do in general is you either have great success in sports, and in golf you birdie every hole, or you get a couple of birdies, and a couple of pars, and you’re so excited. And then literally you get to the next hole, and you bomb it with an 8. And you have to be able to take that hit. And it’s such a humbling sport. And I think, ultimately, it’s one of those sports that’s taught me that life is humbling. And you just have to be ready for it at all levels
Eric: As you say that, one thing came to mind… do you think golf has helped you manage stress in the workplace?
Jennifer: Oh, yeah. For sure. My agents know not to call me on Saturday mornings between 8 AM and 12 PM. And it’s my way of getting away, but also connecting. I’ve got some great girlfriends that I’ve met through our club that I just enjoy being with. They’re just such a special group of people. And, ultimately, when I’m there, I’m not Jen the CMO, I’m just Jen the golfer, the friend, and one of the gals.
Eric: Wow, I tell you what. I love the fact you’ve dedicated time to just escape. I hope you don’t take your cell phone with you.
Jennifer: Well, I do.. Only because it has my rangefinder on it. But, I try not to look at my email when I’m out there.
Eric: Speaking of Michigan, do you go back in the winter time at all?
Jennifer: No, not if we don’t have to. We try to go every May or June. Luckily, I have a beautiful niece and an awesome nephew that both just graduated high school over the last 3 and 4. So, we go back for graduations, and parties, and that sort of thing, and golf. We have lots of friends still that live in Michigan. They invite us up for golf weekends. So, that’s about the extent of our returns to Michigan.
Eric: Well, it sounds like you still have a strong attachment there, albeit summer and spring months.
Jennifer: Exactly, yes. And my nephew decided to transfer to Northern Michigan University, which is in Marquette, which is at the very tip of the upper peninsula. So, he won’t be seeing me until at least June or July.
Eric: You know, being an ex-Canadian, I appreciate that. I don’t go back there very often as well. So, yeah, I like being in Texas myself. Whata pleasure speaking with you today. I got to know you a little better, and it was just fantastic to get 20 minutes of your time. And I’m thoroughly impressed with how you represent the company, your clear communication skills, and your rebranding efforts. World class. Hats off to you and your organization, especially your leadership for pushing you guys to that next level.
Jennifer: Thank you. Anybody wants to check out the results of it, they could go to nowherebuthere.net and they could also find it on our home page, too, michaelsaunders.com.
Eric: Yeah, I’ve always been impressed by your organization. I think I read somewhere that someone, a client, described you as “the Neiman Marcus of real estate.” I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but when I saw that quote, it sort of connected to me.
Jennifer: I would agree with that, definitely. It’s doing everything just a little bit classier, a little bit higher brow, a little bit better, and just exceeding those expectations across every price range, really. It doesn’t even matter, the price range of a house. It’s really just about creating “wow” experiences.
Eric: That’s true. Jen, thank you for your time today, really appreciate it, and I had a ton of fun.
Jennifer: Thanks, me too. I appreciate it.
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