The Real Estate Dish: 20 Minutes with Nick Bailey, President and CEO of Century 21 Real Estate, LLC
Join QuantumDigital’s EVP and CMO Eric Cosway as he gets the latest dish on rebranding, leadership and real estate trends with Nick Bailey, President and CEO of Century 21, LLC—an iconic real estate founded in 1971. Today, Century 21 is comprised of over 8,000 independently owned and operated franchise broker offices in over 80 countries and territories around the world.
Eric: Nick, welcome to the podcast.
Nick: Sure! Thanks, Eric. Glad to be here with you today.
Eric: I wonder if you can give our listeners a little bit of an overview of your current role as President and CEO of Century 21.
Nick: As far as this role goes, I kind of simplify it. In looking at this organization—spanning across 80 countries, 118,000 agents—I have two primary purposes in this role: one, to help companies grow and two, help agents get closings. And everything that we do will go through that litmus test, and if it doesn’t, we’re not going to do it anymore.
Eric: How long have you been in the role so far?
Nick: Just last week, I celebrated my six month anniversary.
Eric: Well, fantastic. What are the two or three things you’ve learned over the past six months being in the role?
Nick: There’s been a couple of things that have essentially come to light that were exactly what I thought they were, coming into the role. And I obviously had a lot of discussions with the organization, prior to the appointment and the acceptance. But, here’s one thing that I knew: the organization is 47 years strong and, in some ways, it’s 47 years old. It was time to really look hard at an organization of this size and scale and say, “How do we make it ready for the next generation in real estate? And what does the next 47 years look like?” It started with brand image, and we just launched last week the entire new brand image of Century 21. It’s not just about a logo, or an image. But, we really did a lot of work, a lot of research. We moved extremely fast on the work to define what we stand for, and how it’s meaningful, and what do we look like. That was first and foremost the #1 priority. Because we have to make sure we’re appealing, and we’re relevant to consumers today, and to agents that are going to be in the business in the next 20 years. So, that was priority number one.
Eric: When you and I spoke before, you used the term “turnaround.” Is this the first time that there’s been a major turnaround initiative to this scale?
Nick: Well, I think it is. Because, when you look at history, Century 21 was the first brand to really take the concept of real estate franchising and bring it alive. You could say that we’re somewhat of the pioneer in this space. So for us now, nearly 50 years later, to redefine what it looks like—a lot has changed in 50 years. The organization had evolved up until this point, but it was time to pour gas on the fire, if you will, and really increase that velocity of evolution.
Eric: I understand, when you announced it, your new brand, there was great enthusiasm. You know, there’s going to be investment by you and your franchise base. But, I heard there was great enthusiasm about the brand, and people are pretty excited about it.
Nick: Over the top. You know, when you do something like this that comes down to a new image, I mean this is really important to us because we knew that #1 priority was making sure that it set up an agent for success. Going back to my main purpose of growing companies and helping agents increase transactions, with that comes a heavy burden, if you will, of making sure that we have the right look, feel, and what we stand for, for an agent. And so… overwhelming! The response has been very, very good. People saying, “Much needed. It’s overdue. It’s awesome—the new look, the new feel. It’s really today, modern, fresh and will take us forward.” But, we also realize that it’s human nature. We all love to say that we change. But, change can be hard. So we also have to respect that we have a lot of seasoned folks that have built this organization, that are with us today and have been with us, many for several decades, and it’s an adjustment for some, too. So, we understand that as well. But, what we do know, is when we’ve gone forward with what the message is around the look, and what it stands for, it really opens people’s eyes to the possibility of what it can do.
Eric: So, a year from now, if I’m going to say “wow” about Century 21, and look at the new brand and everything you’ve done—what are the 3 or 4 major initiatives that you’re going to pursue to get me to say “wow”?
Nick: Well, the first one, obviously, was to get the image relevant for today. We’re already off and doing that. I love the agency we’re working with. They’ve worked with a lot of big companies, and said that they’d never worked with someone that’s moved this fast. That initiative by itself had an underlying tone to it, which is “move fast.” That’s my favorite saying because the industry changes, and moves, and evolves. If we’re not moving at a quicker clip that the industry, then we’re falling behind. That’s one thing—the speed at which we have to innovate. The second part relates to productivity for agents via “mobile first” technology. In the industry, I still believe the industry falls behind in technology. A lot of tech is built on desktop and retrofit for mobile, if you will. And yet, we know that agents are interfacing via mobile with consumers, and for productivity, at a much higher rate than desktop. So, I think there’s an opportunity to look at our toolset—we’re well underway with that—in how we help solve for the lead-to-close scenario, to help agents be more efficient with communicating with their clients and taking them through the process. Because, right now the process, for a consumer to buy or sell a house, is still pretty ugly. You ask people after the closing table, “Do you want to do it again anytime soon?” and they generally say, “No.” That’s a major initiative in 2018... is how we look at the toolset of what we have, because we have a lot of stuff, and really update and take a “mobile first” approach.
Eric: You actually really helped me understand the real estate process, when we talked before. You divided it in 2 camps: the “home search” side, where the consumer kind of runs the process, and the “home shopping-to-close” side. And you talked about transparency—there’s more transparency on the home search side. Can you explain that to our audience? Because I think that’s a really great way of looking at the entire real estate process.
Nick: Yeah, there’s a lot of discussion out there, a lot of noise in the industry. That was part of why I took the role of “Are agents going to be relevant tomorrow?” “Is the ‘i-buyer’, the click-to-buy, going to take over the business?” I am convinced, by the way, that the real estate agent will continue to be the most important part of the transaction process in my lifetime, in this business. Because the idea of putting a home in a shopping cart might work for investors looking at a spreadsheet—they’ve always been around. They’re not new to the business—you know, the billboards from years ago that said, “We buy ugly houses”—that sector of the business has been around and will continue to be around. But, the vast majority are guided with an agent through the process. “Home search”... consumers can go online and have a fantastic experience with many different companies and applications—mobile, desktop included—and look at homes. And you can get data—what sold in the neighborhood, what did it sell for last time, school information, public data—all of that is now very easily served up, and consumers are enjoying that experience of being able to have that information.
Eric: Right. There’s big changes on that side. Exactly.
Nick: But, that’s only one sliver of the equation. That’s just… I call it “home search.” But, there’s a process of when people really get engaged and want to decide to buy. That becomes “home shopping.” And I separate those two. “Home search” is having fun looking online. “Home shopping” is “I’m going to buy.” And that’s where an agent steps in, and then you go under contract, and it’s like we shut the lights off on the consumer. All of a sudden, the transparency is gone and they’re sitting in the dark with now reverting to text, telephone and email with their agent—”Is my appraisal done? Did my loan go through? Why do I have to have two more months bank statements? Did we get through inspections?” And it creates this anxiety point, from that point to the closing table. There are a lot of things that can happen. And that’s where we need to do a better job of helping agents create a much better consumer experience.
Eric: I got a sense that friction is what is what you’re going after… probably the “mobile first” part of that, and all the technology you’re putting in. Is that the core area of friction you’re going after?
Nick: That’s the idea. Because I do believe that in a consumer-driven movement, even outside of real estate—you look at how Amazon changed our shopping, you look at how Netflix changed our entertainment viewing—and it has done one of two things: made it easier, or taken the anxiety out of the process. That’s where I think that there’s a huge opportunity in the industry, is so many have gotten distracted with just “home search” that we forget that we need to create an experience for consumers, hence our new mission statement, which is to “defy mediocrity and deliver extraordinary experiences.” We want that to shine through, all the way to close.
Eric: You’re pretty solid on this one, the future of the agents. Agents are not going away.
Nick: No. And what’s interesting is, look at the commission rates over the last couple of decades. They’ve really virtually been unchanged. And so, if there was a threat of an agent’s relevancy being gone tomorrow, I believe that there’s going to be an evolution on that in which, first, we would see higher pressure or reductions on commission rates. If they’re not relevant today, why are consumers still paying them? It’s not as if they would just vanish overnight. And I would say that if, really, by the click of a button, you could put a house in a shopping cart, that would indicate that an agent doesn’t have much value. But, I read an article just a couple of months ago that the average buyer goes through 181 steps—from deciding to look, to close. And navigating that space is incredible—for sale by owners are the lowest that they’ve been in decades, more people are engaging in using a real estate agent. It’s tricky, and an agent is completely relevant in helping them negotiate that space.
Eric: Yeah, and I’d also think there would be a tremendous benefit, as you guys are doing, is looking at re-engineering a number of those steps away.
Nick: And there’s one key word. I’ve seen over the past couple of decades how brokerages and brands try to be competitive, and generally it’s they all try to come up with a widget. What’s the new widget that we have that somebody else doesn’t. But yet, if we step back and we ask agents, “What are your frustrations in your business?” Integration is number one that we hear… that it’s “I’m using all these different systems and none of them talk to each other.” And we know that, as independent entrepreneurs, people will always want a level of choice. And yet, we need to create an atmosphere that choice is able to communicate with one another, if you will. Integration I think is going to be the new widget for those that figure it out quickly.
Eric: So, here’s what I really, really want to know—how does a seventeen year-old Nick Bailey become “Entrepreneur of the Year” in Powell Valley? I think that’s a great story.
Nick: I don’t know. Sitting here, looking at an article on the wall that says something about “Sixteen year-old entrepreneur.” And I have to say, when that article came out, I didn’t I even know what the word “entrepreneur” meant.
Eric: It’s a big term, it is! I don’t think my son, who’s seventeen, knows what that is.
Nick: Yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing. But, I just knew I had a drive and a passion for real estate that’s continued today. And I was just fortunate that, at a young age, I was at the right place at the right time. And it kind of all came together, and it gave me the spark I needed to really drive my career for the last 20 years.
Eric: You’re super motivated. Because I understand your first year you were in real estate, you were also in college, driving back and forth, and you sold about a million dollars that year.
Nick: Yeah, with an average price of $77,000.
Eric: That is a hard road to a million!
Nick: And make no mistake, I had a lot of $25,000 and $35,000 transactions in there as well. Yeah, so it was great experience to be able to dabble in it. But I remember when I first got licensed at 21 years old with Century 21, and when I was looking for a place to hang that license, I had a couple of brokers say “A part-time kid in college can’t be successful in this business.” And, that’s probably all I needed to hear for me to say “I will do this.”
Eric: When I think of you, I think of “21 alignment.” It’s really kind of interesting. You started your career with Century 21, correct? Twenty-one years later, you come back to Century 21 as the President/CEO—to the day. And isn’t your birthday January 21st?
Nick: Yeah, and my birthday is 1/21. And so, it’s almost kind of creepy. It's a funny story. But, I think what it leads me to say is that I didn’t end up here by accident. I didn’t know I was going to end up here, but it’s not by accident.
Eric: You know what? You need to buy a couple of lottery tickets, my friend. You have incredible alignment in your life. I’m not going to take too much more of your time, but as you look back at your career, do any mentors or folks stand out? You’ve been very, very successful in your career. At very young ages, you’ve had leadership roles. Who’s helped you along that journey?
Nick: A lot of people. Anyone that’s come up in a leadership role realizes that they never do it themselves. You have to have the drive, and tenacity, and passion for sure, that lies in yourself. A credit to a lot of people. But, I had one mentor that came on pretty early on in my career at about 26, 27 years old, when I was getting into the franchise business within real estate, with another company. And it was the CEO at the time—his name is Jeff Jesperson—and he took me on as a project, if you will, and mentored me from his position. He had been in the company and the industry a very long time, but really guided me really well throughout the years, and never told me what to do, but always presented big challenges. And there’s one story that always stands out, and it was within the first year that we started working together on a mentor/mentee relationship. I walked in and he had this funny look on his face. And I knew something wasn’t good. And he essentially looked over, and he said, “You know what? I see some talent in you.” And here I’m a young guy, 26, 27 years old. And he said, “But there are a dozen other people downstairs that do the exact same job as you. And, quite honestly, I have wracked my brain to see why you’re any different than anybody else.” My jaw about hit the floor. I went back to my desk, and I bet I just stared out the window for half an hour, and went, “Gosh! I think… I work harder, and I worked on this project…” And I realized that he was right in a lot of ways. It wasn’t about waving your flag, or trying to get attention, but it was about expanding your mind and role, regardless of your position, and becoming the go-to person—that when someone says, “Gosh, what about this?” “Go ask Nick. He’ll know.” And so, he opened my mind on how to not just move in the position that you have, but use your mind for the position that you want, or have the ability for, and it may expand. It was a defining moment, and it really helped. But he’s still a very, very good friend of mine today. We see each other on a regular basis, and he’s had a big impact on my career.
Eric: Yeah, I think he probably knew you well enough to understand what some key words would be, or some key thoughts would be to drive you in a new direction.
Nick: He lit a fire. And that wasn’t the only time, trust me. But it was one that was a pretty “a-ha” moment. When someone is that transparent with you—and again, he didn’t tell me what to do with it, that was up to me—but, he essentially said, “Here’s the landscape. Now, do with it what you want.”
Eric: Let’s close this off with more of a personal question. I know you have two boys—thirteen and nine. You’re an incredibly busy guy. You’ve got a lot of passion. I know you’re a self-starter. What do you do in your off-time? How do you decompress?
Nick: I make sure that I make time for them, and when I’m with them I turn off from everything. And people know that I won’t get back to you at certain times, when I’m having fun with them. Anyway decompress… the time of year right now, it’s winter. We are avid skiers, as a family, my wife and both boys. In fact, this year they both are now at the point… saying, “Dad, we think we’re better than you. We’ll just meet up for lunch.” And that happened this year. I knew it was coming. We ski almost every weekend during summer. I love to golf and scuba dive. So, those are great activities that we all enjoy together.
Eric: Well, what a pleasure speaking with you today, Nick. You’ve done incredibly well. Good luck in the new role as President & CEO of Century 21!
Nick: This is fun work. And it’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to work with an iconic company like this, and take some bold leaps to move us forward. I appreciate you having me, and talking with me today.
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