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In October, Michele Harrington transitioned from her role as Orange County-based First Team Real Estate’s COO to become its CEO, marking a new era for the nearly 50-year-old brokerage.

At that time, Cameron Merage, the company’s founder and former CEO, moved into an advisory role. The firm, which is the largest privately held brokerage in the state of California, also underwent a rebrand.

Since then, First Team has been on a roll, adding four new real estate teams representing 52 agents and more than $250 million in sales volume. Those teams include former Side partner Cyrus Mohseni and his team, the Keystone Real Estate Group; Juan Corona and his team, The Mission Realty Group; the Avenue 8 Beverly Hills team of Kim Hartley, Lisa Rubel and William Ashman; and a former RE/MAX team led by Dan Deforest.

Not bad progress, considering Harrington only has a few months on the job under her belt.

The CEO recently sat down with Inman to share more about the firm’s recent updates and her plans for the new year, including a goal of hitting $1 billion in incoming recruits in 2024. Be sure to keep an eye out for her at Inman Connect New York, where she will be speaking on a panel of CEOs on Tuesday, Jan. 23: “Rising Above: Resilience in a Challenging Real Estate Market.”

Here’s what she had to say, edited for brevity and clarity.

Inman: How have things been going since you took the reins as CEO of First Team Real Estate in October?

Michele Harrington | First Team Real Estate

Harrington: It’s been really amazing. I think we were kind of in a rut and got stale as a company. Just the same old, same old. This company has been around for 48 years, so that’s not untypical. When you’ve been around for so long, you kind of just go through the motions.

When Cam [Merage] made me CEO, it really lit a fire in me. I’m so motivated because now I feel like everything is my responsibility. So I need to get the energy back, get the culture back, turn the ship around.

We did lose our No. 1 spot, by units sold in Orange County, about a year ago and that’s been a motivating factor for me, to get it back. So I’ve been meeting with teams and trying to figure out what exactly it is that they need and what they want.

What do teams want?

A lot of what they want is to bring on more team members. They strive to grow their teams and become mega teams. Their desire to grow is like our desire to grow [as a brokerage]. I thought about it and was like, we have the reputation and history of hiring brand new agents and training them and coaching them and building them into Realtors. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could combine the brand-new agents that we’re bringing on and feed those agents into teams? Because it is really hard for brand-new agents right now. It’s difficult for them to make it in a market like this.

So we’re creating a win-win situation where we’re taking these brand new agents, we’re training them, we’re getting them licensed sometimes, and then we’re feeding them into teams where they have a higher success rate. Then, we’re growing through bringing on these teams and building these teams.

I think the concept has been very attractive to a lot of teams — I brought on four just in December from rolling out this concept and talking to them about running their own teams and then their own offices as well.

How did discussions start with the teams you brought on in December?

I have this amazing woman who works for me — her name is Anna Bennett — and she’s actually been with First Team on and off for nearly 20 years. She went to Keller Williams at one point, she went to Side at one point, and she always comes back. We have this great synergy, her and I.

I’ll tell her, “I really want to meet with these people, I think they’d be a good fit.” She sets up the meeting and we all meet — her, I and the team. We talk about what their needs are and how we can help them, and figure out like “OK, we can definitely get you that” or “No, what you’re looking for doesn’t really fit what we do.” And she’s just been resilient and persistent in setting me up with people to talk to.

The one difference between what we’re doing and a lot of other companies — because there are companies doing what we’re doing, building teams, having agents own offices, “brokerage as a service” as they call it sometimes — but they’re not real estate people.

We had a lot of VC-backed people that came into the business — they weren’t from the real estate industry, they never had a real estate license, they’ve never sold real estate. They just saw how to get all the billions of dollars in commissions that get spent in the United States every year. “Let me try to get into that industry.”

If agents want to grow and become better professionals and better business people, what are they going to learn from a company that’s run by somebody like that?

It sounds like you’re really gaining some momentum here starting off into 2024.

I want to get $1 billion in incoming recruited teams in 2024. I want to get our No. 1 position back. That will happen; you can mark my words.

That’s awesome. And you’re considering expanding even further outside of Orange County in the new year? Where exactly?

I always think the best way to grow is geographically spreading, not planting. So one of the teams we recruited is in the LA to Beverly Hills area, which is right [near Orange County], so it makes a lot of sense. But then growing into the Central Coast and Northern California makes a lot of sense for us.

Our model is so interesting that there is interest outside of California, but I want to make sure we’re being careful and not expanding for the sake of expanding, but being smart about growing rapidly. So I’m looking at those areas and seeing if there are opportunities — if the cultures are aligned, if the people have the same mindset.

When I meet people like Cyrus Mohseni, for example, he’s this amazing, brilliant, positive [person]. All he wants to do is help other people grow and help people get better, and that’s all I want to do. When we first met, it was like fireworks. It was like, you want to help people grow, you want to add agents on your team and help them build careers, and I want to help you build an amazing organization. So it was like, of course — it was a no-brainer.

Sounds like it’s going to be a really great fit.

Yeah, I think so, too.

Any other major goals for 2024?

One thing we’re trying to get back to is not just helping agents and team leaders, but also the leadership within the organization, like managers, and making sure they are the best they can be. If I’m striving personally to be the best I can be, but don’t have people underneath me who are striving as well, then it’s like … you can’t steer the Titanic with one rudder. So I think [if we’re] making sure that our managers and leaders and our staff get the direction and coaching and support they need so they can be the best at their jobs, it just all trickles down.

Especially in a down market, agents want direction, they want leadership, they want coaching. They’re not satisfied with just hanging their license in an office anymore; they want to grow and build amazing organizations.

I feel like it’s a different time. I feel like our industry is really stepping up the level of professionalism and the organizations are just getting better and better. I think teams are going to dominate because they have systems in place, organization in place, and they hold agents accountable.

They’re doing everything that we can’t necessarily do as a brokerage, being large. When we have these teams underneath our brokerage that run the best type of real estate environment, then we all benefit.

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that First Team Real Estate was aiming to reach $1 billion in transaction volume in 2024, but the brokerage’s $1 billion goal is in relation to incoming team transaction volume.

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Email Lillian Dickerson

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