Longtime HomeServices of America executive Chris Kelly has some trailblazing shoes to fill in his new role as CEO of Ebby Halliday, which was founded in 1945.

Longtime HomeServices of America executive Chris Kelly has some trailblazing shoes to fill in his new role as CEO of Ebby Halliday, which was founded in 1945.

He’s taking the helm of a company founded by Halliday herself, the company’s iconic namesake, and headed until recently by Mary Frances Burleson, a veteran of the north-Texas real estate brand who began in 1958.

Chris Kelly, CEO of Ebby Halliday | Credit: Ebby Halliday

Ebby Halliday announced, in October, that Burleson would be stepping back and into a role within the company’s philanthropical arm, months after it was acquired by HomeServices of America.

For Kelley, it’s a delicate balancing act – maintaining the traditions set up by Halliday, while also equipping the company’s agents to compete in an ever-changing industry.

Kelly, who worked in various leadership roles for 12 years at ReeceNichols Real Estate, a HomeServices’ wholly-owned company based in Kansas City. For the past year, he served as senior counsel of HomeServices of America, where he supported the company’s acquisitions and technology initiative – including the acquisition of Ebby Halliday.

Kelly spoke with Inman this week to discuss that balancing act, what he learned from Burelson’s leadership and how he plans to move the company forward.

What’s it like to step into a leadership role at an iconic real estate brand?

The words that keep coming to mind for me have been humbling and inspiring. Humbling because I’m following two incredibly iconic leaders who blazed a lot of trails for people in this industry and so I feel like I’ve got a pretty heavy burden following Ebby Halliday and Mary Frances Burleson.

And then inspiring because I’ve spent the last month hanging out with all of our agents and it’s been really really amazing to see how much they are ready for change, in the sense of going forward into the next decade of real estate and what we’re going to be doing to make sure we’re still positioned as the number one company in our market.

How do you balance bringing Ebby Halliday forward while still honoring that past?

I think part of it is the things the company was founded on and that Ebby and Mary Frances always espoused: doing the right thing and treating the clients with the utmost importance in the transaction – putting them ahead of your own interest. Those are things that, no matter what the technology tools and trends are in the marketplace, if you still follow those principals, you’re going to do really really well.

But then on the other side of it, is recognizing that, what buyers and sellers are expecting in transactions now and what agents are expecting in certain services now, has evolved and you have to be able to position yourselves to adapt to that next generation client.

There’s could be some concern from agents or consumers who have used Ebby Halliday agents, that an affiliation with a larger company like HomeServices of America might water down the product or sterilize it. What would you say to those individuals to dispel those concerns?

HomeServices of America recognizes what is unique about the companies that they bring into their family. It’s why we are nearly one of the only real estate company’s in the country that when they do fold in a company, they don’t put some flag on it and say, ‘you are now going to be called this.’ We honor the legacy, we honor the brand, we honor the name, so there’s a lot of reverence there for that.

Really the greatest thing about HomeServices of America – and it’s the Berkshire Hathaway model too – is, you buy good companies and you don’t radically go in and change what you do. You now have all these new resources and sister companies to learn from. So one of the great things that I’ve had over the last 12 years, working with all of the companies that Ebby is now a part of is the chance to learn from them – best practices, what are some things happening in another market that we can do here and vice versa. They can come to us and say ‘wow this is really working in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area what did you do and we want to steal it.’ So it’s really this broad network of companies that are all under one family that we can learn from. That’s probably the greatest strength that HomeServices has.

Can you expand on that last part? Ebby Halliday is now part of a company with a massive scale. What does being part of a company with that sort of scale allow it to do that it wasn’t able to do before?

HomeServices is that it’s a name that a lot of the common consumer may not have heard of, because again, they don’t change the brand in the marketplaces and make them go by the HomeServices moniker. It’s really a cool kind of startup story in that only 20 years its gone from 4,000 agents to 45,000 agents. What we’re able to do, by being part of HomeServices now is leverage that enterprise strength. That could mean with vendors, as far as getting great pricing for the tools that we want to provide to our consumers and agents and with best practices, where we get agents together, managers together and companies together to really learn from one another. We can say, these are the trends coming up in real estate – and sometimes it starts at the coasts and works it way in and by being able to network with our sister companies and our sister agents – and the goal is to be ahead of the trends when they come to your market.

From left, Ron Burgert, CFO of Ebby Halliday; Mary Frances Burleson, outgoing president and CEO of Ebby Halliday and Ron Peltier, chairman and CEO of HomeServices of America | Credit: Ebby Halliday

What are some pieces of advice that you’ve been able to take from outgoing CEO Mary Frances Burleson?

It’s do something for someone every day. And that was Ebby’s mantra as well. What I see with Mary Frances and what she’s done – we’re a big geographical area in Dallas-Fort Worth and we’re a big company. You’ve got to do things that make your company feel smaller and more connected with one another. That’s probably the greatest lesson over this past month that I’ve really tried to listen to and work into my practices – how do I make sure that, as we are this great company and we’re really big and can provide all these great services to folks that we are also small in the sense that we really listen to the buyer, seller, and individual agent needs.

What about your specific real estate background makes you the best equipped to be taking this company forward?

By being with our sister company ReeceNichols for about 12 years, I saw the uniqueness of a large brand like that, which was 2,600 agents. We had this really interesting state line that dove right down the middle of Kansas City and when I got to Dallas I realize that we have these two metroplexes that have merged together and there’s kind of a similar feel there as well, where things can be very different on the Forth Worth side versus the Dallas side.

The other thing too is that we operate multiple brands within our company. We have Ebby Halliday, we have Dave Perry Miller and WilliamsTrew. I came from a market where we also had multiple brands and you have to be respectful of those brands, understand those brands attract different types of agents, appeal to different types of consumers and so you want to position those brands to succeed. That was something that really helped in my transition here.

Over the last year and a half, when I worked at the HomeServices level, I just had an opportunity to work with basically every single one of our companies across the country and their leadership teams. And I didn’t know it at the time, but as I was taking these notes about what was working there and the challenges we’re facing, I was basically assembling my book to get ready for this current job.

Ebby Halliday, the founder of the the company who passed away in 2015 at the age of 104 | Credit: Ebby Halliday

What sort of growth are you envisioning for Ebby Halliday now? Is it geographic, agent count, targeting more market share, developing new technology?

I think it’s a little bit of everything. One of the things that we are really blessed within the market that we’re in, is we have businesses and people that are moving to the Dallas metroplex at a really high rate. And yet affordability remains pretty good compared to other markets experiencing this type of growth. We always have to be on the lookout – where the business is and people are about to grow – and we have to plant our flag in the right locations. I’m a real big believer in the way that you appropriately grow a company is the same way an agent would work its sphere of influence. You don’t jump 200 miles down the road. What you do is maybe you move 15 miles down the road and establish that new center of influence. And maybe it overlaps with another sphere that you have. Then you go down again and you really have to look ahead to 5, 10 years from where the growth is happening because typically consumers end up working with agents that live, work and play with them in those areas. That’s why we want to be in those spots. Agents typically, the way that our communities are evolving, people are liking to work closer to home as well, so we want to provide locations that are convenient for agents as well. From a physical sense, that’s kind of the vision.

And then on the technology side, it’s really growing the next generation of tools and tech that our agents and consumers need to adapt to this marketplace. A lot of that is just ways to interpret all this data that consumers now have access to. 10 years ago we got to be gatekeepers of information and now that information is open to everybody so we have to be advisors and interpreters of that information. A lot of what we’re doing with our agents and the next generation of agents is saying, how do you help a consumer make sense of all this information they have access to now.

Are there any specific tech things or strategies you are interested in implementing there? A lot of brokerages are testing out iBuyers, is there something specific like an iBuyer you’re looking to test down there?

We’re obviously keeping an eye on that market. If you ask the consumer: do you want to sell your house fast or do you want to sell for full value, they’re gonna say both. But when given the choice of a traditional sale – some markets might sell really fast and others might take 45 days – right now the vast majority of consumers are still wanting to get the maximum value that they can for their homes. So in the iBuying situation, what we want to do is if there are opportunities to partner with some really good trusted companies that can do that for us, because that market share is growing and there are more consumers that want to do that, then we will absolutely look at getting into that space. But for now, the vast majority of our consumers are still saying ‘we want that maximum value we can get by working with one of your agents,’ so that’s what we want to be focused on, but be open to those other ideas as well. Things can shift as we know really quickly.

On the tech side, what we’re really trying to do is take the next generation of our consumer interfacing tools – our website and things they can do there – and then on the agent side CRMs and more predictive analytics, things that aren’t just, ‘here’s how to do a drip campaign for a consumer’, but how do you actually understand the consumer better and based on their behaviors and how they are interacting with you. We want to provide more insight into what exactly they need and are looking for at that time and even before they knew it.

How are you preparing Ebby Halliday for a potential market downturn?

A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email to the entire company and I told everybody, ‘Happy New Year.’ That’s something I borrowed from one of our other leaders at HomeServices, Tom Tognoli, president and CEO of Intero Real Estate Services. The key there is, that you don’t wait until January 1 to start getting ready for the new year. That’s what a lot of ppl in real estate do. They slide through the holidays and on January 1 start working on their business again. We’re working on our business plan now so that we’re ready to roll when 2019 rolls around.

What we saw during the recession is that the top agents actually did fairly well during certain downturns because there’s a flight to quality. There are still people getting married, there are family formations, there are divorces, there are children being born, there are people moving for relocation purposes and people realize there’s a real need for value when they hire a real estate advisor. So what we want to do is make sure our agents are positioned as that value proposition. Yes, the market may be shifting and changing so you need someone who’s an actual expert on your side to navigate that. Definitely pushing the value side of what we bring to a transaction as opposed to someone who can help you buy or sell a house.

Email Patrick Kearns

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