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Mary Tennant: Taking on Challenges

by Karen M. Kroll

A willingness to seize opportunities and work hard have propelled Mary Tennant to her current position as president and chief operating officer with Keller Williams Realty Inc. Tennant oversees Keller Williams’ international support center, which provides training and support for nearly 60,000 KW associates in the U.S. and Canada.

Tennant faced several challenges when she entered the real estate business in Austin, TX, in the mid-1990s. For starters, she was a complete outsider to the area, having just moved with her family from Colorado, so that her children could attend college. She also was a newcomer to the industry.

However, Tennant was motivated. Her husband’s oil business had run into hard times when the industry cratered in the 1980s. “I had been living on top of a mountain, raising kids and riding horses when the oil industry crashed,” Tennant says. “I had to support my family.”

So, Tennant earned her real estate license. She signed on as a broker with Keller Williams, impressed with the company’s focus on education and its agents.

Tennant spent much of her first year learning the business. In addition to classes through Keller Williams, Tennant read voraciously, snapping up books on business. Several that particularly resonated with her include SHIFT: How Top Real Estate Agents Tackle Tough Times by Gary Keller and two co-authors, along with Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Tennant’s efforts paid off. Her first year on the job, she was National Rookie of the Year with Keller Williams. The next, she ranked first in the Austin area. By the third year, Tennant was running the office. Under her leadership, the office grew from about 150 to 600 agents by 2005, and was a top office in the company. At the same time, Keller Williams itself was on a growth spurt. The company wasn’t among the 20 largest real estate firms when Tennant started; Keller Williams now is the third largest in the country.

That growth played a role in Tennant’s success. “The company was experiencing wonderful success and growth, and that opened the door for people who were willing to work hard,” lead and challenge themselves, Tennant says.

Tennant fit the bill. When starting in a new position, she put in long hours to learn the role. Then, she’d implement new systems and processes to improve and streamline operations. For instance, when Tennant began managing the Austin office, she developed a program to help new agents gain an understanding of the company’s culture. Agents appreciated it, Tennant says. “It just showed that we were willing to make that extra step for them.”

The business model at KW also aids success, Tennant says. Commissions are split 70/30 between agents and brokers, and the amount agents pay their brokers each year is capped; after reaching their cap, agents keep all their commissions. On top of that, agents earn a share of the company’s profits. “There’s more partnership versus the normal brokerage. The team works together,” Tennant says.  

In managing her office, Tennant “came at it from a business perspective,” she says. That is, she kept an eye on both sales and expenses and built the office at a prudent pace. “While I appreciate sales, I’m consumed with the business side,” Tennant says.

She also paid close attention to the data developed by KW’s research department. These employees identify emerging trends in the real estate market and figure out how the company’s agents can most effectively use the information. Armed with the researchers' in-depth knowledge of the housing market, Tennant and her colleagues were able to prepare KW’s agents for the end of the housing boom about two years before it occurred. “We could give them the tools to survive.” So much so that even in 2008, with housing starts at a 25-year low by September, associates earned more than $30 million through Keller Williams’ profit sharing program. Tennant expects that number to rise in 2009.

Tennant considers the research and support Keller Williams provides its agents a compelling argument for agents to remain with the firm rather than work solo. “Every one of us is in a position to be coached to go further. We all need research and education,” she says. Tennant also points out that very few agents would have time or energy to take on the breadth and depth of analysis that Keller Williams can tackle.

At the same time, Tennant’s willingness to take on new challenges also has helped her succeed. “My entire career has been a wonderful example of stretching the rubber band as far as it will go, getting systems into place and relaxing,” she says. Of course, at that point she’s ready to stretch the band once again. “I’ve worked hard to seize opportunities.”

Karen M. Kroll is a freelance writer from Chanhassen, MN.

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