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Sherry Chris Builds Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate from the Ground Up

by Naomi Gitlin

Sherry Chris Builds Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate from the Ground Up

Sherry Chris

Without realizing it at the time, Sherry Chris learned at an early age about what would become one of the foundations of her career.  

As the eldest of four children and the daughter of working parents, it wasn’t unusual for Chris to come home from school and prepare family meals, help with housework and anything else her mom needed. Chores at home taught her structure, discipline and of course, responsibility, all of which she applies in her current role as president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC. 

“Every step in my career prepared me for my current role,” Chris said. She did not have a particular set path but knew she wanted to influence the industry and do as much as she could within it. “When I look back at the early years in my career, I never even dreamed that I would be sitting where I am today,” she said.

Early Years

Chris' first job was in banking. She purchased her first home and became intrigued with the process. She took the real estate licensing course at night and on weekends, and a year later left the bank to start selling real estate full time. Within two years, at the age of 25, Chris obtained her broker's license and became an assistant manager. She joined Royal LePage in 1987.

As a manager, Chris assumed increasingly senior positions until she left, 16 years later, as executive vice president overseeing operations for the entire company. During her tenure at Royal LePage, Chris had joined a number of organizations. Through meetings and networking, she was recruited by Columbus, Ohio-based Real Living, which she joined as President, Real Living Network Services. From July 2005 to December 2006, Chris was chief operating officer at Prudential. 

She joined Realogy in 2006, where she served as chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, directing operations, education, mortgage and field service programs. She also focused on communications among Coldwell Banker, its regional offices and its global affiliate network of 4,000 offices. Appointed to her current role following Realogy’s announcement of its 50-year agreement with Meredith Corporation to license the Better Homes and Gardens name, job one for Chris was launching the new, global real estate brand in the summer of 2008. 

The Ultimate Opportunity’

When she was asked to launch the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand, Chris became its first employee. “It was the ultimate opportunity for me,” she said. When she joined Coldwell Banker, it was a more mature company, with 4,000 offices and 120,000 agents throughout the world. At Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Chris faced a monumental task: launch a brand without franchisees. And while Better Homes and Gardens was a well-known brand, it was not well known in the real estate industry. 

Today, Chris has 16 team members at Better Homes and Gardens. She has assembled a strong senior team, “putting the right people in place,” to help drive the business forward. 

As president and CEO, Chris encourages her senior team to be challenged and to make mistakes, to help “people grow and develop.” “Our senior team is the future of our business,” she said. “Managers cannot be afraid to hire people who do certain things better than they can, and that holds true for me.” 

“Typical days” for Chris are far from typical. When this article went to press, Chris was still in the pre-launch stage of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. Her typical day began at 7:00 a.m. with a series of back-to-back, non-stop meetings with potential brokers and franchisees, as well as team meetings to finalize marketing pieces and put the finishing touches on training and servicing platforms, to name just a few items. And she makes time every day to keep up with social networking on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

There’s no doubt that passion for the real estate industry drives this executive. As Chris described it, “I live and breathe real estate, and I love this business from the ground up.” 

Chris and her husband Ted maintain homes in Toronto and Morristown, NJ. Being apart during the week allows the two to dive into their professional lives. Ted maintains a law practice in Toronto. 

“Ted has supported me wholeheartedly throughout my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Chris said. While some couples commute between cities, Chris and her husband commute between countries. “Not every spouse would be supportive of a partner working in another country, but Ted is behind me 100 percent,” she said.

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Leveraging Technology

Technology is another factor fueling her passion. Chris looked back about 13 years to when she first began to use technology in real estate – a “traditional industry.” 

“We were one of the first national real estate brands to launch a Web site,” Chris said of her work at Royal LePage. “Two or three months into the site launch, we were so excited to get 100,000 hits a month, which we thought was huge.” Chris emphasizes the importance of technology as the foundation of every business, not an optional “add-on.” 

“We were one of the original Blackberry users. Our corporate offices were not far from those of Research in Motion” (the maker of wireless solutions for mobile communications), Chris said. Back then, companies spent a great deal of time and money on technology “just to have something,” rather than focusing on adoption rates or other more strategic considerations. 

Technology plays a critical role in growing a business. At Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, technology is helping brokers build their business. To generate more revenue and help agents be more productive, all companies under the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate umbrella are required to submit financial statements quarterly. 

“We have built technology to benchmark best practices to send the information back to brokers, to help them generate more revenue, profit and agent productivity,” Chris said. The company also works directly with broker-owners to ensure that they have the right value proposition to generate business.

To attract top talent, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate leverages a technology platform to capture potential prospects. Employment and job-related Web sites round out the organization’s strategy for building its talent base. 

Mentors, Networking and Expanding Horizons

Chris speaks frequently at real estate and technology conferences. When she talks about keys to success, she almost always mentions two important factors: the “golden rule” and the power of networking. 

“It sounds fairly simple, but treat everyone as you would want to be treated,” Chris said. The “golden rule” applies in real estate just like it does in any industry. “Always try to do more for someone than they would do for you in your personal and professional life.”

Building relationships is really important to Chris. “Some people might call it networking, but for me it is much more,” she said. She continues to hear from agents she brought into the business 15 years ago. “I always take the time to call and write to my business colleagues and friends.” 

In addition to the golden rule and networking, mentors play a role in success. While Chris credits several mentors in her life, she recalled two in particular. Her first mentor was a woman she met during her broker’s course in the early 1980s. 

“Sylvia Fillman was and still is a ground breaker in all that she does,” Chris said. Fillman mentored Chris at a time when very few women were in real estate management. “A couple of years ago, Sylvia called me and asked me to mentor her daughter,” Chris said. “To me, that was a great example of how things really go full circle in life.”

Another mentor was Simon Dean, the CEO at Royal LePage. “He was really the first executive I worked with who was from outside the real estate industry, and he taught me a lot,” Chris said. 

It was Dean who encouraged Chris to go back to school to pursue an MBA degree. “Simon is now retired, but when I had lunch with him in Toronto a couple of months ago (after not seeing him for five years), we picked up right where we left off our last conversation,” she said.

Chris has served on several advisory boards in the real estate and technology industries. She is a past chairman of the Realty Alliance and served on the Trulia.com and Google Real Estate Advisory Boards, although she resigned from her board service when she joined Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate to focus her efforts on launching and building the brand. 

“My board service has been invaluable in connecting me with and allowing me to collaborate with other thought leaders within and outside the real estate industry to help guide companies affiliated with the industry,” Chris said. In fact, Chris established an advisory board comprised of a variety of executives with different skill sets and interests for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate.

Poised for the Future

When it comes to the future of the industry, Chris said that in many ways, while the fundamentals haven’t changed, much of the “behind the scenes” work has. When she began her real estate career, it was a broker-controlled environment where the agent was not an independent contractor. After a while, the focus of power shifted, and agents controlled the industry: marketing, networking and cultivating relationships with the consumer that the broker may have had in earlier years. 

Clearly, the abundant availability of information has changed the way the real estate industry operates. As to how the industry may look in the future, Chris believes it will be a combination of the “traditional” part of the business combined with technology. 

“It will be a future where broker-owners and franchisors value a balanced role, where agents play a key role and where all participants can use technology to work more efficiently.” Accepting the role of technology is critical, Chris noted. And consumers are using it to be better informed.

“We are poised for the next big wave of buyers and sellers,” she said. Baby Boomers have been fueling the market, but now it’s the Gen Xers and Echo Boomers with their own unique needs. “We need to ensure that we are connecting with them the way they want to be connected.” One of the key messages for this group is the value of homeownership as a great long-term investment. 

But Chris has always known the value of homeownership. This now industry-leading executive bought her first home at age 22. 

Naomi Gitlin is a public relations consultant in Chicago, IL. Her Web site is ngitlin.com.

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