by: Brad Barker
The business guru Peter Drucker said, “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take big risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
I had that saying in mind in 1982. I was part of a group of frustrated business people who wanted something more out of the workday — more meaning, more satisfaction, more life.
We decided to take a big risk. We call it Group One. ---
1982-1983: FROM COCKTAIL NAPKIN TO CORPORATION
The summer of 1982 wasn’t a great time to be in business in Boise, and a group of us were feeling it. We met regularly at a cocktail lounge and talked about finding a company we admired: One that was small, intentional, special. We didn’t want to work for just another company.
That summer, someone in the group asked me if I would start a real estate firm. I sketched out my idea for one on the back of one of the lounge’s cocktail napkins. The ideas on that napkin became Group One.
Group One is a real estate company, but the principles behind it could apply to any business. Real estate made sense because we recognized a niche in the marketplace for agents. Nearly all real estate firms, both then and now, believe in casting a wide net — recruiting more agents than they need in the hopes that some of them will succeed. It’s the old 80/20 rule: Out of 100 percent of new recruits, 20 percent of them will do well. We wanted to restrict ourselves to the 20 percent, a small number of remarkable, full-time sales professionals who would dedicate themselves to excellent client experiences.
As the idea on the cocktail napkin grew into a full-fledged business that summer, we prepared a written business plan with our projections of revenues and expenses. One of the agents who sat in on the discussions decided to bow out because her financial advisor felt we were under capitalized. I told her that our degree of capitalization would force us to be profitable; in fact, our projection showed we’d turn a profit by the six month. She still refused.
I could understand her hesitation. The Treasure Valley was suffering through a terrible economy in 1982 — it might have been a bad time to open a business, but it was a great time to score a few bargains. We found an office space behind the Children’s Home on Warm Springs Boulevard that advertised “cheap rent.” We furnished it with desks and chairs from a developer whose business was shutting down.
We also needed a name, so we hired a new marketing communications firm to help us develop a corporate identity for our new company. During our first meeting, I made an impassioned speech about why I wanted the word “group” in the name. My fellow owners said they would agree to include “group” in the name if I would just stop talking about it.
The communications firm was given their marching orders and came up with 10 names. We chose Group One. It might have been an inauspicious start, but the prediction I made to my reluctant colleague was correct: Six months after we began, we turned a profit.
THE ORIGINAL OWNERS
We started the company with four owners. Jane Baxter was very active in upper-end real estate and helped sketch out Group One’s concept on the cocktail napkin. Bonnie Quinn was one of the most recognizable agents in the market at that time, and her presence lent us instant credibility. Sally Howard had sold real estate for several years but was interested in a staff support role, so she became our receptionist, office manager, and bookkeeper all rolled into one.
One of our earliest agents was Barbara Hoff, who contributed to the company’s original concept. She pioneered our original logo and corporate identity, and established a reputation as one of the classiest and most productive Realtors in the area. Barbara passed away in 1998.
1983-1998: GROWTH OF A BOUTIQUE FIRM
Over the next decade and a half, Jane Baxter and Bonnie Quinn retired. We grew slowly into a boutique firm, and we never recruited — instead, we waited for agents to seek us. If they had enough courage to call us, we figured a meeting was in order. We didn’t take on brand-new agents, but suggested they earn their stripes at another firm before giving us a call.
I split my time between managing Group One with Sally Howard and selling real estate and building houses through my construction group, The Hanover Company. In 1992, I decided Sally could do a better job than I could as Group One’s designated broker. She served very ably in that capacity until her retirement in 2007, but her legacy is present in the company today. She provided great support to our agents and lived the Group One values that continue to define our culture.
1998-2002: LEARNING EXPERIENCES
As the Treasure Valley expanded, so did we. By the late 1990s, Southeast Boise was running out of homesites and many builders, developers, and buyers were turning toward Eagle. We opened a small office there to take advantage of the new growth; the company is now split between the two offices.
We had grown, and to continue to grow it seemed like we needed to go the traditional route and merge with a larger company. Thornton Oliver Keller Residential seemed like a good fit: We were similar companies, and Thornton Oliver Keller was our top competitor. We merged in 2000.
The merger did not go smoothly, and we lost many agents who said they liked the old Group One better. It was a huge learning experience: The most important asset we have is our culture. When the culture is out of whack, the company is out of whack.
2001-2007: FOCUS ON CULTURE
We knew we wanted to grow, and we knew that our merger was not the solution. Instead, we focused on identifying opportunities rather than problems, and realized that our most important work is helping develop and support careers. That was a huge shift in the way we think about Group One. We’ve become great students of excellent business culture in our effort to create opportunities for our agents to grow and thrive.
In 2001, we joined The Leadership Council, a group of up to 20 independent real estate companies (and one Sotheby’s affiliate) across the country. We meet twice a year, each time hosted by a member company, and share our experiences and ideas. We interview the agents and staff of the host; on the last day of each meeting, we deliver a critique of the company to its owners.
Belonging to TLC has been an invaluable experience for us. We’ve been able to design, develop, and adopt state-of-the-art systems and processes that support or sales professionals. We learned about Ninja Selling from Larry Kendall of The Group, Inc., which changed the way we think about sphere-of-influence marketing. We learned about Appreciative Inquiry, a discipline that starts with gratitude rather than problem solving and leads to a wishful organization of people who always ask, “What’s next?” We immersed ourselves in NeuroLeadership Coaching, developed by Dr. David Rock, which has taught us that we change or improve as a result of our thinking.
Our efforts to double down on corporate culture certainly paid off: We were chosen as the marketing company for Hidden Springs, which brought us close to $500 million in volume. That revenue was crucial to our recovery after our ill-fated merger.
SIDEBAR: KALINN DISHION
One of the best decisions I ever made was persuading KaLinn Dishion to join our firm. When Sally Howard retired, KaLinn was my first choice for partner and designated broker. She has transformed the company in that role: Her attention to detail and to our agents and staff has transformed the character and culture of Group One. She treats everyone with respect and makes us all better citizens and more professional Realtors.
2008-2009: BABY AND BATHWATER
The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 brought us to our knees. Many good builders, developers, and Realtors went out of business. One exercise not only helped us survive, but it helped us define what is important today. We called it “Baby and Bathwater.”
We posted a sheet of easel paper on the wall in our office and listed all the things we were doing with the business that we should stop doing. We put another two sheets of easel paper on the wall and labeled one “Baby” and the other “Bathwater.” We decided we were willing to throw out the bathwater but not the baby — in other words, the most important services that allowed our agents to thrive in the marketplace.
Bathwater included all of our salaries, a cut in staff salaries, and other items that didn’t affect the service we provided our agents. Baby included everything that could affect our agents, including the Group One weekly marketing magazine, our web site, our marketing materials, and our technology.
Of course, we kept the baby. That exercise was a blessing and instrumental in showing us what was important.
THE FUTURE OF GROUP ONE
We know we can’t stay just as we are. Leadership is about anticipating change: We need to grow; not necessarily in agents, but in skill, abilities, level of service, and number of transactions. If we can measure that growth, we can manage it. We believe in pushing the limits of what we believe we can achieve. We are fully committed to mastery, excellence, and continuous improvement.
At Group One, we will always ask, “What’s next?” That’s because we know we’ll be better tomorrow than we are today.