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Real Estate

Linda O’Koniewski talks navigating real estate franchises

This HousingWire Daily interview transcription features an episode with REAL Trending, a podcast that focuses on interviewing the brightest minds in real estate. In this episode, Tracey Velt, managing editor at REAL Trends, a HousingWire sister company, interviews Linda O’Koniewski, CEO of Leading Edge Real Estate in Boston, discussing the lessons she learned after finding out her former franchise pulled the plug, and they had to rebrand overnight.

Five years later, the company is on solid footing, regaining some of the agents they lost and introducing new initiatives like the LEAP program, which offers a plug-and-play system for virtual teams and brokers.

Listen to the full episode here or below and make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Below is the transcription of the interview. These transcriptions, powered by Rev, have been lightly edited and may contain small errors from reproduction:

Tracey Velt: This is Tracey Velt, managing editor for REAL Trends, now owned by HousingWire and HW Media. Today, you’ll be listening to an exclusive interview that features Linda O’Koniewski, CEO of Leading Edge Real Estate in Boston. In today’s interview, Linda discusses lessons learned rebranding from a franchise to an independent, and her company’s innovative new program called Leading Edge Affiliate Partner Program, a new solution for teams and small independent brokerages. Welcome, Linda.

Linda O’Koniewski: Thanks for having me, Tracey.

Tracey Velt: I was obviously first introduced you through your partner, Paul Mydelski, and you are both a part of the REAL Trends CEO group, The Broker Council. I’m glad to see you, again. At the time that I met Paul, the company was going through a transformation from a franchise to an independent, literally overnight. Tell me a little bit about that, and then we’ll go into some of the steps that you took to calm the storm, because it was, literally, overnight.

Linda O’Koniewski: In fact, it was an unconventional way to become an independent, certainly. Like most small teams, or people who want to grow a brokerage, we joined a franchise, and kudos to a lot of those wonderful people in that organization, and the friends I’ve met along the way. We decided that, contractually, we could not have a mind-meeting, a meeting of the minds, on what we consider was a fairness issue. It got hairy. Our franchiser decided that if we wouldn’t sign our franchises, that we couldn’t operate. Overnight, we became Leading Edge Real Estate. We were not prepared to do that, we did not have our brand ready. We hadn’t thought it out. We thought we’d be stuck in the remaining contracts for the next couple of years. It meant we had to think on our feet fast, and we didn’t do it right. I can tell you that we did not launch, we should have been better prepared. I have a lot of advice for people who want to do that someday.

Tracey Velt: That’s great. Let’s talk about that. What were your immediate steps? Obviously, you had to remove your branding from everything. From taking signs down, to not using letterhead, to all your marketing products and programs, and that. How did you get that across to your agents, and what were some of the things that you immediately did to calm the storm, and reassure them?

Linda O’Koniewski: Remember, every sign that you have, every piece of social media, every pen in your office, is branded with your franchise. It was difficult. We have a lot of people who had been very loyal and respected the franchise, and yet, we considered this the most amazing opportunity. One we did not take full advantage of for another year. Overnight, we were just producing signs, they were very bland. We didn’t look at the things that were really important in a brand. We simply had to de-brand, and get a new name out there. That journey, for the next year, on building a brand, was very interesting, Tracey, in that we made a lot of expensive mistakes. When I say that, I mean, we hired big, fancy in-town marketing gurus, and branding gurus, and everyone has the same process. Build a logo, everything is around the logo. At the end of this, what we discovered is, I think all logos are pretty much crap. I don’t know why real estate agents and companies bother with logos, unless you’re an Apple or McDonald’s or BMW, and you have millions of dollars to support it, that’s not what’s important. Your name is important.

Linda O’Koniewski: When we came to this revelation, we also thought, “We’re going to look at the signs differently than anyone has looked at signs.” Now, this seems so pedestrian to talk about the sign. I think we have the most, I would say the freshest, the cleanest, real estate signs anywhere on Earth. We did that because we looked at other, our competitors, and so all the crap on their signs. You don’t need to put your email on your signs, you don’t need to mention that you’re a realtor, you don’t need to put your photo on the signs, you don’t need to have your logo on the signs. Nobody is going to your website from your signs. They’re calling you. We cleaned up the signs. If you understand that negative space amplifies your message, we took the sign and we made… We call them our marquee signs. We put our agents name in lights. Meaning, huge font, name of agent, their phone number, and then Leading Edge. That was on the left. Remember, you read left to right. We ran it vertically, along the side, Leading Edge. Our signs shine. They’re reflective. It’s about the agent. Our agents will tell you that people feel they have more signs in the ground because they see their name everywhere. Once we cleaned up our act with our brand, we had a whole clean look for the entire company. It’s really paid off.

Tracey Velt: Great. Yeah. Obviously, signs depend on the state, what you have to put on them. A lot of people mistake a brand as a logo, and it’s so much more than that. Tell me a little bit about what your brand is today, and how it evolved.

Linda O’Koniewski: For years, we’ve been trying to distinguish ourselves in the industry to not be like any other company. This is going to lead to leaving the franchise, creating the LEAP program, in a moment. Let’s face it, we all know what’s going on in our industry. Everyone says the right things, Tracey. Everyone says, “We’re full of integrity. We’re honest.” Boy, if you have to say that, you’re in trouble. We know that consumers are super frustrated because they’re not sure their offers are being presented. Listing agents would like to sell their own houses, their own listings, and double-side. That crap and shenanigans is going on in the industry, and Leading Edge, from the beginning, has tried to be the company where we gave full exposure to every seller, and every buyer had a chance to get in. It sounds so simple. I think every broker-owner I know says, “We’d like that, too. Except for we deal with their agents, and that’s not what’s happening on the ground.” That’s really our brand. We do the right thing. We are very strategic. How can we help you maximize your sale, et cetera. Our brand isn’t integrity and honesty, it’s, “We tell the truth.” It’s verbs. We tell the truth. Count on us to do the right thing. Not those slogans that everyone talks about.

Tracey Velt: Let’s talk about your agents, because obviously, this was a huge transformation for them. Did you lose a lot of agents, and how did you keep the agents that you had?

Linda O’Koniewski: Another company of our franchise had left a couple of years before us, and had lost 60% of their agents. We were keenly aware of the danger we were in, and the vultures come out to attack and offer your agents sweetheart deals. Our focus was on retention, beyond anything. Calling our agents, staying in front of them. Yes, we lost agents. We couldn’t compete with some of the offers. Some of the agents we lost, I wanted to throw a party. It cleaned house. I think if people are willing to go someplace else for money and a company doesn’t mean something to them, if they weren’t attached to our philosophy and how we were trying to change the industry, they’re not a good fit for us. I feel like we became a much cleaner, fresher, better company as a result. We were stronger with the right people.

Tracey Velt: Okay. Have any of the people who left originally, come back? People that you wanted to come back?

Linda O’Koniewski: We did have some people come back. Interesting, matter of fact, we had someone join today that had left us. They said, “I started with Leading Edge and I thought the grass looked greener. I didn’t know I had been with a company that had everything. I was a little embarrassed when I realized I was in the wrong place. I looked around at other companies, they don’t have what you had.” Matter of fact, he’s joining today. We’ve had a couple of nice stories like that.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. From a management perspective, what was that process like immediately following? Did you have agreement on all sides, and were you able to quickly implement a plan of action with the agents to keep them, and to explain to them, be transparent to them?

Linda O’Koniewski: We were using Zoom very early. We had as many in-person meetings, collectively company meetings, to keep everyone close, and keep them informed. They wanted transparency. A lot of them were heartbroken. They had a great affinity for some of the branding, and felt they were part of that franchise for a long time. At the same time, the new message was, “We’re independent. We, now, don’t have to answer to anybody at corporate. We can take full control of our marketing, our technology platform, the way we do things.” Not to mention, guys, have you noticed we haven’t been really using a lot of the tools of the franchise? We’ve had to recreate on the ground all of our own marketing. We’re doing all of our education and coaching. We really, outside of the big convention that you can go to, which by the way, if you go to NAR, or you go to Inman, those are all the same speakers on the circuit. You can still network with all the right people. There was a way to say, “We’re nimble now. We’re not some behemoth that can’t be steered around easily. We can make our own decisions about everything.” People like that.

Tracey Velt: Okay. What were some of those… Obviously, it’s been two years now?

Linda O’Koniewski: We left in 2017.

Tracey Velt: Oh, wow. It’s been longer than that then.

Linda O’Koniewski: Yep.

Tracey Velt: It seems like yesterday we were first talking about it.

Linda O’Koniewski: [inaudible 00:15:19] in 2019, is when it stated. Then, we didn’t even hear about the results of our trial until 2020.

Tracey Velt: Okay. Okay. That’s why I’m thinking it was earlier, or just more recently.

Linda O’Koniewski: It’s like pregnancy, other people’s pregnancies go fast. Not your own. It’s forever for us.

Tracey Velt: I believe it. Obviously, since then you’ve rebranded. You’ve done a lot of hard work, maintaining the relationships with your agents, and redeveloping your culture. It’s several years later, and you’ve got a new program out called LEAP, it stands for Leading Edge Affiliate Partner Program. I thought it was a really interesting concept. There are some companies doing that, but it’s the only thing they’re doing is branding, allowing the teams to be powered by their brand, rather than part of their brand. Before we go into detail about what the program actually is, I wanted to get a little bit of insight from you on the thought process behind the whole thing, and how did it come about, how did you develop it?

Linda O’Koniewski: I think I realized, it was just over a year ago, I woke up and went, “Gosh, it’s taken me two decades to get my act together.” The company, it takes 20 years to put all the pieces in place. We started as a six person company when I became the broker-owner. You don’t have the money to even have a compliance and financial team. You don’t have coaching, you don’t have education, you don’t have a technology platform, you don’t have your services in place, you don’t have a marketing team, you don’t have… You have to build. You have to get big enough, and bring in enough money to create the services to really compete. I thought, “If I’ve had what I have now, 20 years ago, can you imagine where we would be? What we could have grown?” I have seen so many know teams, small brokerages, go… They can’t wait. Their ego, I know this is for so many people, “I’m going to own my own brokerage.” They have to keep money on the table, and they have to go sell. They don’t have time to create, and adopt, and implement all these systems. It takes an enormous amount of time, and a lot of mistakes and failure until you start to get it right. I thought, “What if we could give everyone a headstart?”

Linda O’Koniewski: In a direct comparison, I think a lot of those teams go, “I’m going to sign up with a franchise. They’ll give me what I want.” What you’re really getting with a franchise, is a brand, and a chance to network, maybe some referral sources. That is all good, but nobody does the nitty-gritty for you. Nobody is taking care of your compliance, and your escrow account, and your back office, and bringing in new agents and onboarding. No one is bringing in the training for all of the new agents, and there isn’t a graphic design team, and a marketing team. A lot of these franchises offer platforms for marketing, but it’s stationary. In other words, you have to plug it in. There’s no customization. That works for some things, but agents want to be able to create their own marketing materials. You need a staff that can do social media images that are custom. Again, it takes years to put that staff in place. I thought, “What if you could wake up one day and say, I want the autonomy. I want my own identity. I need all of the pieces to fuel my business, so that I can focus on the things that make me money.”

Linda O’Koniewski: We all know, you can talk to anyone, I loved Inman years ago, article about the broker-owners. They’re broke owners. The margins are so thin. I know personally, if I really wanted to make money, I would go out and sell, Tracey. I would make more money. However, if you’re on a mission, and you know how to grow people, and you’re good at helping them achieve their goals and success, helping them put their kids through school, helping them save for retirement, helping them grow their business, if that’s your mission, then you can help a lot more people by offering a program. We came up with the acronym, is Leading Edge Affiliate Program. These partners of ours, it is a plug and play system. Come in, we have the marketing team in place, you don’t have to worry about escrow, we already have DepositLink. We already have an unbelievable hub technology platform, single sign on that can do absolutely everything. I know how much money it takes to do that. When you’re starting out, you don’t have it. Now, you’ve got everything of a big brokerage, but you can still have your identity, partnered on our signs, and fueled by us.

Linda O’Koniewski: We don’t allow our partners to open in our existing markets. You don’t want to lose your own agents to the affiliate program. It’s a system that has, it’s just starting to get legs, we only have one. We’re talking to a lot of people. I feel at the end of this year, we might have another 10. It’s a great way for our business to grow, and to help other businesses grow.

Tracey Velt: Okay. From what I understand, it’s a team, or broker branding focus forward, and it’s really powered by you. They’re basically using your systems.

Linda O’Koniewski: Right.

Tracey Velt: Okay. Tell me, I guess, how that works, because you’re not doing it in the same market, so you’re not competing with them. What would be the benefit for a team or broker to do this? Obviously, you mentioned some of them. If they’re all about the brand, and they want some big brand out there, why not choose to franchise yourself instead of do something like this?

Linda O’Koniewski: Well, it goes back to what I talked about, the signs before. Their real brand, that brings in their clients, it isn’t. That’s not why the phone rings. The phone rings because of your name. I think the way we’ve thought about, like I said, our marquee signs, the way we set you up, even the signs. Although, if you want a logo, you can have one. We’re discouraging logos. We want your name out there as part of your team, so you can do your name and your team. You can have a rider with a logo, or your team on it. You can, to me, still create your own brand and your own identity in the marketplace, and affiliate with someone in your marketplace that is hugely successful. That gives you the credibility that you need.

Tracey Velt: Yeah, definitely. Tell me a little bit about the compensation model for that. How are you organizing that business model?

Linda O’Koniewski: We made it simple. We started out very complicated, and we realized we had to simplify it. It’s as simple as it’s the exact same compensation that we use for our own agents. What we didn’t want, it can’t be less expensive, we don’t want to incentivize our agents to leave. That would not be fair to the other agents, and they’re getting all of the same services. Our affiliates will have additional costs that some of our agents don’t have. They will get a space, but some of our own agents in our marketplace have their own offices, or suites, because they want their teams to work there. That’s not unusual.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. Really, this is a model for virtual agents, and I assume that it… I don’t know if you were working on this pre-pandemic, or if this came out of all of the changes that the pandemic is bringing about. You tell me.

Linda O’Koniewski: We started last October, and we didn’t bring our first affiliate in, that was just, “Let’s put it together. Let’s market this. What are our services? How are we going to work the compensation model.” That was going on all at the end of 2019. Brought in our first affiliate in the middle of 2020. It took us that long to figure out how is worked. She’s been a wonderful guinea pig, given us great feedback. She’s growing. She felt, here she was, she was an independent agent who had managed for another office, knew she loved to grow agents, and also knew that her previous franchise wasn’t offering a lot of services. If she wanted to compete in the market, she needed to have, I’m going to call it the trifecta. She needed a great compensation plan for her agents, she needed a great location, and she needed great services. She could get the location, and she was okay with managing her agents, but she did have that service model. She couldn’t afford to do those things. Automatically, the first agent she brought in had a big development. They had signs everywhere. I was talking to her this morning, she’s really happy with that decision. It’s catapulted her. I like the acronym LEAP, just beautifully works out that it can catapult your business. Again, she can focus on bringing agents in, and selling real estate.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. That’s Key Realty team, and they’re in Windham, New Hampshire. Tell me, where are the markets that you currently are, Leading Edge, currently is? Obviously, she’s the only one that has gone through this LEAP program, or signed up for the LEAP program, as of today. What markets are you in, right now?

Linda O’Koniewski: We’re in downtown Boston. I can do, the towns that if you live all over the country, Lexington. Everyone has heard of Lexington and Concord. Belmont, Cambridge, everyone knows where Cambridge is. Andover, it’s north of Boston. Melrose, Redding, Rakefield. Let’s see. Arlington. We have 10 offices. We’re also in Salem, New Hampshire. We had just opened over the line, realizing, and in time for the pandemic, for everyone to want more space. Our New Hampshire business is exploding because people leaving the city for more space, being closer to the water, ponds, views.

Tracey Velt: Yeah, definitely. This is switching gears a little bit, but have you, as an office, have you done any major strategic changes, other than this program, due to the pandemic? Have you closed offices, merged offices, went remote with some of your agents?

Linda O’Koniewski: We hit the ground with a daily call at 8:30. Everyone had to get out of bed. We’re down to only two calls a week, and they’re very well attended still. I’m not jumping on the bandwagon that everything’s going virtual, we’re more remote, we don’t need the office space. I can tell you, now, when everyone’s getting vaccinated, I think they’re going to be hanging from the rafters in our office, waiting to hang out with each other again. There was a time that we were thinking should we let go of our spaces. We had just renovated a brand new training center, which has been sitting vacant, and it hurts to be paying for all that space. I can tell you, now, we are itching. We want to go on vacation. We want to be in the office. We can’t wait to go places. Maybe, our sense of community is more important to us than it’s ever been. People who weren’t even going into the office before might spend a little bit more time there when they’re comfortable. I’m probably in the anti-camp, I know where everyone else is scaling back and saving money and waiting for the economic impact of COVID, and I’m thinking, “I’ve always bucked the system, anyway. I’m going to be glad I kept my spaces.”

Tracey Velt: Yeah. Well, there’s always opportunity in these situations. It’s being brave enough, a lot of times, to take those opportunities. I know a lot of companies that are growing right now. They’re not remaining stagnant. They are investing money. I don’t think you’re alone in that. It’s good to hear. It’s positive to hear.

Linda O’Koniewski: It’s interesting. The REAL Trends survey that went out yesterday, just asked about scaling back. I was like, “We’re spending more money. We’ve hired more people to grow.” We grew during the recession, when brokerages were going down left and right. If you’re prepared to deal with the market as it is, it just doesn’t matter whether it’s a good market or bad market. We don’t care. It’s getting clients ready to understand this market. Buyers have no leverage. When it turns around, the sellers have no leverage and have to reduce their prices. It’s just dealing with your reality.

Tracey Velt: Yeah, definitely. I hope you answered that question, with the fact that you’re spending money, not saving money.

Linda O’Koniewski: I did. I did.

Tracey Velt: Good. I like to hear all the input on that. I appreciate that. Let’s go back to your LEAP program. I want to talk about some of your goals with this. You said that you’re talking to quite a few teams, and individual agents in that. What are some of your goals, and what are some things that maybe you tweaked because of Key Realty and their feedback?

Linda O’Koniewski: Just the onboarding process of bringing on, because these were not people who… When she brings on an agent, they can come directly to us. There were things we had to tweak there. I will tell you that, I’m convinced that I’m not a goal oriented person. I know people say, “What are your goals?” I’ve never operated that way. Not when I was an agent, and not now. John Wooden has this great quote, Tracey. He said, “If you just work on all your skills, and you get good at what you do, you’re going to like the score at the end of the game.” That’s how I play. Let’s get good. Let’s put out what we’re doing. Let’s refine this program so that it really works for people. We started out with a flat fee, and we didn’t cap it. That killed us. A lot of people were like, “It’s going to be too expensive.”

Linda O’Koniewski: Tracey, there’s a lot of companies that have agents on splits. Those splits might be great, 80/20 splits. I think that’s our market for growing the affiliate program. When we started out, it was going to be 14% of everything. That sounded great to a lot of people, but it sounded terrible to people who were in capped programs, because now they were going to be paying more. Lesson learned was, again, to bring it back to the same compensation plan that we’re currently using at Leading Edge. I think we are going to collect 14% for everyone, and then cap it. That makes a lot more sense for everyone. For people who value service, they will pay. If you’re at some discount brokerage, right now, where you’re paying $300.00 a month, and a little bit off the top, we’re not for you. You do not value all the things that we’re going to do. If you’ve loved all those things, and you can get them at a discount, then this is a great program for you.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. Great. Is there anything else you want to add about your transition, or about the program? Are you working on any other new initiatives that you think our listeners would like to hear, or you focused on this for right now?

Linda O’Koniewski: We don’t have any other new initiatives. This has really taken a lot of energy, and we feel like this is the best path to growth right now. I don’t like to take on too many things at one time. I am running my bootcamp, which has been really a lot of fun, which is very a holistic look at an agent’s life, not just their business. We keep them healthy, if they’re exercising and moving, and taking care of themselves, we know that they’ll probably be much more successful in their business. That’s what we’re working on now.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. I was very impressed with your bootcamp when we came into your office to review it. I know you are kind of the specialist in all of that training, and you’ve done a great job with all of it.

Linda O’Koniewski: Thank you.

Tracey Velt: Yeah. Well, Linda, thank you so much for joining the REAL Trends REAL Trending podcast. I really enjoyed speaking with you. I appreciate your time.

Linda O’Koniewski: It’s been an honor, Tracey. Thank you.

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