The Real Deal Chicago

There’s no “I” in team: Top resi brokers staff up amid growing competition

Some of Chicago’s biggest producers are building out their groups in an age when going it alone means falling behind
By Joe Ward | October 03, 2018 12:00PM

The Mario Greco team

Mario Greco didn’t want to drown and Leigh Marcus had no intention of going crazy.

The two Chicago top brokers both realized that as they scaled up their businesses, going it alone was not an option. They needed a team behind them.

Greco, who leads MG Group and finished 2017 with $175 million in total volume, said the decision to hire additional staffers started as a necessity. “I was drowning and needed help being in more than one place at one time,” he said. “By my second full year in the business, I realized if I was going to sell more or become a bigger producer, I was going to need to anticipate…instead of backfill into a desperate situation.”

As competition among agents grows fiercer — and as technology-focused brokerages like Compass and Redfin look to siphon away clients — many of Chicago’s top brokers have been staffing up, assembling their own teams to stand out in a crowded field.

Marcus, an @properties broker who leads a team with his wife, Lindsey, said, “I don’t think you can do more than $5 million [in] business on your own without going crazy.” Last year, he led a team that had $140 million in sales volume. “When you’re an agent yourself, you can have all the standards in the world but because you’re so busy you can’t deliver the level of service you want to deliver. That’s where a team comes in.”

For Laura McGreal and Karen Schwartz, of Dream Town Realty, staff support was essential when they struck off on their own to form their own after having worked together for years.

And with digital marketing and presentation now crucial to an industry that has placed a premium on customer service, some top agents are are also bringing their groups to larger brokerages to take advantage of back office support.

Here is how these top Chicago agents make that team structure work.

Mario Greco | The MG Group | Group size: 23 | 2017 sales volume: $175M

Fifteen years ago, Mario Greco was juggling his daytime job as a lawyer and a side hustle as an agent. With little spare time, Greco knew something had to change.

“There was a day where I was literally on the phone making appointments all day and missing substantive things that I needed to do,” he said. “I remember the lightbulb going off, saying, ‘I need someone to do this so I can focus on the things I like to do and the things that make money.’”

Now, the MG Group employs 23 people — including an office staff of seven — and is affiliated with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Koenig Rubloff Realty Group. Greco is among the highest grossing agents in the city, with a total volume of $175 million in 2017, according to his office.

One of his first hires was J. Haakon Knutson. Eight years ago, Knutson was, like Greco, an attorney dabbling in real estate. Knutson started a property management company but decided to move to the brokerage side, where he connected with Greco.

He joined Greco’s team as a broker, and about three years later, Knutson became its first director of sales, allowing him to handle some day-to-day management duties. That let Greco focus on sales and long-term strategies.

“It’s best for everybody,” Knutson said. Greco “can think five years down the road. Personnel, organization, assisting with complicated deals — those things came my way. And it’s helpful for our salespeople to have two people here to advise them.”

With more time, Greco brought on marketing professionals, a special projects coordinator and a new business manager.

Knutson said he increasingly spends his time thinking of how to incorporate new technology into the business.

“If you are focused on the one deal in front of you, you can miss a lot of that,” he said.

At first, Greco said he had concerns that his office structure left employees with not enough to do. Then he realized the free time has helped with communication, strategy and office culture.

“It’s allowed me to cede control of certain things and not micromanage because the team and the processes I’ve installed work,” he said. “It’s a team pulling from the same end of the rope that allows us to be more successful by any measure.”

Laura McGreal and Karen Schwartz | Dream Town Realty | Group size: 8 | 2017 sales volume: $80M

The Laura McGreal and Karen Schwartz team

For a decade, Laura McGreal and Karen Schwartz had been working together, selling new construction for a nationwide homebuilder. Success did not happen in a vacuum, so when the two started their own residential brokerage in 2014, they knew they’d need some help.

Like most fledgling businesses, they started small. They hired a broker, Alison Van Bergen, and another employee to fill out the four-person team.

The startup atmosphere also suited Van Bergen, who had worked in sales before but had no prior real estate experience. She knew she wanted to join a growing team for the hands-on experience, and the guidance.

“There’s huge value in having a trusted group you know,” Van Bergen said.

Today, she and four other brokers comprise the eight-person team that plays an increasingly important role for McGreal and Schwartz, who last year had a team volume of $30 million plus $50 million in new construction sales, they said.

In 2016, the group moved to Dream Town Realty, which McGreal said has also helped grow the business.

“Going from doing everything ourselves [to] having the support of a marketing team, front desk staff, it’s night and day,” she said.

A larger team has also allowed Schwartz and McGreal to specialize: Schwartz leads city business and McGreal handles the western suburbs. Van Bergen said the team is “able to collaborate on deals,” and share responsibilities.

As competition among agents has ramped up — and as new business models emerge — the team has focused more on customer service, McGreal said.

“Following up with buyers and showings, that takes time,” she said. “And if you don’t have time, you’re not going to do that great of a job. That’s why some of the best agents in the business now have a full team in place.”

Leigh and Lindsey Marcus | @properties | Group size: 6 | 2017 sales volume: $140M

Leigh and Lindsey Marcus

Just before the recession hit, Leigh Marcus joined the family business. His wife, Lindsey, had been a broker for a few years, and already had an assistant.

Slowly, the two began to build their business, and by 2012, their team’s sales volume hit $50 million. They shuffled responsibilities, with Lindsey working on marketing, long-term growth and office administration, and Leigh focusing on sales as the lead agent.

That year, Lindsey added two more staffers, looking ahead as the team continued to build.

“I kept growing things more and more,” she said. “It freed up our time. There was no bottleneck in terms of time or bandwidth.”

The couple now has five people working for them; Lindsey’s brother-in-law is the brokerage’s buyer’s agent while Leigh focuses on listings.

Building up a team was important, but Leigh said he prefers to keep it small, which helps him maintain their level of customer service and personal branding.

“When you generate business, when you are in touch with your clients, you don’t have to depend on a bunch of agents to grow your business.”

Instead, the couple has cultivated a small staff and has branded themselves as a family-friendly brokerage. They opened an office in Roscoe Village, where the couple lives with their young children. The team bakes pies for clients around the holidays and rents a branded ice-cream truck to pass out free treats to families at school fundraisers and park events, all Lindsey’s ideas.

Leigh said he has grown into his role as a team leader, something that is needed if the team is to succeed.

“I would say it’s the most difficult thing,” Leigh said of being a boss. “I think that’s what stops 99 percent of agents from growing. If it was so easy to be a boss and manage, I think a lot of agents would do a lot more business.”

The office structure appears to work for Leigh, who last year handled $140 million in total volume. It has also afforded he and his wife a certain quality of life that keeps his young family close by.

A team “allows you to give better service,” he said. “Or be committed to your family. We have three kids, I want to spend time with them a be a good father. A team allows that to happen.”