AN IRRESISTIBLE FORCE Twice, recently, someone has come up to me at a gathering and said, You guys are revolutionizing the real estate industry in Boston, said Larry Rideout, Co-owner of Gibson Sothebys International Realty. He and his business partner, Paul McGann, are noticed for some recent market gains and industry-leading recruits. The part I found most interesting is that they mentioned how much our agents love working for our company. That is part of what they thought was revolutionary! I dont think that is revolutionary that is just what happens when you run a family business.
We are a family business. That mantra is woven into how Larry and Paul have led Gibson Sothebys International Realty for over a decade.
Larry was reminded that, for him, this is a family business in several ways. An enterprising cousin began mapping the familys genealogy. As he dug through old newspaper articles, he passed along one that would be of particular interest to Larry. The Malden News headline read, French Real Estate New Office Opening. Beneath the headline, a stoic, but friendly, face bore the kind eyes and quiet strength that are present in Larrys own face.
The French was Albert H. D. French, Larrys maternal grandfather. He opened his real estate office on Main Street in Malden, Massachusetts on June 14, 1922. More than eight decades later, Frenchs grandson would acquire one of the largest independent real estate firms in Boston and would secure the Sothebys International Realty affiliation.
DIVINING A CAREER PATH When I was young, my mother would tell me about her dad and what a great real estate broker he was, Larry recalled. Recognizing the entrepreneurial spark in her son, Mrs. Rideout began a decades-long campaign to encourage him to take up the mantle.
Somewhere around 1978 my mother again brought up the real estate idea. Mostly as a defensive measure, as she was feeding me dinner on a fairly regular basis, I took the Broker course and passed on the first try. I placed the license squarely in the back of my wallet and renewed it faithfully every two years.
But, Larry was already involved in another sort of family business. He had followed his fathers footsteps by working at U. S. Gypsum and then Catalano Bros., the on-site trucking company at U. S. Gypsums facility in Charlestown. It was a steady job, with benefits and the stability of a large company. Even though real estate had been a family business, it felt like the great unknown. He also knew his grandfathers story had not ended happily (more on that later). The trucking company provided union pay and a pension. Who could want more?
A FAMILY BUSINESS Larry fell in love with and married Patty Sullivan. They started a family and bought a three-family home to supplement their income. While the steady check and benefits from Larrys job provided stability for a young family, it did not offer any potential for growth. They wanted to do more for their daughters.
Around 1983, my lovely wife decided I needed to find another career and thought that real estate would be good for me. I hung my license with a local real estate company and got the first taste of reality, Larry smirked. Sales were both slow and scarce, as the market faced incredibly high mortgage rates. Fortunately I was just a part timer, so I continued safely in my comfort zone in Charlestown.
Then Century 21s Help Wanted ads started showing up at our breakfast table. As odds would have it, the office in Woburn was managed by a wonderful guy named Joe Crowley, Larry said. Joe cautioned the young father about the ups-and-downs of a real estate career. But Larry was not to be dissuaded. He decided I was worth the chance and I was hooked. He left behind the stability of his job and plunged head first into real estate.
A natural leader, he worked his way up the chain first as an agent, then manager until he was recruited by Realogy, the parent company of Century 21, Coldwell Banker, and ERA. He ran mergers and acquisitions for one third of the country for more than a decade. It was our job to identify companies that would benefit from wider brand recognition. It gave me a national perspective on real estate market trends, said Larry. He learned the art of real estate brokerage from many different successful company owners. While building his team, he also hired the man who would later become his business partner, Paul McGann.
In 2004, Sothebys auction house entered into a long term alliance with Realogy to manage the real estate brokerage portion of their business. Sothebys became the elite brand. The name alone is synonymous with luxury. But, it was and is run separately. Our team couldnt sell those franchises. Larry and Paul kept their eyes on the burgeoning brand as it began to thrive. They dreamed aloud about what it might be like to grow a Sothebys International Realty franchise in Boston.
Then, in 2006, a 40 year old Boston real estate company was being sold by its owners. It was right in Larry and Pauls proverbial back yard. This was the opportunity they had been looking for but, the timing would prove to be tough.
OPPORTUNITY AND CRISIS Albert French built a thriving real estate company in Malden. He became a well-respected local businessman. But, tragically, his story paralleled that of other entrepreneurs and businessmen of his time. The Great Depression devastated his firm and left him penniless.
My mothers family went from a lifestyle of relative comfort to just barely scraping by. They had been an upper middle class household until the Depression. I can only imagine how that weighed on my grandfather. To suddenly be unable to provide for your family and the people who work for you it must have been a terrible blow, said Larry. It was one that French would not survive. He died later from a heart attack. His widow packed up the children and moved in with one of her cousins.
Little did Larry know that he and Paul were about to face a similar set of circumstances. We bought Gibson in the fall of 2006 and affiliated it with Sothebys International Realty. We were off to a really strong start. But, things started to change in the market. Within a year, the banking and mortgage crisis began and real estate companies were hit particularly hard. I didnt want what happened to my grandfathers company to happen to ours. Our employees and agents are our family. We had to find a way to get through it, said Larry.
While other real estate companies closed their doors, Larry and Paul kept theirs open. We hunkered down and relied on each other. Our people are the heart and soul of this company and each one of them helped us get through the recession. We believed in our company and in our agents. We used our creativity and technogy to enhance what we were doing instead of cutting back. It became a critical part of our success.
In the midst of the global economic crisis, they also found opportunity. Larry and Paul had spent their careers at Realogy orchestrating mergers and acquisitions. They used that skill-set to grow their own business and save others through the recession. We talked to other business owners and developed ways to help each other. They acquired and rolled-in several firms. This put them in a unique position to succeed when the market rebounded.
BUILDING ON A LEGACY In the eleven years since they bought Gibson, Larry and Paul have more than quadrupled its sales volume and market share. We went from being well below #20 in the state to #3, and our productivity is off the charts! Today Gibson Sothebys International Realty has eight offices in Greater Boston. They achieved more than $1 billion in sales volume consecutively the last few years and of the top five firms in Massachusetts, Gibson Sothebys International Realty was the only firm to gain market share in 2016.
In 2015, they opened a new office in Cambridge. Looking for parallels, Larry read from the article about the opening of his grandfathers office. A concert by radio furnished a very unique entertainment, which many stopped to hear. To the ladies who called there were presented carnations, while the men enjoyed cigars. He smiled. I suppose thats not very different from our party. We had a live jazz trio and flowers but, no cigars. Patty doesnt let me smoke them, he added with a chuckle.
Two of Larrys four daughters were in attendance. Kristen is one of the real estate agents in his company and Nicole is the Director of Relocation and Referrals. We treat all of our staff and agents like family. But, its a particular point of pride for me to have my daughters working with me, Larry said with emotion in his voice.
Nicole shares Larrys piercing blue eyes and relentless drive. She is often the first one in the office and the last one to leave. I love what I do, she said. My mother teases me about being so much like my dad. She calls me Chip and him Block. Nicole started as a receptionist, then moved up to Executive Assistant, earned the opportunity to develop the referral part of the business, and now is the Director of Business Development. Her own growth within the company is similar to that of others on the management team. Many of the staff started in other areas of the firm and have shifted career paths within it.
That flexibility is there by design. One of the reasons I left the safety of my full-time job in Charlestown is because there was no way for me to grow there. I had reached the highest level I could. I dont want to run my company that way, said Larry. He prides himself on developing growth opportunities within the company for his staff and his agents. We invest in our people and play to their strengths. We help them develop new skills, change departments, or coach them to achieve their goals.
When asked whether he or Paul ever worries that staff will leave after they have been trained, Larry said, That may happen. But, you know, Richard Branson once said, Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they dont want to. Thats how we try to run our business.