It’s a busy day at Chase International in Zephyr Cove. In between meetings, we sat down with Sue Lowe, Senior Vice President and Corporate Broker, and Mike Flanagan, Assistant Broker of the Zephyr Cove office, to find out how they maintain market leadership year after year.
Sue, how did you get into the real estate business?
I use to run a personal services business—taking care of people’s houses, overseeing remodels, planning weddings and parties.
I planned a big event for one of Shari’s clients, and when I met Shari, she said, “You’re really good at organizing things. How would you like to be my assistant and get into the real estate business?”
So I came on board, and within three months, I had my license. I never planned on being in real estate, but that’s how it happened.
Back in those days, Shari was fairly new to the business too. She had sold most of Pinewild, a lakefront townhome development, then came up with the concept of being a broker for four or five clients all over the world. She never lost that vision, and soon, people came to associate Shari Chase with luxury properties at Lake Tahoe as well as around the globe.
When I started with Chase, I didn’t know anything about real estate. Shari created a new vision for luxury, and we both executed on that vision of the way luxury real estate was marketed across the nation.
We did not have mentors at that time. We just charged forward, driven and determined to do better each and every day. We learned by our mistakes, and people were attracted to the way we did business together.
I always liken it to Mister Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, where half the time you’ve got your hands up going “wheeeeee” and the other half you’re holding on for dear life.
Did the brokerage stay small for a few years before adding people?
Within two years, I became the broker of the company. Trinkie Watson joined us shortly after that, and then Marge Hauge, who just celebrated her 25th year at Chase.
We started out in a tiny little office at Marla Bay above the baggy pants store. Then we moved into the old Round Hill Mall, where we had 200 square-foot offices, side-by-side.
In the beginning, agents were hesitant to work with us because our upscale presentation wasn’t the norm. As we gained client recognition, we started to grow.
We added agents that fit our culture, and pretty soon we had 25 agents. We were a very small boutique firm, serving the entire lake as we had partnered with top broker associates, opening offices in Incline Village and Tahoe City.
What was your first big listing, and how did you get it?
The first notable listing we landed was Villa Harrah. Shari had strong connections with Harrah’s, and I had worked for Harrah’s in the entertainment office for 12 years prior to opening my own business. I oversaw Villa Harrah, where the celebrities would stay, so it was kind of ironic that we ended up representing that property.
Shari went directly to the Holiday Inn corporate staff and got it. She did the same thing with Jack Dreyfus to secure the Thunderbird Lodge listing. That’s her. Nothing scares Shari.
As Shari’s assistant, we did everything together for a long time because we were so small. As the company grew and as a new broker, I learned a lot from overseeing the agents at the company.
What was the turning point that led the company to grow?
Shari was invited to join the Brain Trust, a group of the nation’s top independent luxury brokerages. We got so much value out of that organization.
We would travel to each of the owners’ hometowns and do a peer review of their businesses to help them improve while gathering ideas. The owners would bring their leadership teams, and we would spend three days observing their operations and giving our suggestions.
When it was finally our turn, they came to Lake Tahoe, looked at us and said, “You’ve got luxury dialed-in here. You’re well known, but you need to grow. You need to expand as soon as you possibly can.”
So we hired a consultant. Personally, he helped me strengthen my mindset as a leader. He taught me not to be attached to the outcome and not to carry everyone else’s problems.
He gave us good leadership tools, brought in quite a few new agents and encouraged us to open an office in Reno. We opened it together with maybe five to eight agents, so I was down there a lot.
We started expanding after that, really stepping it up when we merged with Doug Rosner at Century 21 in South Lake Tahoe, bringing on 28 agents.
We stayed in his location for two years, and then we brought in Adele Lucas and her team, right as the market started to tank. She owned the building that we moved into, and she gave us a really sweet deal, as we needed more space.
We remodeled that office, rebranded everyone, and overnight, we had a hundred new signs in South Lake Tahoe, which meant our image of being luxury-only began to expand. This is how we evolved to becoming the leader regardless of price point.
Getting those hundred signs overnight made a huge difference because that put us at number three in the marketplace. And within two years, we were in the number one position, and we’ve held it ever since by a significant percentage.
That’s been fulfilling, of course, and Larry Finkel has done a fantastic job managing that office from the beginning.
After that, we opened in the Carson Valley. Then during the downturn, we refocused on Truckee and Tahoe City. A few years later, we opened in Sparks. That’s how we grew.
You’re still the corporate broker after all these years, but you also run the Zephyr Cove office?
Yes. We have an awesome culture in our company and in this office.
I don’t have to manage a lot here because we have a good crowd of seasoned, heart-centered agents who help each other and any of the newer agents that come on board. We have a very strong office manager, Lisa Woodstock, who nurtures and mentors everyone.
Between Lisa, Mike and myself, we manage jointly because as the corporate broker, my role is also doing all of the risk management and any conflict resolution, which takes time. It’s a group effort.
So while Shari provides the vision for the whole company, Lisa, Mike and myself manage jointly at the office level.
When you think about bringing another agent into the fold, what are you looking for?
Mike and I were interviewing a brand new agent yesterday. She’s just about ready to take her test, and she’s trying to find out where she wants to go. She asked that same question.
I said, “We look for someone that will fit into our culture and has that fire in their belly. We have a decision, too. It’s important that you align with our culture and have a heart-centered mindset, following the golden rule and helping other people.”
You never can tell who’s going to make it in this business and who’s not.
We’ve had agents over the years, people that I thought were just going to be amazing who weren’t, and vice versa.
For example, I had a guy who was a developer and had done a lot of business at a well-known luxury brokerage in Tennessee.
He came on board at the same time I was hiring an engineer who had owned an electrical contracting firm in LA with 350 employees. He had lost everything during the downturn and decided to move to Tahoe and reinvent himself as a REALTOR.
I looked at both people and thought, my money’s on the luxury developer. He had experience. He had a great heart, and people just gravitated to him.
While the developer was really likable, the engineer was more serious and analytical.
Well, that luxury developer never sold a thing.
And, the first sale my engineer did was a lakefront. Because he was driven, he was compassionate, and he came in every day, doing what it takes to make a difference in people’s lives.
Plus he has this huge heart and gives back to everybody.
How important is the discipline of coming in every day and doing whatever it takes?
This is a career. It’s not a job. And if you want to be successful in this career, you have to be disciplined, self-motivated, a self-starter, and you’ve got to be able to relate to people and build relationships.
The best part about this career (which in a lot of professions you don’t get) is that you meet people from every walk of life. Some of my very best friends now are all people that I’ve sold houses to, literally the family that comes to Thanksgiving dinner.
For example, some very, very good friends of mine own a winery. They hired my daughter, and they’re just dear, dear friends. I would have never met someone in the winery business if it hadn’t been for this profession.
What else does a real estate agent need to succeed?
You need dedication, discipline and most of all, heart.
Confidence is huge, and the willingness to be the best you can possibly be at everything you’re doing.
My parents always told me, if you’re going to flip hamburgers, flip the best hamburgers you can flip. Don’t half-bake anything—your word is your word. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it.
That’s the philosophy that I’ve lived by and I think Chase lives by, and if you do that and you do it for the right reasons, success will follow.
If you don’t do it for the right reasons, you’re always going to be in conflict.
How do you keep the agents on track and the office humming along day-to-day?
I deal with situations right away. You’ve got to be able to read people to understand when something’s off-kilter and sit them down and say, what’s going on? How can I help you?
Because I have a huge breadth of experience in this business, a lot of people respect my opinion and guidance throughout the organization. I receive calls every day from agents in every office on how to handle this or that, and a lot of that’s because I’ve focused so much on the risk management arena.
It’s a scary business. And if somebody screws up, I’ll counsel them and bring their attention to where they made errors, so that they don’t do it again.
I’ll also support them and walk them through the whole process. Being a strong figure, I learned this from my own experience.
But you know what? We’re all human. We all make mistakes. And if you make a mistake, own it, live by it, learn from it, and share it so that other people don’t make the same mistake you made. The worst thing you can do is hide it.
Occasionally in my monthly meetings, I do a lessons-learned segment. I’ll take some of these situations and try to teach what the outcome was and why.
It’s ever-changing. Only 10 years ago, nobody knew about wire fraud, and now it’s the topic of the month. Before that it was mold. And before that it was Radon. It’s always something.
It’s important to stay current. Staying on top of what’s happening in the market, in our industry and with the consumer—sharing this with our agents is a critical part of what we do.
Where do you see the company going in the future?
The sky’s the limit. No glass ceilings here. We have no boundaries.
Opportunities appear when the timing is right. We’re a very well-respected firm, with a tremendous amount of integrity. You don’t build that overnight. That evolved from Shari back in 1986 to what we are today.
The number one thing we honor is our people. Without the people who are part of this organization, we wouldn’t be who we are.
When we decided to change and start growing, I was so fearful that we would lose our culture. We had a very strong culture at that point with our 25 agents, and we really thought we were the cat’s meow.
But the most amazing thing happened. As we went from 25 to 100 agents very quickly, our culture began to expand and change people’s lives. Our motto is joy, health and success for all, and we’re pleased to see our associates attaining all three.
At Chase, we continually look for opportunities and encourage our agents and consumers in the pursuit of their dreams. Our culture is a beautiful thing, and we want to share it with people.
It’s what you do every day. It’s having someone’s back. It’s stopping and listening to someone. It’s helping someone. It’s thinking about the why instead of the who.
That’s our way.
Mike, how did you get into real estate?
After graduating from UNR in Reno in 2010, I came back to Tahoe because I love it here. It’s home.
I was working a bunch of seasonal jobs to get by and dated a girl whose father owned a brokerage up here. My relationship with the two of them kept progressing, and eventually, they asked me to come to work for them.
And of course, I jumped right on that and haven’t looked back since.
So they took you under their wing and said, hey, we need help with marketing. Let me show you the business?
Exactly, it was awesome. I couldn’t ask for a better way to learn, especially from one of the top brokers in town.
I did that for almost two and a half years and then went out and did real estate on my own, working for the same company.
Then this position with Sue opened up for me. Not only was it a great learning experience, but a way to really dive into every aspect of the business and get into the leadership side, which I think has always been my personality.
So I’ve been doing this for two years now, working with Sue in a mentoring program, but also as her assistant and business partner, helping out with company initiatives, too.
As someone who grew up here, what advantage does that bring as a broker?
Having a good contact base and knowing a lot of people who live here is important. Also knowing people who provide services for homeowners, like good lenders, and having relationships with them already is a definite advantage for the client.
Another benefit of growing up here is that I know the history—not just of the area or the things that happened here, but the history of the homes themselves.
It may be that a famous person lived in that home or that there’s some good story about the progression of when it was built, the remodel that happened later, or the next person that had a completely different idea and started from scratch.
I think a lot of people looking to buy in Tahoe really appreciate that. And especially working with Sue who’s been here for 29 years doing this—her knowledge, not just of the business but of our market and how unique it is has been really fun to learn.
What’s it like being a younger broker, part of the next generation?
It’s different, but working with two very top producing brokers in town has given me an advantage and a strong basis of knowledge about the business and our market in general.
I think one of the biggest changes in real estate is just how fast technology is progressing right now. I honestly think this is the best time to be in the business.
A lot of people are concerned that all of this technology is forcing the personal relationships out of the business, and that might be true in certain areas, but not here in Tahoe.
We have so many tools, and everything is done in a minute’s notice. It’s no longer waiting for a FedEx package to go back and forth or a fax to be sent one way or the other.
We have so many different ways to conduct business efficiently that I think the time-savings are huge compared to what it was, even five years ago when I first got into the business. I’ve seen a lot of progression.
It’s been rewarding being at the forefront and helping the agents with tips and tools to make their lives easier and more successful in less time.
Agents have so many marketing and technology choices, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s the best thing to do. How do you help agents with that?
Yes, it can be overwhelming. There are so many products and platforms to choose from, and everyone’s got a different way that they like to do business.
What isn’t broken, you don’t need to fix, but I think knowing that there are better options out there is a good thing to explore.
I think for us as a company, we’ve done some pretty amazing things in the last couple of years with our technology, working it into a cohesive, fully integrated system. People can still choose what they want to do and the kinds of programs they’re comfortable with. We’ve got a strong suite of products on offer right now.
Do you ever bring brand new agents into the Zephyr Cove office?
We do. A lot of our newer agents have some experience in the business, whether flipping homes or just working in a related field.
The Nevada market can be a challenge to push into as a newer agent. The amount of inventory we have compared to the number of agents here—it’s very competitive.
For an agent, not only new in the business but also new in the area, to learn the market, learn the neighborhoods and become someone that other people can trust to use in a market dominated by the same 10 people for the last 20 years can be difficult.
What’s good, however, is that a lot of our agents are the top producers in our market, and they’re happy to help. So it is possible for a newer agent with drive and determination to gain confidence and experience and find success.
It takes time, but you can do it.
How do you introduce a new real estate agent into your office?
The company offers extensive training through Chase Academy to help the agents transition into their new environment. And we do consistently sit down with them to see how they’re conducting business and look for ways to streamline processes.
Being an independent contractor, having an escrow is what keeps food on the table. But you also need to generate business through marketing, and there are so many different ways to do that.
For example, in our market, the tried-and-true method of soliciting home sellers through direct mail has been a staple for a long time. Our in-house marketing department creates beautifully branded collateral specific to our locale, and since we’re the market leader, what we send out carries credibility. So people respond.
A lot of REALTORS say that there are so many disruptors in the industry right now. Bigger tech companies like Zillow and Redfin are trying to push the agent out of the situation by automating valuation. But that doesn’t work here in Tahoe because two homes next to each other can differ in value by $1 million in price. Every home is practically custom up here.
And there’s no real valuation formula. That was something that my first broker told me.
He said, “Pricing property in Tahoe is not a science, it’s an art form, and you really have to be in this market and know what to look for and what to look at to be able to do it right.”
There are plenty of ways to get business in this industry, and I think it’s good for agents to explore methods that aren’t being used all the time.
Having a bit of a different spin on it and making it their own, still using the same branding to keep quality high, but also trying to find new ways to get business that people haven’t necessarily done in the past, that’s the key.
What are you and Sue thinking about as you move the Zephyr Cove office forward?
We definitely want to continue to keep our market share as high as possible. That’s a big reason why we attract the great people we do.
But we also want to make sure that our agents who have built this office to be what it is, feel supported, needed and engaged as we move forward together.
At the same time, we are looking to get millennial agents into the business, and it might work well with a staged transition, as one agent retires and another takes over.
For a well-established agent, that book of business you’ve built can be your retirement plan through ongoing referrals, if you’ve taken care of those people and they consistently come back to you.
We are developing a mentorship program, like the one I’ve had, to make that transition seamless. We know this process works.
So, you’re having a good time?
Absolutely, living and working here, it’s pretty easy to have a good time.
We’re all pretty cohesive in this office. I think everyone who shows up day-to-day understands what everyone else’s intentions are.
And it’s our whole game plan not just to achieve success on our own, but also for our company, continuing that really strong market share that we’ve had for a long time, which has been Sue and Shari’s achievement for many, many years.
It’s a great responsibility to walk into and keep going, but I love it.