Game Changers: Personal touch helps retain top agents

Bullock says his supportive company culture makes this 575-agent office feel like a small brokerage.

Bill Bullock, CEO, Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty, Mill Valley, has been on a remarkable growth path for the past five years, But Bullock – a RealTrends 2021 Game Changer – attributes much of his success in recruiting and retaining top agents to maintaining a “small brokerage” culture. “Our agents know that they are not just numbers for us,” he says. “We care about them and do everything we can to help them succeed.”

That supportive company culture, combined with robust technology systems and marketing products, helped Bullock’s company expand its footprint, despite the many challenges of the COVID pandemic. “It helped us to be positioned in every county around San Francisco, so when people began leaving the city, we were in a great position to serve buyers, get new listings and capitalize on that trend,” he says.

Since the start of 2020, Bullock’s brokerage has added about 50 more agents, and now has about 575 agents and 70 staff members in 25 offices. “We tried to reduce our office space last year, but wound up opening more offices that we closed,” he said.”

Importance of culture

Thirty years ago, Bill Bullock and his business partner Olivia Decker founded the brokerage with just six agents. “Even though we’ve grown tremendously, we have essentially remained a small company,” he says. “I’m still the CEO and my personality hasn’t changed. I get a report every night of our closings. If I see something that deserves a mention, I try to send an email and tell the agents how great they are doing.”

Even with 500-plus agents, Bullock says he knows almost every agent on sight. He also instills the importance of that personal touch in his managerial team. “When you scale up, a brokerage has to take on some corporate procedures,” he says. “But you really have to focus on maintaining the personal side of the business. I am always available for our agents to help them grow their businesses, and that accessibility is important to our culture.”

Growth by acquisitions

Several years ago, Bullock walked into a meeting with 150 agents from a small brokerage his San Francisco Bay area company had just acquired. “When I went to the podium to welcome them, I saw they were all wearing black like they were going to a wake,” he says. ““It scared the hell out of me, and I thought that everybody would be bolting. So, I was on the phone to all their top producers and went to see most of the other agents. We were able to gradually get them to settle down, and we only lost two agents. Now, they tell us we’re their former company on steroids and they love being with us.”

Bullock estimates that about 75 percent of his company’s growth in the past five years has been due to nine acquisitions of smaller companies. When looking for potential acquisitions, Bullock typically sends an email expressing his interest, rather than putting the owner on the spot with a cold call asking “Are you interested in selling?”  Usually Bullock’s emails generate a polite response that can lead to an ongoing discussion, he adds.

But Bullock pays close attention to the other firm’s culture before moving forward with an acquisition to be sure the new managers and agents will be a good fit for his team.

Recruiting strategies

Bullock has been able to bring in new agents without hiring a recruiter or giving a managerial incentive for recruiting. “I speak to all of them, especially in Marin County, where I still sell real estate,” he says. “You have to be relentless and keep recruiting all the time.”

Bill Bullock believes the best opportunities to recruit other agents occur when transactions are closing.  He says managers should be asking their agents, “How do you like the agent on the other side of this deal? And did you mention anything to them about coming over and joining us?”  If the other agent is a potential recruit, the manager should call right away, Bullock says. “Just make a call to say, ‘Thank you, our agent said you did a great job.’  That’s not a cold call at all, and it’s much easier that giving your manager a big list of agents to start dialing their numbers.”

In fact, that personalized recruiting strategy has worked well for Bullock. In a recent $10 million transaction, he talked to the agents on the other side, telling them, “Look, we’ll make this deal happen on one condition and that is, you guys join us after this escrow. We all got a laugh out of that, but I wasn’t entirely joking. They are definitely going to hear from me after the closing.”

Bill Bullock, CEO, Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty, Mill Valley, California, was named a RealTrends 2021 Game Changer. In the past five years, between 2016 and 2020, he achieved 172% growth.