Leisa: Hello. I'm Leisa Holland-Nelson, and this is The BusinessMakers show, heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com. My guest today is Beth Wolff, founder and CEO of Beth Wolff Realtors, Houston's 34-year-old woman-owned real estate firm. Beth, that's a lot to say, and I have a feeling it wasn't an easy thing to get to, but tell us about Beth Wolff Realtors.
Ben: Beth Wolff Realtors, 34 years, as you said, this year, going to celebrate our 35th next year, and we've branded ourselves a little differently. We have 40 sales associates, and that's still considered a small firm, believe it or not, compared to some of the people we compete with. However, we feel that our ability to give professional, personalized service is kept intact by being right sized.
Leisa: Interesting. Do you have a target customer?
Ben: We believe that this is a service business, and so so many people can be our target customers. We like to help people. We believe that the opportunity to work with one, and the biggest investment most of us makes in their life, is really a big responsibility, so we pride ourselves on service. We do everything from condos to castles.
Leisa: I think I've heard that you have a major relocation business. Can you tell us about that a little bit?
Ben: Relocation is huge in Houston, and we are so fortunate to be here. As you know, Houston is the brightest light in the nation for relocation. We're part affiliated with Brookfield Global Relocation Services, and we help relocate a lot of the energy companies when they come into Houston. This is a big responsibility, as well, because many of the people come from other countries. Sometimes, they don't even have a driver's license, they're often not citizens, so this takes many components into satisfying all the issues that go into helping them to move here successfully.
Leisa: So, I can find a house with you, whether I'm a native Houstonian, someone moving here from anywhere in the U.S. or anywhere in the world?
Ben: Definitely. We actually have affiliation with offices in Shanghai, London, virtually all over the world, and, once again, with the international nature of our city, my son, by the way, Ed Wolff, is president of our company, and he is a certified international property specialist.
Leisa: You didn't just wake up one day and decide to be a realtor. How did you get into this business, especially as a woman? I don't think that was the most normal activity 34 years ago.
Ben: You're right about that. Actually, I feel that my generation made the transition for women into the workplace. I was a stay-at-home housewife in 1974, and one day I found myself divorced and the sole supporter of a 4- and 6-year-old. At that time, there were not a lot of opportunities for women, so I selected real estate for the time flexibility and the income potential. No one could tell me I couldn't stay home with a sick child or be a room mother, and, at the same, if I needed more money, just had to go out and sell another house.
Leisa: Well, I know that there have been a lot of experiences for you during your 34 years here as a real state owner in Houston. Can you tell me some of your favorite experiences that you've had?
Ben: Well, it's a fascinating business. Every time we think we've seen it all, something else happens, that I will tell you for sure, and been involved in many unique situations. There was a property in Hunters Creek Village, for instance, and, as we all know, that's effectively a zoned area, really. There were two properties - we went on the listing appointment - and one was a home, contemporary Roger Rasbach style, and the other was actually a garage. One might wonder how that could exist in Hunters Creek Village, but it looked like a home from the outside, had windows, a door, et cetera. When you opened the garage door, it was just a big space, and actually had a carwash in it.
Ben: So, it was very interesting marketing it, because we could offer it two ways: either the entire property, or they were on two separate lots so it could be subdivided, and, subsequently, we sold it subdivided. We often thought that maybe another person who collected cars would want it, but that didn't come about, and they actually converted the second property into a home, as well.
Leisa: Have there been women who have been key influencers in your career?
Ben: I would say so. Someone asked me recently on a panel whom I admired, and one of the women that I admire the most is Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and I feel that she was a trailblazer, she was in business, went to law school long before I did, although we were at the University of Texas in an honorary service organization together, and, in some ways, she lived my dream. So, when I found myself faced with going into business, I thought of her and looked up to her, and still do. I think she's done a phenomenal job.
Leisa: As a politician, or in every phase of her life, now that she's a mom in her sixties, which is so interesting?
Ben: I was impressed with that, as well, because I feel like it just shows that we don't have to stop growing and changing, and I think that life, even as we get older, holds a lot of opportunity.
Leisa: Our show, The BusinessMakers show, is really all about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial spirit. When did you know that you had it in you, because it is something, I think, very special. It either burns in you, or you're very comfortable doing great working for other people, but when did you know, and what was that feeling like, and is that when you decided to start your business, or what did you do with it the first time you knew that it was there?
Ben: Well, as I mentioned, one day I was a homemaker and the next day I needed to work, so in selecting the real estate business, initially I was with one broker for two years, didn't totally agree with the way things were done, with another broker for two years, and finally decided I just had to do it myself. I'm not sure I ever really stopped and appreciated the fact that I was an entrepreneur, and that I was working to really survive. My children were my motivating factor, because I was so concerned about giving them what I felt they should have, in spite of the fact not having a father, and actually on father's day they both called me. I often get cards from them, "You've been like -
Ben: a father to me," ?
Leisa: Oh, wonderful.
Ben: ? and it's been thrilling to have my son come into the business, because many men go into their father's business. So, I have a son who has come into his mother's business. My daughter is an attorney, in some ways fulfilled my dream, and is a commercial closer in Shreveport, Louisiana. So, I'm very proud of what they both were able to accomplish.
Leisa: How does that differentiate you?
Ben: I believe that by being the size that we are, that we can still be a part. Sometimes, people will say that this is like a family, and I thought about that a lot, and I thought, "No, we're not a family, this isn't a social club. Why do they say that?" and I think they say that because we care, and I think being right sized gives us the opportunity to work with our sales associates individually. We actually, between my son, Ed, and I, we meet most of the people that we work with, and it really allows us to be more hands-on. I'm especially comfortable with that, once again, because this is an extreme responsibility, and there's an awful lot involved in helping someone from contract to close, in particular.
Leisa: Beth, tell me how the Internet actually affected how you do business.
Ben: It actually revolutionized it. Years ago, when we started, we had MLS books that came out that were several inches thick and getting bigger, and they would come out once a week. Well, there was no way for them to be accurate in terms of the information. Slowly, computers were interjected into the system, and, ultimately, with the Internet, and I remember that. That was probably in the mid '90s, when someone called on the brokers in Houston, and of course most of them were my contemporaries; we did not grow up with technology. However, I took my son with me, he was a brand new baby agent, but since he was my son and I owned the business, he went with me, and I'll never forget the person saying, "You are going to embrace the Internet or you'll be out of business," and he asked how many people there were under the age of 30; my son was the only one. So, I found that because of his interest and understanding of that, that we were the first real estate company to have a Web page. We actually did a program together at the University of Houston about the importance of the Internet, and he coincidentally has come up with Closing Side, which is a software package that he came up with that's specific for real estate and title companies. So, today, we have information much more immediately. We actually discussed at our office meeting this morning, there are ways to use it and not use it, and especially with all that's been interjected, with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, et cetera, I think we're in the phase of formulating new rules, especially for business.
Leisa: Are you finding that every real estate agent, or every property is listed through MLS, or on, for our sake here in Houston, HAR.com, or does the customer really need you to find the right house?
Ben: Actually, they do, and initially I was more concerned about this, obviously, than my son, actually. I was the president of the ___________ Association in 1992, when so many things were changing, and this was just on the forefront, I was much more concerned; however, we find that they are better educated because of this, they may do their homework on the Internet; they still need us, and the most important time, let's say they find the house, if we help them write the contract, there's still so many issues that come up between that point and financing today, in particular, that I am very sure that we are needed. We do find some people do not want to be on the Internet. We actually have one property listed, a couple million dollars, where they do not want it on MLS, and we, again, because we personalize our service, are in a position to handle it both ways, and yet, be effective.
Leisa: So, real estate is your family business, whether you're closing or opening or whatever it is. If there were something that you wanted the next generation to know, men or women, about being in your business, what advice would you give them?
Ben: I think one thing to remember, which I learned early on, is that change is the only constant. When I opened my company in 1978, there was a usury ceiling in the State of Texas, so we sold houses without mortgage money. Once that was lifted -
Ben: ? yes, once they lifted the ceiling, the interest rates went to 18 percent, and we still sold houses. After that, we had what I would call a depression in Houston in the mid '80s. That's when the oil business was so poor here, and, again, we survived. Houses might be on the market for years, but we still survived. So, after ________ we've had a recent downturn, which I think we're all familiar with, I think really being able to adapt, and especially today, we all know technology is changing faster than most of us can keep pace with, so to me it would be embracing change, and doing that with competence, commitment, and courage.
Leisa: Thanks, Beth, for sharing your story.
Ben: And thank you, Leisa, for the opportunity.
Leisa: There you have it. That's Beth Wolff, founder and CEO of Beth Wolff Realtors, and this is The BusinessMakers show, heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com.