On this week’s show, I’m speaking with Bob van Allen, President of Coldwell Banker Tomlinson in Washington State and Idaho.
Bob is not your typical real estate professional. He’s got a very unique outlook and approach to succeeding in the business and I think you’ll appreciate what he has to share.
During our conversation, Bob and I discussed
- Creating a repeatable plan for success in real estate
- His experience with forming and growing a real estate team
- How Bob made the decision to transition into management
- And Advice on finding your “why” and being your authentic self
Topics and Timing
- 0:00 – Introduction
- 1:14 – A Word About Leader’s Edge Coaching
- 2:01 – Start of Interview
- 7:55 – Planning for a Successful Real Estate Career
- 15:43 – Forming a Real Estate Team
- 19:24 – Becoming a Real Estate Manager
- 24:34 – Evolution of the Real Estate Industry
- 26:55 – Real Estate Career Advice
Start of Interview
Bob Burns: I want to start this conversation off by saying that Mastermind groups work. I first met today’s guest at a Mastermind group in Aspen, Colorado. I was new to the group, and this gentleman was quick to welcome me and make me feel comfortable and a part of things. In addition to being a great guy, my guest is a really, really accomplished real estate professional. Bob Van Allen has been in the real estate business for around 17 years, and he has a very impressive resume of accomplishments. He’s been a top-producing alesperson, a team leader, manager, regional manager, and is now the President of Coldwell Banker Tomlinson in Washington State and Idaho. REAL Trends ranks the Tomlinson group as number 45 in the US among all real estate companies, and number 9 overall in the Coldwell Banker network. Prior to real estate, Bob was a semiconductor process engineer, and prior to that, Bob studied engineering physics and music theory in college. So, Bob Van Allen of Coldwell Banker Tomlinson, welcome to the show!
Bob Van Allen: Thanks, Bob, appreciate it!
Bob Burns: I can’t believe I didn’t know about your music background until now. I’ve got a music background, too. What instrument did you play?
Bob Van Allen: I play the piano, so I started in third grade, just worked through school, playing at church throughout middle school and high school, and in worship teams at church, and played in bands at school, went on to college, and decided I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to study it, even though I never really intended to make it a professional thing.
Bob Burns: So you played more than just in church, you played in New York City with a famous singer, right?
Bob Van Allen: Yeah, so it’s kind of my little fun party fact that I like to share with people occasionally. I like to say I opened for Bette Midler, which is a gross overstatement. I was at an event in New York, it was two months after September 11th, 2001, so it was kind of a crazy time to be there, but it was a fundraising event for the Stella Adler School of Acting, and I had a mutual connection there. There were lots of famous people, Benicio del Toro, Roy Scheider, obviously Bette Midler, she was there, she sang, but I played one of the opening piano acts for it, so that was kind of fun.
Bob Burns: That’s cool. So at that point in your music career, was this kind of old hat, or were the nerves there for you?
Bob Van Allen: Oh, the nerves were definitely there! But obviously I practiced thousands of hours over the years, did a senior recital in college before that that was probably more nerve-wracking than that experience to be honest with you, because of the complexity of it. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Really enjoyed it, it was just a crazy, surreal experience, though, to be there.
Bob Burns: That’s super cool. One of the things that I took from my musical training, that I think applies to the business world, I’d love to get your take on this, is when you’re learning a piece of music, getting to the point of being able to play the notes means you’re about halfway there to learning the piece. Getting the notes is step one, you’re halfway there. To get to the next point, double the amount of time it took you to get the notes, to add some musicality to it, and now you’re at 75%. Double your efforts again, you’re at 87.5%. Double again and double again and double again, each step of the refinement, every step closer you get to being 100%, which you’ll never get to, takes double the effort of the prior step. And I think people that don’t have a music background, can sometimes lose sight of what it really means to pursue excellence or perfection or whatever, but I took that process to prepare for listing presentations, or to prepare for a business meeting, or whatever it was that I was working towards, that refinement process for music really informed how I prepared for any opportunity in real estate. Has that been similar for you?
Bob Van Allen: Oh, absolutely, Bob. I mean obviously there’s a lot of discipline when you’re preparing to perform anything, whether it’s music, or in the business world, real estate, you literally are performing when you’re in front of your clients and customers. You don’t want to be fake about it, but there is a preparedness that, to your point, once you know the notes, you can add the artistry, and it can become a little more instinctual. So I think that there’s some tie-ins to what we do in real estate when you feel comfortable talking to your clients, when you feel comfortable, and you’re prepared with whatever information you’re talking about with those folks, if you’re prepared- rehearsed, even- it allows you to be in the moment, and be more musical, right, with what you’re doing. And I feel that way very much in any important meeting. If I’m prepared for it, and I’m really tuned into who I’m talking to and what we’re trying to accomplish together, it allows me that fluidity and that artistry, right? Versus just being mechanical.
Bob Burns: Totally makes sense. And it’s a little bit counter-intuitive, right? To fully be able to be in the moment takes a lot of preparation before the moment.
Bob Van Allen: Exactly right. I think one of my frustrations, and I know we’ll get into the real estate business, but one of my frustrations with the industry generally, is that so many people just accidentally stumble into success, right? They kind of accidentally do whatever they do, and without the intention, and I’m really big about going in and having intention around what you’re doing, whether it’s listing and selling homes as an agent, whether it’s in the management world, recruiting and developing talent, whatever it may be, I don’t like winging it. I think you wing it when you have achieved a certain level of mastery that just makes it second nature, and I guess that’s the tie-in with music.
Planning for a Successful Real Estate Career
Bob Burns: So that leads me to my first question about real estate, and I want to go way back to when you first got into the business 17 years ago, or whenever it was. You came from an engineering background, it takes linear thinking and rational, logical, step-by-step thinking. What was it like for a guy with an engineering background to get into the real estate business, where so many successful people approach the business in a totally non-linear, more artistic fashion, and a lot of times, the more successful people, if you ask them, “What makes you so successful?” They have no idea, they just are.
Bob Van Allen: Right. I think I’ve always had that balance, like you said in the intro, I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to study in college, so I studied both. I went after the science and the art. I think that’s one of the secret sauces of success for me personally, just my composition, it’s just who I am. But it was funny, you talk about going into real estate coming out of engineering, I distinctly remember some conversations with coworkers at the tech company I was working with, it was like, “Huh? What? Real Estate?” And by the way, the most awkward conversation was probably with my parents, who helped me financially, even though I made my way through college with scholarships and summer jobs, they certainly contributed to that. For me to work in engineering for a couple of years and then abandon it for real estate was a pretty big shock for a lot of people. It’s funny, because a lot of people, and even when you and I talked about doing this interview, Bob, it was like yeah, I’m not the typical real estate agent. But what I also realized at that time is that I wasn’t the typical engineer, either. I had a lot more attachment to the relationship and the people side of business and the entrepreneurial thing that I think attracts so many people to this business, and I’ve just loved how I’ve been able to blend the two in my career in real estate. I believe real estate is both art and science. I love it.
Bob Burns: What you just said reminds me of one of my friends, who started off his career, he’s a physicist by training, and he started off his career as a physicist, but he transitioned into a more artistic musical business, he’s now the principal timpanist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and it was really interesting. He approached this artistic pursuit with the rigor and precision of an engineer. His practice sessions were timed down to the minute of what he wanted to work on. He would practice in these 15-minute intense chunks, and everything was picked apart, and it was almost formulaic the way he approached moving from a very linear business to a non-linear business. I wonder what it was like in your first year of real estate as you began to put together the pieces of what became a very successful career. How did you approach that?
Bob Van Allen: Certainly, I don’t want to overstate my analytical nature and pretend that I had that level of discipline in my music or my real estate, to be honest with you. But I certainly had a plan. I had a business plan going in, even before I gave up my engineering job. What really inspired me was, I bought my first home, my realtor was awesome, I took him out to lunch, I said, “Hey, tell me about this whole real estate business, what’s it all about, what’s it like being your own boss?” And from that point, it was probably still a good six-month transitional period where I just gave up my job and went into real estate school. And, by the way, I did that. I didn’t do it slowly over time. I made the decision, I’m out of here with my tech job, and went right to real estate school and jumped right in, but I had a plan. I already thought about what it is like to have your own business, what are the keys to success. I’d already interviewed several other people. I had some semblance of business planning, though I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and that first year you’re drinking from a fire hose and trying to figure it all out. I have never really gone any step in my career without having at least some sort of vision for what that step looked like. It doesn’t mean I have to have it completely pre-determined or figured out, but I at least knew where I was going.
Bob Burns: There’s so many people trying to get into this business grasping for something solid, grasping for a plan, a step-by-step, do this first, this second, this third. Can you share a little bit about what your plan looked like, what some of the components were, or how you thought about piecing together this plan to totally dive in head-first with no safety net?
Bob Van Allen: For me, and I say this to agents all the time, real estate success is all about how many times, and how well you connect with people about real estate. It’s just that simple. If I don’t have conversations with people about real estate, or if I am not good at those conversations, I am not going to create opportunities to help them and to do business with them. I think I knew that very instinctually early on; I didn’t have to have anybody tell me that. This is a people business, not a property business. It’s not about the houses, it’s not about the deal, in my opinion, it’s about people and how you help them and how you connect with them. For me, I had a pretty well-established sphere of influence on day 1. I stayed here in the Boise area after graduating from college, so I had a lot of folks that I knew from my college, a lot of folks that I knew from my engineering job. So, I knew on day 1, I need to connect with these people. So, you put a system in place, right? I literally remember, and this is again in 2003, buying my first HP inkjet printer and buying ink by the bulk at Costco to print my newsletters to send out to all these people, right? I distinctively remember that experience, knowing that I needed to connect with people, knowing that it was about following up with that relationship and letting them know, “Hey, I’m in real estate.” And there’s a system to it, right? We talked a lot about CRMs in this day and age, and back then I think my CRM was Outlook or whatever. You’ve got to do something to manage that and stay on top of it, and I knew that that’s where I needed to work first. There are lots of other ways to connect with business obviously, with FSBOs and expireds and open houses and all the usual things to build your business, but I knew that you had to start with relationships you already developed, with people that like you and who trust you. But you have to put a system to it, it doesn’t just happen. A lot of us, we just kind of wing it, again, and it just kind of happens, and I think folks that do that reap the appropriate result for that. And that wasn’t going to be me. I knew that in my first year.
Bob Burns: In your case the system supported the process and the goal, as opposed to the reverse that a lot of people fall in the trap of adopting a system, and then trying to feed that system in an appropriate way. I think that’s a really important distinction. Figure out what your process is, figure out what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to connect with people, rather than how do I run the software program that wants me to do certain things.
Bob Van Allen: Exactly right. And again, I’m kind of dating myself here, but back in 2003, this is pre-Zillow, right? Pre-internet leads being the big deal that they have become. But there were lots of other ways that you would cold connect with people. I just knew that you had to put a system with the warm connections first, you’ve got to start with that.
Bob Burns: Totally makes sense.
Bob Van Allen: The machine’s not going to do the work for you.
Forming a Real Estate Team
Bob Burns: Right, the machine won’t do it for you. So, let’s fast-forward a little bit. You built a really solid real estate practice, you were a sole practitioner for a number of years, probably the bulk of your business, but at some point you decided, I want to grow this and form a team. How did you get to that point in your career?
Bob Van Allen: It got to the place where I really wanted to specialize on the listing side of the business, so I approached an agent in my office who was really big on the buy-side, and I talked to her about a partnership and had, I’ll say it was a small team, because we had an admin assistant and it was her, my buyer’s agent, and that was literally the three of us for a period of time there. It was all about specializing in the things that I wanted to be good at, and that I wanted to invest my time at. And for her, too, right, it was truly a partnership, for her to be able to do the things that she wanted to do in this business. We were both experienced, we had gotten to the place where it was like, let’s do the things we want to do.
Bob Burns: I think that’s a theme that runs through a lot of my episodes and discussions with people about teams is, do you form a team as a series of generalists that can all do everything, or do you try to specialize in different aspects of the business. And it sounds like in your case, Bob, you were looking for someone who specialized in a part of the business that you weren’t as interested in focusing on. Is that true?
Bob Van Allen: Yeah, for me that works. I mean I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s the only or even the best way to do it. I think what’s important is that anyone, whether you’re a team leader or a team member, you did it with intention. You understand what it is you’re trying to do, and why even be on a team, why be a team leader, why be a team member. What are you going to accomplish with that? What are you going to get out of that? And what mutual value is created in that relationship? One of the things that frustrates me about our industry is that we seem to have swung to a team-first concept oftentimes in the minds of a lot of agents and professionals, but they don’t know why. They haven’t figured out why do that, other than oh, I think I can leverage everybody on my team. And for me, that’s just a very short-sighted and shallow way of looking at it. It’s got to be, what does this really create for everybody involved in it.
Bob Burns: It makes total sense, and from my point of view I see tons of people doing what you described. They’re a successful sole practitioner and because there seems to be so much pressure, or gurus talking about it or blog posts about it or Facebook posts or I don’t really know where all of this pressure comes from to form a team, they form a team, they don’t really know why, and at the end of the day, their revenue probably does go up as a result of forming their team. But I’d say at least 8 times out of 10, their actual net profit, their take-home 1099 earnings as a team leader versus a sole practitioner, for most people it goes down.
Bob Van Allen: Exactly right. Well, and that’s a theme, you could build on that with, I’m a broker-manager and recruitment is obviously a huge part of what we do, and in the recruitment world, it seems like so many people are just fixated on the commission split. And to your point, they’re not talking about their bottom line, they’re not talking about their 1099 income, which is really what matters at the end of the year, but they’re talking about percentages along the way, and the same thing is true with the team thing. “Oh yeah, I grew my GCI, but what did I do to my expenses in this process?” Again, it’s about intention. Do you understand what result you’re going to get by taking that step and making that move.
Becoming a Real Estate Manager
Bob Burns: And not only has your income gone down, the amount of time required to create it skyrocketed as a team leader. So, when you’re with a team, it’s so, so important to do exactly what you’re describing, Bob, to do it with intention, with a plan, to have some objectives you’re trying to meet along the way. You talked a little bit about management, and this always intrigues me, because for the most part, management in real estate makes less money than sales in real estate. It’s like professional football or sports of any case. The players on the field tend to make more money than the coaches on the sidelines. What made you pursue management and take that pay cut?
Bob Van Allen: Yeah, so I think there’s a lot of things in that Bob, and those of us, I think even team leaders, going back to the team thing real briefly, I think there’s this misnomer that I’m going to leverage people and still make the same amount of money, or more money, and not have to work as hard. And it’s a different kind of work. That’s what it’s about for me, when I moved into a management role. It’s a different kind of work. So I got to a place where, I’ll be honest with you, the transactional side of the business…I was starting to lose that zing with the customer-facing relationship, like it was just another listing presentation, just another closing, just another showing with a buyer. And I knew, I tend to get kind of stir-crazy and bored pretty easily. And after doing that for 10 years, I was ready for a new gig. So how I got into management was a previous broker-owner company tapped me on the shoulder, as happens so often, and said hey, you look like someone who might be interested in leadership in this industry, who might be interested in the bigger picture. Does this interest you, does that kind of light a fire for you? And it did. And that seed was planted and cultivated over several years, but finally in 2013 I made that leap. I guess I would tell you yeah, you’re exactly right, star players are going to out-earn coach most of the time. But what I found is that the new level of engagement that this has created in my career, I like to say I get to see my thumbprint on the world around me more. I don’t need the accolades or the recognition for that, that’s not what it’s about, but it’s about that self-fulfillment of looking around saying I had something to do with that person’s success, I had something to do with that person’s upward mobility in the company. I had something to do with shaping the industry, or the market, or whatever it is that I’m working on. This is my new creation at our company or a new program or technology, or whatever it is, it’s fun to see that scale versus just in my own business for my own benefit. I think that rewarding side of management is what makes it worth the potential pay cut, right?
Bob Burns: Totally. There’s nothing better, at least from my perspective, than to be able to be a small part of someone’s amazing success. To be maybe a spark that allowed them to create an income and a living for their family, and to create generational wealth for themselves, and to have, as you say, my thumbprint on an important part of the industry. Really, really cool stuff.
Bob Van Allen: One hundred percent.
Bob Burns: Doesn’t pay as well as selling houses, but the intrinsic rewards are definitely there. So, you’ve been doing this 17 years, you said you can get bored sometimes with things, so what has kept you engaged, how have you been able to continue to learn and grow in your career?
Bob Van Allen: Well, you mentioned it earlier on the musician parallel, you never get to a hundred percent. You know another place where this is true for me is my golf game. I’m an 11-handicap golfer, so by no means am I ever going to be on tour, but I enjoy it. You can always be improving. I think for me, that working towards mastery is the thing that keeps me going. And really working towards bigger impact. So like I said, when I moved into management, it moved from just impacting me and my team to impacting an office and impacting a region and now impacting one of the largest companies in the northwest, for one of the largest Coldwell Bankers in the network. So, I’m going to continue to look for areas to have that positive impact on the business on the industry, I love real estate. I love that, in and of itself, real estate isn’t the same thing every single day. I think that’s one of the things that has made it so interesting for me is that every house is different, every transaction is different, every client is different, every agent is different, every business model is different. There are so many different ways to get there in this business, and that, to me, is very interesting, because you never stop learning that way. I’m never going to say, like, my way is “the” way. I’m going to say my way works for me, and it’s authentic to me and my true self, but you’ve got to find what works for you.
Evolution of the Real Estate Industry
Bob Burns: I think that’s awesome, awesome advice. We talked a little bit about the industry and this direction on teams that things seem to be going in, for sometimes the right reason, sometimes the wrong reason, but as you zoom out and look at the entire industry, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the real estate industry, what would that be?
Bob Van Allen: Well, I think it kind of goes back to the intention thing. Listen, when we set this up, it was kind of like, hey Bob, you’re an analytical guy, that’s atypical in real estate. And I’m not looking to have an industry created and run by spreadsheets or whatever, that’s not what it’s about. But again, it goes back to the intention, and I really see it happening, by the way, technology’s impact, and I hate the word disruption because it’s so overused, but the things that are happening in the industry. And the fact that we’re seeing younger and younger professionals come into the business as a first career choice, not as a second or third or fourth, but young entrepreneurs that are coming in, they’re already tech-enabled, they’re already savvy, oftentimes they’re coming in from business education. That’s a very different paradigm than I think real estate has been historically, and so I’m excited to see real estate, I’ll be honest with you, taken more seriously. I think when a lot of people told me you’re not a typical real estate agent, they meant that kind of derogatorily towards the business, right? They said hey, I didn’t have a great experience with my realtor previously, but Bob you seem sharp, you seem polished, you seem prepared, that’s why I trust you. And that worked for me. I’d like to see that work across the industry at large more.
Bob Burns: I love that take, and it’s a paradox. I feel like the industry is maturing while the average age of the average realtor is decreasing. People seeing this as a first career, not a second career, not that there’s anything wrong with second careers and third careers, that’s been the foundation of our industry, and there’s many, many incredible people working in real estate as their second career, but I think it’s a change, a true shift, where people are seeking out a career in real estate brokerage as a first choice.
Bob Van Allen: Absolutely, absolutely.
Real Estate Career Advice
Bob Burns: So for those folks that are listening that are thinking about real estate as a first career or a second career, or wherever they are in their life, or maybe they’re already in real estate, you’ve had a super successful career at the various things that you’ve done, you’ve been successful at every turn, what one piece of career advice would you give to everybody listening to this interview?
Bob Van Allen: It’s hard to limit it to one, right? I think a couple things, number one, be your true self. It’s kind of funny, growing up, everybody gets made fun of for one reason or another, and being different is a bad thing, right, in middle school and high school as you grow up and mature. Ironically the best thing, in my opinion, that you can be is different, in business, in real estate. If you understand your differentiation and you understand what it is that makes you unique and your secret sauce and your personality, and how you’re going to connect with people in a unique way, and how that adds value. Understanding that and embracing that, versus running away from it I think is…We hear so many times the same stuff in real estate, any realtor or any broker USA can say what you just said, and I think that for me is the piece, figure that out early. Figure out what your secret sauce is, how you’re unique, and then embrace that, build on that, and amplify that as much as you can. Find mentors, find successful people around you and pick their brain on what made them successful, I know it’s kind of cliché, but it’s real. That worked for me, and I think it works for so many others. And again, just do it with intention. Have an idea, have a vision for yourself of where you want to be with this thing.
Bob Burns: I think that sums it up beautifully, approach the business with intention. Bob Van Allen from Coldwell Banker Tomlinson thanks for being on the show, I really appreciate it, and I know the listeners will, too.
Bob Van Allen: Thanks, Bob, appreciate being on.
Music: “My Everything” by Roads used under license from Tribe of Noise.