This AJC Article says it all: Please read……………..
By Mike Tierney
For the AJC
What was striking for a visitor at the Virtual Properties Realty headquarters in Duluth on Valentine’s Day eve was what did and did not adorn its walls and doors.
Heart-shaped paper cutouts that seemed more fitting for a classroom declared “VPR Agents Are Loved” and “VPR Agents Rock.”
Absent were signs that recognize agents who have been ringing up the highest sales figures. Virtual Properties eschews the common practice, which it considers motivation by intimidation.
Few industries have suffered more than real estate during the economic downtown, yet Virtual Properties still generated such a favorable impression among its “employees” in Workplace Dynamics’ survey to determine the top workplaces in metro Atlanta that it earned the distinction in the large company category (5,000 employees and and up).
To real estate agents, no factor carries more weight than support and guidance from their brokers, and many of the nearly 1,000 who pound the pavement on behalf of Virtual Properties speak in unison about how help is just a phone call away.
Mike Beernick cited a situation that required a broker to quickly review and sign a document. “My broker here dropped what she was doing, spent 10 minutes reviewing the form, and signed the bottom,” he said. “Unfortunately, some brokers (elsewhere) make it very uncomfortable for their agents to ask questions. At VPR, we are encouraged to ask questions at any time.”
Managing broker Angie Mezza-Smith, one of a dozen actual VPR employees, explains the policy: ‘We want agents to know that, if something comes up, it’s not their problem. It’s our problem.”
Agents also applaud the relatively generous split of sales commissions. The standard arrangement allows for them to keep 90 percent from each transaction, with the company’s share capped at $5,900. Agents’ fees have been lowered on occasion but never raised.
If money cannot buy one love, then a comradely atmosphere does. “It’s a very homey place, like a family,” agent Sandra Real observed.
In the collegial ambiance, it does not take much for a party to break out. The bar is low for celebrations — tame, by all accounts — of personal or professional milestones.
The mood was loose, almost festive, when nearly 200 shoe-horned into the meeting room for their monthly gathering in mid-February. Drawings for free restaurant gift certificates, munchies that included home-made goodies and special-order Valentine’s-themed doughnuts, warm greetings for newcomers, balloons and laughter blended into the discussion of business, some of it sobering.
“What we are really selling,” Mezza-Smith reminded the agents, “is the American dream.”
There was no singling out agents for exceptional work. VPR does recognize its standouts, ferrying those who attain local board of realtors’ Million Dollar Club status to an annual banquet in a limousine.
“But we don’t rub it in (the others’) noses,” Mezza-Smith said, noting that VPR agents, some of whom treat real estate as a part-time venture or hobby, can proceed at their own pace.
Another arresting feature in the meeting was the ethnic diversity of agents, evidenced by a variety of accents and languages heard in the hallways and work stations. “It is a very heartfelt thing to see,” said agent Samson Kersinant of Haiti.
The crazy-quilt goal was not pursued by the company but evolved, according to co-owner Steve Wagner. “But we embrace it,” he said, especially at pot-luck gatherings, which resemble international food fairs.
Virtual Properties began as both a mom-and-pop and mom-and-son operation. Wagner and his mother, Karen Burks, birthed it in her basement 14 years ago, after they broke away from a national firm. (Burks’ daughter handles the books.) Meetings in those days involved five persons in folding chairs, with an overweight dachshund at their feet.
The company’s name stems from Burks’ out-of-the-box notion to photograph properties and provide “virtual tours” online. She dispatched Wagner to receive training in the nascent field. The concept set VPR on a gradual ascent that has brought them enough business that it consists of three separate divisions — and so many agents that Wagner confesses he cannot keep track of everyone’s name.
At least they stick around so Wagner can gain familiarity. Annual retention rate, he claimed, exceeds 99 percent. Those who leave for other firms “almost always come back to us,” Wagner said.
The full-time staff is small enough to fit everyone into a limo, which they did last fall for transportation to a massage and dinner on the company’s tab. Later, it was rewarded with a weekend excursion to a North Carolina casino, along with funds to feed the slot machines.
The agents are independent contractors, though the sense of connection to the company is palpable.
VPR boasts a high participation rate for charitable endeavors such as Toys for Tots.
Beernick, a former school teacher, is a volunteer instructor of classes that, for example, enlighten fellow agents on properly educating customers on the harsh realities of the housing market.
Veteran agent Gary Hays has caught the volunteer spirit, lending his expertise with technology to related office issues.
Agents tend to shop around at firms in search of one that provides a good fit for them. For Darka Krsmanovic, who hails from the former Yugoslavia, “Once you come here, you are done” moving around. “I couldn’t believe this place exists.”
“When I came, I was wondering, ‘How come not all agents are here?”
Wagner strives to keep things fresh. At the assembly, he introduced a referral plan whereby agents could collect a retention fee for bringing aboard new colleagues. More names to keep track of, yes, but VPR is positioning itself for the end of the real estate slump.
Before adjournment, meeting goers were updated on VPR’s pending move across the street to more spacious and plusher digs.
“There has been lots of wear and tear in this office,” Mezza-Smith said, pausing briefly before delivering the punchline, “with all the partying,”
“Of course, we’ll have to have another party for the grand opening.”
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