Expert Series: Sperry Van Ness

by | Thursday, December 5th, 2013

RE:INVENTION’s Expert Series presents an interview with a major player at a company that is notable as progressive, transformative and/or innovative within its industry.

In an industry primarily dominated by traditional approaches to business operations, innovative practices and thinking outside of the box can make all the difference. Sperry Van Ness International Corporation, a transformative commercial real estate brokerage and property management franchisor, was recently awarded as one of the most recognizable brands in commercial real estate in 2013 by the Lipsey Survey.

This week’s Expert Series features five questions with Diane Danielson, the Chief Platform Officer of Sperry Van Ness.

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RE: First, can you give us a brief background of yourself and of Sperry Van Ness as a company?

Diane: Sperry Van Ness International Corporation is a franchisor. Our day job is selling franchises to commercial real estate firms. They brought me in as the Chief Platform Officer, which is kind of a weird title, but I like to say it’s a combination of COO, marketing, technology and sales, with a focus on growing the bottom line. We have 175 franchise offices in 38 states across the United States and we’re expanding into Canada and Europe.

As for me, I have been in and out of commercial real estate for past 20 years. I started out as a real estate attorney but then joined real estate companies and worked as the vice-president of business development and marketing at various large commercial real estate firms in the Boston area. Then I took some time off from the commercial real estate industry and got involved in a career where I built a company called the Downtown Women’s Club, which was a national women’s network that launched the first social network for businesswomen in the United States back in 2005. After that I ended up consulting with companies on technology and how to use technology most efficiently to meet your marketing and business development goals. And that led to Sperry Van Ness calling me and saying they had a perfect job for me, because I had all of the different categories, including commercial real estate and a legal degree, and everything they were looking for on the marketing and technology side.

RE: What has been your biggest challenge for you at Sperry Van Ness and how did you deal with it? What did you learn from it?

Diane: One of the biggest challenges we have is an innovative business model in a very traditional industry. Commercial real estate is very resistant to change… and 80% male, with the average age of a commercial real estate broker these days around 57 years old. Trying to change an industry is very tough; but the company I’ve been with has been doing things differently for about 35 years. We actually believe in the open sharing and co-listing of our sales properties; we’ve been doing that for years but it is very in-tune with the direction all industries are going these days. And also, we’re very big on technology. We’ve developed and partnered with software platforms so that our franchisees are not tied to their desks. They can use the cloud platform for all our tools, and they can work anywhere because sales are done on the road a lot of the time.

RE: How did your team start building a culture of innovation or transformation?

Diane: Well, it helps to have a CEO and President who is in his early 40s, who’s very visionary. Kevin Maggiacomo is a big believer in not doing business in the same way, because if you do, eventually somebody’s going to put you out of business. So, following his vision, it’s from the top-down. He has brought on people, others and myself, who are rewarded for trying different solutions. With a franchise business model, while some people may think it’s a very old-fashioned model, I find it very innovative, as it’s a way to have a smaller independent team that can use the tools and resources of a large shop. We’re able to be more nimble, because we’re smaller in a sense as a franchisor, and having local franchises allows us to test with them on a small scale. Collaboration is also something that we really stress in the Core Covenants of our company.

RE: Have you found yourself having to transform your business methodology since you started? How have you done so?

Diane: We had a series of changes that started before I got there, one of which was back in 2007 when we started moving towards a franchise business model. That was a big change and it helped us survive the economic downturn in 2009, and we actually came through that profitably, which was extremely rare for our industry.

About two or three years ago, we signed on with Google apps. Taking everything into the cloud was a big transformation because it allowed us to work virtually and our franchisees were able to do the same. Then we helped customize another tool that our brokers use for marketing properties and listings. And since it’s cloud based, they’re able to access that virtually. So they’re able to streamline their overhead costs. The next phase, what we’re doing now and in 2014, is focused on increasing our franchisees’ productivity. It’s not just handing them tools and resources, it’s delivering training and helping them focus on their business so that they can increase productivity. That’s where we’re testing out some innovative tools. We are also bringing out and dusting off old resources that worked in past years and are still applicable today.

It’s also learning from outside the industry. We are looking at what tech companies are doing, what other B2B businesses are doing and what franchises are doing. We were on the Inc. 5000 list this year so we went down there to learn from other companies that were not in our industry. I even hired somebody to lead our marketing team from the retail industry.

RE: What do you think is most important for your company to do in order to keep up with the rapid changes in technology?

Diane: Looking outside the industry. We need to learn from other industries; see what’s working for them and figure out how to apply it to our industry. We can’t just sit here and say nobody else is doing this in commercial real estate so we won’t either; we need to be proactive about thinking of new ways to change the way we do business and keep up with technological changes.

We also have something called the “SVN Difference”. For me, that’s whenever we put the right people with the right process and the right platform. That together creates a system that allows people to maximize productivity.

Many thanks to Diane Danielson for sharing insights during this week’s Expert Series. Look for our next Expert in two weeks time, right here on RE:INVENTION’s Everyday Inventive Blog.

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