A Carolina powerhouse does everything right in its tiny mountain town
By Kellee Katagi
Those are the key numbers in an incredible story taking place in Murphy, North Carolina, a remote, wooded community about 10 miles from the Georgia state line. That’s where 14 Associates at RE/MAX Mountain Properties, serving a town of 1,600 and the area around it, averaged 48.3 transaction sides last year – over 5 times the industry norm in national surveys of top brokerages. And it’s where the RE/MAX formula is being executed flawlessly – with skilled agents and great management thriving in a competitive, supportive environment and dominating the local market.
Murphy, at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, is nestled in a county of just 30,000. The region is true to its backwoods, Southern heritage, as evidenced by the thousands of people who turn out for the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop and other down-home attractions. It’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with miles of rivers and trout streams, beautiful lakes and gorgeous hiking trails. Consequently, roughly 90 percent of the area’s real estate transactions involve mountain cabins and other vacation homes, but at prices well below the national average. According to RE/MAX Mountain Properties Broker/Manager David Ritz, the area’s average home sale price is around $150,000, with an average of 234 days on the market. The national average is approximately $300,000, with 54 days on the market. “Our agents have to work harder than the average agent for their commissions,” Ritz says.
This hard work is a major part of the story behind RE/MAX Mountain Properties’ success—but not the whole story. Much of the success stems from Ritz’s strategy in building the brokerage, which he opened in 2003 during the real estate boom years. In 2006, Murphy was mentioned in Forbes magazine as the No. 6 location in the U.S. for escape getaways and second homes, says Dex Hubbard, the top agent at RE/MAX Mountain Properties and the No. 2 RE/MAX agent in North Carolina last year. But then trouble arrived.
“When the market crashed, business went from water going over Niagara Falls to not getting a drop from a spigot,” Hubbard says. “Real estate agents were calling real estate agents trying to sell things, and the Good Lord knows we didn’t have any money.”
Ritz’s agent count dropped from around 30 to six, and he eliminated nearly all print advertising. He cut deals with the local billboard company and put what little leftover money he had into internet marketing—an approach he continues to this day. This kept the company limping along—enough so that when other real estate firms in the area were forced to shutter, many of their brokers in charge joined RE/MAX Mountain Properties.
“One of the things that makes us so strong is that most of our agents have either owned or managed another firm at one point before they came on board with me,” Ritz says. “They know the cost of doing business and they know what it takes, so they’re not needy and I don’t have to babysit them. They’re very savvy businesswise.”
This dynamic allows Ritz to maintain a hands-off management approach. The agents are each a firm within the firm, taking charge of their own marketing and running their own business. They are also experienced enough to peacefully navigate in-house territory run-ins, which arise almost daily, Ritz says.
“It’s a very competitive atmosphere,” he explains. “It’s normal for two or three of our agents being interviewed and competing for a listing. But it works great, because it creates a winning environment where no one is out only for themselves. When I had 30 agents and they all weren’t pros, that was a daily conversation: ‘Hey, I think he’s got my customer. What are we going to do?’ There was constant bellyaching, and I think a lot of brokers have to listen to that all the time. I never hear it.”
Associate Broker Randy Dockery, another of the company’s most prolific performers, puts it this way: “Everybody here likes each other, and everyone wants to see everyone else be successful. When the agents are as successful as our group is, they don’t need to take from each other.”
To maintain the team atmosphere, Ritz is selective in recruiting. “The most recent people who’ve come on with us have all been assistants or someone we’ve trained up through office work,” he says. “Then we know it’s someone we trust, and we know their work habits. That way we know everyone is pulling on the same rope.”
Using this approach, RE/MAX Mountain Properties captures nearly 50 percent of the area’s market share, with around 40 other firms sharing the remaining half, Ritz says. Many of his competitors, he adds, attribute this dominance to the clout of the RE/MAX brand. “Most of our buyers come from elsewhere—Atlanta or Tampa or Orlando or somewhere in Alabama—so they have built-in trust with the name. They assume we’ll be reputable and professional. And then we are. We have a leg up right off the bat.”
But although the brand provides a head start, the quality of the agents themselves is what keeps RE/MAX Mountain Properties on top, Ritz says. “The RE/MAX name is a huge advantage, but we don’t rest on it,” Ritz says. “We follow through with outstanding service.”
Hubbard agrees. “This is a great, great, great group of real estate agents. They know their jobs, they market well, and they work well together. There’s no greed, and no drama. If there was, I wouldn’t be here.”