The House That Raveis Built
William M. Raveis Real Estate Fortieth Anniversary
Bill Raveis’ first business lesson came in the early 1970s while working as a systems analyst at Westinghouse. Little did corporate America know the impact it would have on the future of real estate in Connecticut and beyond.
For five years, Raveis had commuted from Fairfield to the company’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan. He was overseeing a team of programmers in building a technology system to link the company’s domestic and international divisions. When the project was completed, senior executives from around the world gathered at the old Biltmore Hotel to celebrate. “They said, ‘This is the greatest thing since sliced bread, we can ship product all over the place, it’s going to bring price-per-share earnings up,” he recalls. “The meeting went on for an hour and a half and not once was there any mention of me or the team that did it. I’m twenty-seven years old, I’ve gone to work almost every day for five years, including weekends, and I wasn’t even going to hear, ‘Thanks for the effort’?”
At the time, he happened to be reading Forbes magazine’s annual ranking of the country’s 400 richest men and women and observed a common source of wealth: real estate. Around the same time, he remembered as a boy driving through Fairfield with his father, a mason and small contractor, and hearing him say, “I could have invested in this. I could have developed that.”
“Everything hit,” Raveis says. “The Forbes 400; the lack of recognition from Westinghouse; my father, who was my idol, saying, ‘I coulda, I shoulda.’ I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do it—I’m going to open my own company.” That the industry was real estate seemed secondary; primary were that the company would be his and that it would be founded on the principles of recognition and individual opportunity.
For the next six months, while continuing to commute, he would take the first train back to Fairfield—“I figured they owed me six months because of what I’d done for them”—and from a small office above Mecurio’s grocery store downtown began working listings in the local papers, offering to help owners sell their homes.
On his last day at Westinghouse, Raveis remembers his boss trying to talk him into staying by telling him he had the potential to make senior vice president by the time he was fifty. “I said, ‘I’m going to be president of my own company as of tomorrow,’ to which he replied, ‘Well, I can’t beat that,’ and I left.”
This March, William Raveis Real Estate marks its fortieth anniversary with a massive celebration at Mohegan Sun. There, some 1,800 of the firm’s 3,000 agents—from over ninety-five company-owned and affiliate offices in five states—will be recognized for jobs well done. Estimated sales for 2013: $7.6 billion.
Thanks in part to that early business lesson, recognition has been at the heart of the Fairfield native’s empire. And an empire it is: In 2012, William Raveis Real Estate was ranked the No. 1 family-owned real estate company in the Northeast and third in the country, and the eighth largest real estate company in the United States. Over the years, the Boston Business Journal and other media have ranked it “best place to work.”
But in growing the business from scratch, Bill Raveis had to forge a hard-learned lesson of his own: “Never let others determine your destiny.”
Changing the Rules
From the start, he challenged existing practices in Fairfield County real estate and began changing the rules. In 1974, the year he opened his one-employee company, he heard from the Fairfield Board of Realtors that he would have to wait two years to gain admittance to the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), which controlled all of the agency-listed houses for sale in the town. After his protests fell on deaf ears, he hired an attorney and got on the board. He then started offering brokers in other towns better percentages for referrals and selling agents in Fairfield higher commissions. Business grew but with increased opposition from board members, who strongly suggested that if he didn’t do business their way, he’d be out of business.
By that point, the powers-that-were should have learned a lesson themselves: Don’t tell Bill Raveis he can’t do something. He recalls listening “to my instincts as opposed to my competition saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ ” (Today he wonders if perhaps his father hadn’t intuitively prepared his son to pursue his dreams by deferring his own.) Besides, married at twenty and with two young children, the fear of failure was palpable. “There wasn’t a silver spoon in my mouth,” says Raveis, who grew up in a modest Cape Cod in the Beach section of Fairfield. “I feared failing but, to be honest, I never really thought that I would.”
What the local competition also didn’t understand was that he was less interested in local real estate, per se, than in a larger landscape. “When I was twenty-seven, I was thinking about myself at sixty-seven,” he remembers. “What was I looking to do? I was looking to build a company that my kids could one day be involved in.” (Chris Raveis, the middle of Bill’s and first wife, Barbara’s, three children, manages operations in Massachusetts and New York, and is president of William Raveis Affiliates. Ryan, the youngest, is the treasurer and EVP William Raveis Mortgage. Laura Raveis, who worked in the company several years as an agent and assistant office manager, is currently a professor of marketing at Emerson College in Boston.) By the mid-1980s, with Merrill Lynch crowding Connecticut real estate agencies and economic downturns hurting profits, Raveis knew he had to expand the business into mortgages and insurance as well as open more offices. He also knew where the key lay to any future success.
An Aha! Moment
Ask those who have known Bill Raveis for a long time about his accomplishments and they point to several factors: his high-tech background, his entrepreneurism, his determination in the face of opposition and risk. But all acknowledge his understanding of people and his respect for their personal ambitions.
“He has a keen insight into human nature,” says Bob Scinto of R.D. Scinto, Inc., a contractor and developer, and a long-time friend. “He really knows how to motivate people to be the best they can. He collects Revolutionary War memorabilia, and so he also understands that business is like battle—you’re in a war, you’ve got to have people who are willing to follow you into battle. His people are.”
Al Filippone has been with the company for twenty-six years and, since 1996, leader of Al Filippone Associates, one of three teams under the William Raveis umbrella well before other real estate companies allowed their sales associates to form them. “Bill was instrumental in getting the team going,” Filippone says, “which was something that was unique at the time. We were free to do anything we needed to do to grow our business. If you have an idea and want to run with it, you’re free to run with it.”
Freedom and opportunity are vintage Raveis, born out of early experience but also out of his grasp of what it would take to grow.
“The aha moment for me about getting bigger was that it was about the people,” he says. “It wasn’t going to happen without them and if you don’t have them, you have furniture, you have nothing. You have to figure out how to make them happy and successful—I learned that you’ve got to let people be who they want to be and support them—so that if that happens to them, it happens to you.”
Loyal employees, along with strategic planning, have seen the company through a series of economic downturns, including the S&L crisis of the 1980s, when banks failed, houses stopped selling and tenants in the shopping malls in which Raveis had invested came up short on rent. “The lesson learned from that,” he says, “is that you’ve got to have enough cash reserve for when the economy blows up.”
Saving pennies, plus steady revenue from the mortgage division, also saw Raveis through the Great Recession of 2008, a period in which the company expanded and prospered.
“The cycle is usually seven years up, three years down,” says Raveis, who has tracked downturns from the 1970s to the present, “but this cycle is a little further down. It started in 2008 and we didn’t start climbing out until 2012.” He also forecasts a shorter up-turn. “Two years from now something is going to happen, just as part of our capitalistic system.” For the present, he sees steady progress in value and with interest rates low, the market favorable for scaling up or down.
Moving the Needle
As an early techie, Bill Raveis has led the company from offering the first computerized loan origination service, in 1982, to launching William Raveis Agent Dashboard, a mobile solution that lets sales associates conduct business from smartphones, in 2013.
Now, the company is nearing the transformation of all ninety-five branches into mobile facilities—a cross between Apple stores and Kinkos with a splash of Ralph Lauren, according to Raveis. Replacing desks and phones are high-tech benches outfitted with ports and plugs for iPads and iPhones and with computers, scanners, fax machines and printers within ten feet of each bench.
“What it comes down to is that real estate agents have to be more than just real estate agents today,” he says. “They have to be knowledgeable about technology, about marketing and the marketplace, about the mortgage process and insurance. We’re training our agents [through a Certified Professional Homeownership program] to know the whole process of home ownership and get to another level as a valued partner to the homeowner.”
Also underway is the renovation of a 55,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Shelton into a state-of the-industry corporate headquarters that will house all of the company’s operations plus training and employee workout facilities and a 5,000-square-foot indoor garden.
“The new facility will look like Microsoft or Google has landed in Shelton,” he predicts. “What it signals is that we’re setting ourselves up for the future. I’m really, really, really pleased about my sons being in the business—the vision to have a generational company came true. And I have six grandchildren. We’re going to be in the business for a long time.”