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September 2004
Realizing Returns on Real Estate
By Susanne Deitzel

   What Kleenex is to facial tissue, and Coke is to soda, the Allen Tate Company has become to the Charlotte region’s real estate industry. Drive through any neighborhood in the Charlotte or Triad areas and you are bound to see at least one of Tate’s ubiquitous yard signs flaunting the company’s maroon sunburst or one of Tate’s 26 office locations.

 

The Genesis

   This success did not, however, happen overnight. Allen Tate Realtors was founded in 1957 by none other than H. Allen Tate Jr. Like many of his contemporaries, Tate relocated to Charlotte from his native South Carolina in pursuit of economic prosperity and personal fulfillment. Says Tate, “I am a living example of a classic situation. I left a small town, drawn by the lights of the big city to live a better life. This was true of hundreds of people, many of whose names are plastered all over this city.”

   Tate says real estate was his destiny. His father was in the business, and he took an interest in it very early on. He tells the story, “I learned to read from The Charlotte Observer, and I remember being very young and seeing ads by a man named J. Frank Jones, a real estate professional. I always thought he had the best ads.”

   After his father suggested that Charlotte was a prime market for real estate, Tate founded what began as a one-man real estate and insurance company. Last year, his family of companies generated over $4 billion in residential sales volume.

   Surprisingly, Tate says he knew nothing of real estate. “My success arose from sheer determination. One day I simply said, ‘THIS I am GOING to do.’ I didn’t rely on anybody else’s advice either. They probably would have told me to get a job!”

   Tate still has a lingering country-boy drawl, and a glint in his eye that suggests that he is satisfied with the fruits of his labor. He says, “One thing that is true of all the people who came to this town to make something of themselves is that we all decided, whatever our calling, we would be the biggest and the best at what we do.” Tate’s calling: to be the leading real estate company by offering customers all the real estate services they need coupled with the best customer service.

   By all appearances, he is well on his way. Realtor Magazine ranked Allen Tate Realtors 22nd of the top 100 Realtor companies; Real Trends statistics ranks the company 21st of the 500 largest real estate companies, and 13th for independently owned real estate companies. With 26 branches, 1,000 real estate Realtors, 400 employees and RELO, Tate’s homegrown nationwide relocation network, this local company has extended its reach nationally and internationally.

   Tate was joined by brother-in-arms, Pat Riley, in January 1991, having met initially twenty years earlier at an association (Homerica) meeting. The two not only joined forces but also reconstructed the association, forming the new RELO. RELO connects buyers and sellers with Realtors nationwide via corporate connections, the Internet, Allen Tate Realtors, corporate business development and third party relocation companies. Today RELO can boast that its member agencies have sold more homes than any national franchise. In 2003, the network produced $314 billion in sales.

   “Pat and I were both among the first 15 brokers to join the relocation network that now has over 900 members,” boasts Tate.  He adds, “Founding RELO was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. For the first time, there was a great coming together of independent real estate professionals raising their hands saying, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ A bunch of people came together with the lone goal of being the premiere relocation network in the country.”

   It was in the early 1990s, coupled with the arrival of Pat Riley, that Allen Tate says his company started growing exponentially. Riley takes exception, “He is selling himself short. He had this operation well under way before I came on the scene. By taking the leap and creating six branches, as well as providing unique customer-centered solutions, Allen Tate Realtors was already a force to be reckoned with.”

   Tate recalls, “You could see the winds of change blowing into the area. Suddenly big brokers like Merrill Lynch were coming on the scene, and I thought, ‘I might just have something here.’ From there I branched out and grew, in the hopes that this might be worth something someday.”

   After Riley joined the company, it continued to grow rapidly by virtue of several strategic acquisitions they orchestrated. The twelfth acquisition occurred this July, culminating in the addition of the former Fran Harris Realty in Mint Hill, N.C.

   Says Riley, “Allen is a visionary. He has an instinct to know where people are headed, and a natural inclination to want to help them get there. His talents were sharpened by his 15 years on the planning commission, and he has a passion and tolerance for risk that has positioned him head and shoulders above our competitors. He pointed out the direction and I seized the moment.”

   When asked about the chances he had to take, and what inspired his choices, Tate answers, “When I started on the planning commission, all the development was in the South End. If we had continued on that course, Charlotte would stretch all the way to Columbia by now! We knew we wanted to see concentric growth, and the University area was a good place to start.”

   Tate recalls the days when a trip to the University area was a “day trip,” when the airport was a “couple of reconditioned WWII huts that a few battered DC3’s would limp into,” and when the South Park area “was just an elementary school and a filling station.” He also fondly remembers a trip to the field that would become the campus of UNC Charlotte: “I stood in that field with Ms. Bonnie Cone when she shared her vision of a great, urban, ‘drive in’ university – with no dormitories. From there I helped promote her vision, as well as get support from Jaycee clubs throughout the country, and the rest is history.”

   He says with a chuckle, “Some of those old Jaycees buddies remind me about that ‘no dormitories’ vision. All I can say about the residence halls today? Sorry! Who knew what incredible growth it would have!”

 

The Evolution

   Allen Tate has had a spoon in the pot of Charlotte city development longer than a lot of city administrators have been in the work force. He joined the planning commission in 1965 and eventually rose to chairperson, a position he held for ten years. He also chaired the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce for ten years, and founded the Republic Bank as well as the Piedmont Policy Institute, a  ‰ think tank for public policy issues. He has served on boards ranging from CPCC, to Charlotte Home Builders Association, to television station, WTVI. Frankly, the list of his business and civic involvement is too long to enumerate here.

   Riley and his leadership team are equally as committed to serving on various boards and organizations as evidenced by his own involvement in the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce (Executive Committee), Center City Partners, Charlotte Regional Partnership, Arts & Science Council (past Chair), Charlotte Advocates for Education (past Chair), and Foundation for the Arts & Sciences (Chair).

   Tate says that this spirit of giving back to the community is what has generated the success of not only the city, but the success of the leaders who helped create it. “The people who came here determined to build something great and they did so with an enormous spirit of giving in terms of finances and service. To a large degree, you see this legacy of giving in Charlotte’s leadership today.”

   Riley says, “In addition to economic development, the Allen Tate Company espouses a quiet mandate in three major pursuits: public education, social services, and arts, science and history. We know that the number one thing a family looks to when moving is the quality of area schools. We make it part of our job to do everything we can to create a powerful learning community. One way we do this is with our FUNDAY Fundraiser which last year generated about $100,000 for schools and education initiatives around the region.”

   He adds, “We support the community by donating $90,000 to the United Way, and do everything we can to help perpetuate Charlotte’s positive business atmosphere by helping recruit companies like General Dynamics and Continental Tire for increased job growth.”

   Tate makes it a point to drive these ideas home. “Every new job means the creation of a new household. I don’t care if you are selling houses or ice cream cones, if you don’t have a city that offers a good job, the prospect of a good job, or the opportunity to be around this kind of growth, the city will eventually begin to decline.”

   Riley concurs, “There is no such thing as a city remaining static. You are either expanding or declining. That is why we place so much import on nurturing the intellectual capital fostered by our schools and universities, on creating a dynamic, enriching urban atmosphere with arts, science, history and sports, and a strong corporate sector that can continue to find a place for the city’s talent.”

   The humanitarian bent evidenced in the company’s civic service is also engrained in Allen Tate Realtors itself. Tate explains, “This company was founded on doing the most humanly possible for the customer. Any idea that I had, that could make the process easier, less expensive and more enjoyable for the customer, I made my priority. We pride ourselves on holding people’s hands, providing the most choices, and answering every problem with the optimum solution. In other words, when a person doesn’t know who to call, we want them to call us.”

   This service element is the driving force behind the creation of Allen Tate’s family of companies. Rather than sending buyers elsewhere for their relocation services, insurance, mortgages, title and home services, Allen Tate has created its own companies under the Allen Tate umbrella.

   Tate calls this tactic, “fulfilling every need along the business trail,” and it serves to make Allen Tate Realtors a ‘one stop shopping’ experience for homebuyers. Every component added to the Allen Tate experience – whether it is opening a new branch to service a growing area, adding a new company to provide an unmet need, or outfitting its agents with the best knowledge, equipment and procedures to assure their success – is traceable back to fulfilling a customer need.

    Riley is known for his ability to attract top talent to the company as well as companies that share their vision. Says Riley, “From recruiting to training to motivation, we search for the best talent for each facet of our organization. We look from within, around the community, to across the country, to get the best people for the job.”

   He adds, “Our leadership is a vital component to our success, and every person in our 44-member leadership team buys in completely to the vision and commitment that Allen demonstrated when he started this company.”

 

The Horizon

   Both men admit to being perfectionists. “If we have an Achilles heel,” says Riley, “it is simply that we are never satisfied. We are very proud of where we are, but while we may be in first place,  we always play the game like we are in fifteenth.”

   Tate says, “We haven’t found the lost chord. The best idea hasn’t been thought of yet, and that is a journey that will never end.”

   Understandably, Tate never wants for an audience aching to hear his thoughts on future development. He remarks good-naturedly, “They all ask, ‘Allen, where’s the next boom going to hit?’ I tell them to look to the transit corridors, and take care of the roads. Roads are like jobs, if you don’t have enough of them, people will find somewhere else that does.”

   Allen Tate and Pat Riley are not men capable of thinking small. They take their family of companies with wide steps in pursuit of Tate’s ‘Lost Chord.’ Their latest accomplishments? The newest member of the family, Allen Tate Home Services, seeks to address minor to major home repairs. The Allen Tate state-of-the-art Web site now has a brand new platform for even easier interface as well as live online service reps to answer customer questions. The company’s branches and RELO network continue to grow, as does its overwhelmingly dominant market share.

   As the two men finish each other’s sentences, the degree of compatibility and affability between them is evident. A true tag team is at the helm. Allen Tate has not yet tired of this work; he makes seventy-three look awfully young. The team’s next best idea: $5 billion in residential sales for 2005.

If Tate is betting on it – you can count me in!

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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