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May 2007
The Properties of Success
By Lisa Hoffmann

     Century 21 Hecht Realty has been a fixture in the Lake Norman region since 1971. Although the landscape and population in the area have certainly changed since then, the way Bob Hecht runs his business hasn’t. A former Fuller Brush man, Hecht has remained so committed to offering superior customer service and maintaining a fun and relaxed atmosphere at his offices that he bases every decision he makes on how it will affect those basic principles.

     The company runs four offices as well as commercial real estate, property management and land development divisions. But it maintains the feel of a small, family-run business—and that’s just the way Hecht likes it.

     “I have this nightmare that I run into someone who works for Hecht Realty while I’m out at a store or restaurant and I don’t know who they are,” Hecht says with a shudder. “That would be the absolute worst thing for me. Then I’d know I’d made a wrong decision somewhere along the line.” Hecht Realty is a consistent Century 21 quality service award winner and continues to grow at a slow, steady pace. But maybe the best proof that Hecht is hitting his mark is found in the smiles on employees’ faces and the laughter that fills their offices.

 

A Slow and Steady Climb

     Bob Hecht began his real estate career with his father John at his side. John Hecht had retired as a regional manager for the Fuller Brush Company and Bob Hecht had done his share of selling door-to-door himself. So when they opened their real estate office, the first full-time real estate firm in the Lake Norman region, going door-to-door for new customers came naturally. They opened a second office in Cornelius just a few years later and then a third in Charlotte. They shut down the Charlotte office within a few years.             “The need to specialize in just one area, rather than spreading ourselves too thin, was important,” Hecht explains.

     Working alongside his father presented certain challenges for Hecht. Hecht was in his early twenties when he first started in real estate and his father was in his fifties. Customers often deferred to the “older and wiser” patriarch. But Bob Hecht didn’t let that discourage him; he just worked harder to attain the knowledge he needed to earn customers’ confidence.

     A Century 21 franchise representative approached the father-son pair in 1976. The Hechts had never heard of the then-new real estate company. During a fact-finding trip to an established franchise, Hecht talked to the owner who said, “You’ll have more business than you can handle.” “I knew it was the right choice,” says Hecht.

     Today, Hecht cites the decision to become part of Century 21 as one of the best he’s made: “Everyone doesn’t like the color, but everyone recognizes that gold signpost,” he says with a laugh.

     In 1979 Bob Hecht traded his stock in the newly developed Hecht Development Company for full ownership of the real estate side. Throughout the following decades he kept a close eye on company growth. “Growth just for the sake of growth isn’t what I was looking for,” he explains. “My focus is and always has been on maintaining quality and that’s hard to do when you grow too fast.”

     Over time, Hecht hired a training director and an in-house advertising director for the company and its agents, who are independent contractors. He established the commercial real estate division in 1989, recognizing that commercial and residential real estate are distinctly different and needed to be handled that way.

     In 1989 the land development division started working with Crescent Resources, a real estate joint venture with Duke Energy, to market Crescent Communities’ lakefront properties. Since then, Hecht has gotten more involved in land development and has overseen the development of several residential communities.

     The land development side of Hecht Realty has been overwhelmingly successful, due in large part to Hecht’s dedication to quality. Rather than sending surveyors out to decide where roads will cut through a neighborhood, he walks the land himself. “I pace out the lots and then try to envision how we can create a neighborhood with character,” he explains. “I don’t want arrow-straight roads leading to a neighborhood without any trees. I try to imagine a neighborhood people would really like to come home to.”

     “Bob has real vision,” says Debbie Little, the company’s general manager. “And his attention to detail makes a real difference in the end result. He creates places that can become comfortable communities.”

 

Delegating Delegation

     Hecht readily admits delegating tasks is one of his weak points. He just doesn’t like to ask other people to do things, plain and simple. When you’re running a growing business, though, trying to do everything yourself is not only impossible; it’s just not smart. “We’d come up with great ideas but we’d never do anything with them,” he says. “I just didn’t have the time and the delegation skills to get those new ideas off the ground. I knew I had to find someone who could counterbalance that.”

     That someone turned out to be Debbie Little. Hecht already knew Little, who had a successful career in mortgage lending. Twelve years ago he brought Little on board for recruiting and training. Over time, her role naturally evolved into that of an office manager. “The agents just kind of adopted her as their manager,” Hecht says. “She’s a natural at it.”

     About two years ago, Hecht’s announcement at the company’s yearly banquet that he was naming Little as general manager was met with “hoots and hollers” of approval. “The company has been so much more successful since she’s been a part of it,” he says as Little modestly protests. “If an agent needed her at 3 a.m., she’d be there. She cares about people and it shows in everything she does. And delegating is one of her greatest strengths. We have some great people working with us and she brings out the best in them.”

     As far as Hecht is concerned, real estate is about people first and lots, houses and buildings second. He takes great pride in the way he has built Century 21 Hecht around the people it serves and the people it employs. He regularly runs into customers out in the community and finds it very rewarding when they rave about the service they received through his agency.

      The emphasis on customer service extends to his internal customers, too. “We’ve kept this a family business, and by that I don’t just mean family-owned; I mean we all treat one another like family,” Hecht says. “Of course you run a business like a business, but everyone here works together and helps one another. And we always have fun. If you’re not having fun with your work, then it’s time to look for something else to do.”

The atmosphere at Century 21 Hecht is casual, and Hecht himself wears a tie only once or twice a year. “It’s just not me,” he says with a grin. As an incentive to the agents and employees, he grills lunch for them once a month. The menu depends on their performance the previous month. “I looked at the listing boards one day and calculated how full they need to be to remain profitable,” he explains. “I set that as the minimum goal. Most months the overflow boards are full and sometimes we have to tack on a couple sheets of paper. It’s also encouraged a little healthy competition between the sales offices.”

     Full boards mean cheeseburgers for the monthly barbecue lunch. Overflowing boards earn steak and lobster. “The price of lobster is nothing compared to what we can do with all those sales,” Little adds. Within a year of implementing the lunch incentives, sales rose 65 percent.

     Top performers are also treated to lunch with their managers each month. But the fun doesn’t stop there—the team greeted a recent recruit at her first meeting with a shower of silly string. “It may sound strange, but her tension and discomfort melted away and she was immediately welcomed into the fold,” Hecht says. Practical jokes and fun, unexpected pranks are a part of daily life at Century 21 Hecht Realty. “When you work as hard as we do, you need to laugh as much as you can,” Hecht says.

 

Looking Back and Moving Forward

      Hecht has few regrets. But he does wish he’d kept better records of contacts made over the years. He has every file ever created by Hecht Realty neatly arranged in banker’s boxes, but getting them all organized in a usable database now would take months. He imagines having all that information at his fingertips and what that might have added to the business over the last three and a half decades. And he still frets over his discomfort with delegating. “It’s frustrating because I work with so many highly competent people that I trust and know I can count on. I asked someone in the office to fax something the other day and she about fell over. She thanked me for giving her something to do. I’m still learning.”

     If he could name just one thing he wishes he’d done differently as his business grew, it would be to always trust his gut. Talking himself into things he sensed were not good ideas has lead to some challenging learning experiences. It can take years to develop the confidence to trust your gut. Not too long ago, Hecht overrode his gut instinct and got involved with a developer with a sketchy reputation. Before long, he regretted it. “Always trust your gut. If you make a bad decision anyway, you can overcome it. But you’ll almost never go wrong listening to that little voice inside.”

     Century 21 Hecht gives a lot back to the community that supports it. It provides scholarships and other support to local public schools, conducts fundraisers and sponsors the entertainment for the annual Denver Days Fall Festival. For a long time, modesty lead Hecht to kept the community support under wraps. But then he realized he needed to share it with the employees and agents so they could enjoy the sense of pride giving back to the community engenders. “Our company is a part of this community and, as such, should give back wherever it can.”

     Hecht doesn’t have any long-term plans for Century 21 Hecht, other than to keep quality in check and prevent premature growth. “If it never got any bigger than it already is, I’d still be happy,” he insists. “The most important thing is that the quality we offer stays strong and consistent.”

     Hecht chuckles when questioned about his exit strategy. “I don’t plan to stop working. I’m having too much fun.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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