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December 2007
Leading The Way
By Ellison Clary

     “We’ve just celebrated our 50th anniversary and, quite frankly, I believe we’ve only begun,” says the president and chief operating officer of the largest and most productive residential real estate firm in the Carolinas. “We have always had our sights on being the premiere, market-dominant, independent broker in North and South Carolina.

      “We are now in the Charlotte region, the Triad, and the Triangle,” he continues with a calm but self-assured manner. “And we are doing very, very well in all three. Over time, we need to connect the dots and fill in the spaces between those three great regions.”
     Clearly, Riley and his leadership team at the Allen Tate Company have no thoughts of resting on their laurels, even though they are impressive. For 2006, more than 17,100 people chose Allen Tate to list and market their homes. Based on closed transactions in 2006, the Allen Tate Company, also known as Allen Tate Realtors, ranked ninth among the top 500 largest real estate brokerage firms nationally and fifth among the largest privately owned, non-franchised brokers.

     When prodded, Riley issues a confident prediction about annual sales. “We’re now at $6.78 billion,” he says. “It should be $10 billion within a couple of years.”

 

Building an Empire

     If Riley seems comfortable running the juggernaut that bears the name of legendary Charlotte Realtor Allen Tate, perhaps it’s because he helped build it. When Tate brought Riley into his company in January 1992, the company had five offices. In early 2008, the company will open its 50th office, this one in the Steele Creek area of southwest Charlotte.

     Such dramatic growth isn’t new to Riley, 56. When he received his Business Administration degree from Indiana University in Pennsylvania, he decided to return to Lancaster, Pa., and help his dad grow a two-man realty firm. In eight years, he had expanded it to 150 employees.

     He sold the company to B. Gary Scott Realtors, “the Allen Tate of Wilmington, Delaware,” he says. Riley helped lead the resulting firm, owned by Wilmington Savings Fund Bank (WSFB), for five years, expanding it into large swaths of New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania and Delaware.

     When Scott retired, WSFD sold the company and Riley was at loose ends. He’d met Tate earlier when both were building a nationwide network of independent Realtors.

     “I had and have great respect for Allen because he was and is the most visionary Realtor in the country,” Riley says. “He was not afraid to take a risk because he was a developer first, a builder second, and a Realtor third.”

     To Riley, the future for Charlotte and the Carolinas was clear. “This is real estate Mecca,” he smiles. “I could see where this part of the country was going. I also saw Allen as a visionary leader.”

     Riley started with Allen Tate as senior vice president. After two years, he took his current titles.

     Soon after he arrived in Charlotte, Riley and Tate began creating an international network of independent Realtors called Leading Real Estate Companies of the World. Unlike real estate franchises, the companies in the network that Riley and Tate forged and set in operation in 1997 are built on local brands.

     “The most successful Realtors in America keep their independence, but they join the network for referrals and intellectual exchange,” Riley explains. “It’s a performance-driven network. You can be asked to leave.”

 

50 Years Celebrated

     The Allen Tate Company spent much of 2007 celebrating its 50th anniversary, which officially occurred in April. The company dedicated the Barbara and Allen Tate Conference and Recital Hall at Central Piedmont Community College in memory of Allen Tate’s late wife. A huge Charlotte Convention Center party honored Realtors, employees, spouses and guests. A company history aired on two television stations. There was a gala for elected officials.

     A sweepstakes ended with five people winning $10,000 each, receiving their checks on the 50-yard line at a Carolinas Panthers game. And each time the Panthers crossed the 50 this season, there has been an Allen Tate celebration.

     At 76, chairman and founder Tate still reports to work six days a week and remains highly involved in civic life. But Riley says he feels no pressure, adding that Tate is like his second father.

     “Allen has trusted me from the day I got here,” Riley says. “There’s zero micro-managing. And he’s as cool as a cucumber. When an issue or problem arises, he always says ‘Riley, this is an opportunity,’” Riley says, mimicking Tate’s raspy Southern accent.

Today, the Allen Tate Company boasts 1,600 Realtors and 400 other employees. But Riley sees more coming.

     “Our only challenge is not outrunning our supply line,” says Riley. “We have five offices in the Triangle and five under construction or in design. We have two offices under design in the Triad in addition to our 10 we already have. In Charlotte, we have six offices on the drawing board or under construction.”

     There is no timetable, Riley says, for when the company will branch into other Carolinas cities. Yet the firm has developed and cultivated strong relationships with real estate brokers throughout the two states, who remain in close contact with Allen Tate. Sixteen such family-owned companies have joined the Allen Tate Company in the past nine years.

     There’s a certain determination in his measured tones as Riley sets out this overall master plan. Ronnie Bryant, president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, names it in a word: Passion.

     “Since the moment I met Pat,” says the leader of the organization that recruits businesses to the Charlotte region, “I knew he was passionate. Through his personal actions, and the manner in which he guides Allen Tate Realtors, I’m convinced my first impression was correct.”

     Riley readily agrees. If you ask anybody who works for the Allen Tate Company to describe him, Riley says, they will mention passion. “Probably the word comes out of my mouth three times a day.”

     He vows to bring that passion to his tenure as president of the Charlotte Chamber, which just started and will last until November 2008.

     “My message is, if you’re passionate about something, the leadership comes natural,” he says. “If you look at my Chamber executive committee, every one of them has a passion for the area they serve.”

 

Cultivating Growth

     Good leaders such as those he’s assembled for The Chamber aren’t easy to find, Riley says, and that is perhaps his biggest challenge in real estate.

     “The best Realtors, the best sales people, the best real estate counselors don’t always make the best leaders,” he says. “So there is a leadership void in our business.”

     The company has formed an emerging leaders program and 15 people are in it. When they finish, there’s a chance they will become a sales manager in a larger Allen Tate branch, then work their way up to branch manager or area manager.

     “We have tremendous opportunity,” Riley says, citing the need for leaders in residential real estate as well as in the auxiliary Allen Tate companies such as mortgage. Riley recruited Chris Cope, president of Allen Tate Mortgage, from Florida. D.J. Stephan, president of Allen Tate Relocation Services, came from Atlanta. Gary Scott, senior vice president and Pat’s right hand, is the son of the Gary Scott who bought the firm that Riley and the Scotts built in Pennsylvania.

     The mortgage and relocation entities are part of the Allen Tate Family of Companies that also includes Allen Tate Insurance, Allen Tate Home Services, Builder Services Inc., Master Title Agency and Allen Tate School of Real Estate. This family of firms ensures that the Allen Tate Company meets its aspiration to be a full-service real estate operation.

     In 2007, the company enhanced the handyman offerings of Allen Tate Home Services, and invested heavily in providing heating and air conditioning services.

     Riley looks for those areas to continue growing, and it gets him focused on the future again.

     He points out that Tate now chairs a regional business transportation committee, with a concentration on regional road building and toll roads. Riley wants The Chamber to push financing for Mecklenburg County’s infrastructure needs. He agrees with Tate, he says, that Charlotte’s transit corridors really aren’t about trains, but have everything to do with stringing infrastructure such as sewer and water lines, highway and light rail or other mass transit along well-defined paths.

 

Future Direction

     Riley believes the Charlotte region has produced impressive results and wishes some newcomers had a better appreciation for what area businesses have delivered.

      “Business runs this region,” he states emphatically, “and I’m not ashamed about that.” The eyes of the world increasingly focus on the Charlotte region because

those who live here are creating something special, he adds.

     “I want business leaders who aren’t afraid to make decisions,” Riley says, adding that it’s easy to run for cover when questions pop up related to transit, school bonds or transportation needs. He thinks the area’s business leaders are ready to step up, but people must be sensitive to how much time they have.

     “Leaders, including Pat Riley, are much more distracted,” he says, because they preside over organizations that deal with many cities and many regions. “We have to spread the civic load more. Everybody has a lot more on their plate.”

     Describing his typical work week, Riley grins and confesses: “I’ve been blessed with not being a good sleeper.” His day begins about 5:00 a.m., exercising and e-mailing; by 7:30 a.m., he’s in the office. Until 7:00 p.m., he works the business or his civic commitments, which follow the Allen Tate emphasis on public education, social services and arts, science and history.

     Riley has eight direct reports and he empowers them to make good decisions without second guessing. “If they see a lot of me, that means there are some issues,” he says.

     His rosy view of the future still rests on the growth potential for the Carolinas in general and for the Charlotte region in particular.

     “We’re blessed to be the place in America people are turning to,” he says. “Kids are coming here to go to school and they’re bringing their friends. Families are coming here and bringing parents and grandparents.”

     A big reason people are finding their fortunes here is the business climate, he adds. It’s good for firms that have been here a while, as well as those that recently arrived or are on the way.

     “Companies are growing organically—good companies that are chartered here,” he says. “The recruiting and economic development pipeline has never been fuller. The prospects for North and South Carolina are just as bright as can be.”

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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