As managing partner, general manager and shareholder of Sutton Group – West Coast Realty, Merrily Hackett is not what I expect when I meet her at one of her suburban offices – one of 25 offices in B.C. with more than 1,700 real estate professionals under her leadership.
While mentioning her appearance seems sexist, to not mention it would be a significant omission. At 5ʹ11ʺ she’s model-like, soft spoken with an English accent and the picture of refinement, to the point of seeming a little out of place at a suburban franchise 30 minutes from Vancouver.
“I have been underestimated many times,” she says, agreeing that can be an advantage. “I have a very strong competitive spirit. It started when I was about six-years-old in pony club, show jumping and cross country. Sales brought that (competitive spirit) out in me. I strive for excellence. I’m driven. When people say that I can’t do it, that tends to motivate me even more.”
Last year, U.S.-based author and speaker Stefan Swanepoel ranked Hackett at No. 15 on his list of the Most Powerful and Influential Women in Residential Real Estate. Sutton – West Coast made 16,500 unit sales and over $11 billion in sales volume in 2014, which Hackett calculates brings them in at No. 5 in North America.
It didn’t come effortlessly. Hackett arrived in Vancouver at 17 from the U.K. Born in Northern Ireland, raised in England and South Wales, she thought she’d attend UBC. Her older brother, Andrew, suggested she try real estate instead. Her first job was at Realty World.
“It was a tough market. Horrendous interest rates,” she says. At her first listing appointment she had to recalculate the numbers twice before telling her clients that if they wanted to sell, they were going to have to contribute some money because “the mortgage amount was higher than the property value.”
She says two major influences have been her mother and long-time Realtor Eileen Smith. “If my mother hadn’t chosen to stay at home, she would have been Bill Gates.” Her mom was always her “safety net, waving the flag… believing in you absolutely.”
But it was Smith, who passed away in 2014, who encouraged her to invest in her first real estate office at 25. Smith had started Sutton Excel, one of the early Sutton Group franchised offices in Burnaby, now called Sutton Centre Realty. “She saw in me potential that I hadn’t visited.”
With Smith’s backing, she grew her first brokerage (Sutton Group Elite Realty) to 125 agents. Five years later, she sold it to Smith and opened Sutton Group Killarney Realty on Vancouver’s East Side.
“I had a lot of people betting on how fast those doors would close. You follow through on your word and you drive things forward with passion and energy…people see the leadership that ties into that.” She grew that location to 200 agents and took over the third location with 45 agents, growing that to 200 as well.
In 2009, all offices were brought under a common ownership group launching an expansion mode, enabling a better value proposition for sales reps and brokers. “Being able to reach out to agents, but more importantly building an environment within the office that makes it a destination brokerage for agents to move to” is what helped her grow her team, Hackett says.
She lists some of the reasons for the brokerage’s success – centralized daily training programs; strong in-house conveyancing systems; a centralized resource centre for agents offering greater services, support and tools; large networking events and monthly managers’ meetings at the head office in Burnaby.
“We have new agents and more seasoned agents who need help being empowered with technology.” Hackett cites some examples: reaching more consumers and simplifying the transaction – a key for millennials – while showing older agents how to use e-signatures, electronic document management systems and social media.
Hackett prefers to keep her private life private. “I was very high profile and I needed to create boundaries to maintain my own sanity and personal health,” she says.
“As a young Realtor doing extremely well, I didn’t know how to draw those lines.” She says her two daughters, now 17 and 19, are “her greatest accomplishments”. She has been a single mother since they were very young and that forced her to find a balance. Now she takes an annual vacation, which she considers part of her girls’ education.
As a young sales rep, she admits she was guilty of initially resisting lead generation. “It’s what I see over and over with agents that fail. I used to block off three to four hours daily for lead generation. That included calling expired listings, door knocking and cold calling, reaching out to a sphere of influence on a daily basis, asking people for referrals and to keep me top of mind. I was on the phone connecting with people, ensuring that pipeline was full. Consistency was key. You need to believe in yourself. Many times as a commissioned salesperson, you have those fearful thoughts and moments. A new agent has to have the expectancy and positive feeling that it’s going to come together.”
It was a work ethic that helped her and a partner sell 110 to 135 houses per year.
Focus is important, she says. Creating the time and environment so that you can focus on the “A’s” and being firmly committed to letting go of the “B’s” and “C’s” is critical to being at maximum effectiveness, as is a commitment to excellence, she says.
“Ask: How do I deliver excellence to my customers so they become card-carrying fans and give me referrals, and we both walk away knowing it was the best transaction we could have made.”
She isn’t that concerned about new technology focused sales models such as Zillow and Redfin. “Technology is always a disruptor. We’ve seen it with Uber and Airbnb… Potentially there could be something around the next corner but we’ve been around for 30 years and we can adapt and change.”
But she adds, “Real estate agents are going to want to continue to align as the industry becomes more complex and competitive, especially with brokerages that give them the guidance and leadership that can help with those disruptors.
“As legislation changes, the transaction becomes more complex. I believe that the consumer is recognizing they need someone to have their back to guide them through the process.” She sees the role of sales reps increasing in value.