Luxury German-based brand Engel & Völkers is growing faster in Canada than in the United States, or in any other market it has entered.
Asked why this might be, Richard Brinkley, the company’s senior vice-president of market development for Canada, laughs and replies, “I think it’s due to the Canadian mindset…and me! Canadians have a respect and affection for things European – perhaps more so than Americans.”
Engel & Völkers began making inroads in North America less than a decade ago. Since 2014 – year one of the company opening locations in Canada – this market continues to exceed expectations, says Brinkley, whose office is based in Toronto.
There’s a European flavour to the entire global enterprise, highlighted by its chic boutique-style brokerages, which are called “shops” in Engel & Völkers’ Euro-speak, while its agents are known as “advisors.”
The focus is on premium service, says Brinkley, and Engel & Völkers – an industry leader in creating video brochures and professional white board presentations for clients – supports its sales reps with an array of quality business services, marketing programs and platforms.
When scouting for franchisees, “We’re looking for business-minded professionals who want to give clients a personalized, bespoke experience,” Brinkley says.
It doesn’t hurt if they also already have experience in high-end markets.
“We look for people who are doing well and we make them better. It’s like putting their business on steroids. We can take them into a market space they maybe couldn’t reach before,” says Brinkley.
He recalls that when the company entered the North American market, an initial hurdle was that many people here hadn’t heard of Engel & Völkers. “But the wealthy ones all know us.”
The company scored key franchises in Canada, including Intrawest in Mt. Tremblant, and Whistler broker Maggi Thornhill, queen bee of that leading four-season resort. The latter is the biggest franchisee to join the brand worldwide, a major coup.
Previously Thornhill told REM, “An independent can’t possibly provide the far-reaching presence and phenomenal international marketing that Engel & Völkers have. So many tools. It’s hard for others to compete.”
All Engel & Völkers locations have a strictly controlled design identity, which Brinkley describes as akin to “Louis Vuitton or Chanel” boutiques. The shop concept is a “rock star” of the brand, says Brinkley. “Whether you go to Naples, Florida or Naples, Italy, our unique shop concept differentiates us…I think it’s an advantage. We’re not a big box store.”
Before joining Engel & Völkers to spearhead its Canadian launch, Brinkley was the director of business development for Sutton Group. He entered the real estate business in 1988, leaving a high-level career in industrial chemical sales. He somehow managed to avoid the real estate field’s standard slow start and hit the ground running, largely thanks to the telephone directory’s yellow pages, wherein he sourced doctors, lawyers and other affluent professionals and then snail-mailed them personally signed marketing letters.
“All of a sudden one doctor had me sell his house and then referred me to a friend,” Brinkley says. Things took off from there and he became a luxury Realtor almost overnight.
As time ticked along, his career swung into brand ownership and management, enabling him to work and live in luxury markets in locales such as Costa Rica, Mexico and West Palm Beach, Fla. “I’ve always been willing to take a chance or to experiment, been willing to move.”
Surfing had long been on his bucket list, so when he moved to Costa Rico he hired an instructor who was the coach for the national team. “It’s a very meditative sport. You can get into a trance out on the water,” he says.
He’s less enthusiastic about surfing now that he’s back in Canada. “I like warm water.”
In his experience, “Marketing to the rich is different.” The clientele expect a much higher level of professionalism and service. “There are a lot more steps in marketing a luxury property,” says Brinkley.
Having been in the industry for almost 35 years, he’s witnessed the internet become a game changer, opening up new geographical markets to agents. “You don’t have to specialize in a certain geographical area now,” he says. He’s still a big believer in the benefits of using a local agent though.
In his opinion, the key to being successful in the evolving marketplace is “to specialize – whether in condos, farms, luxury properties,” or whatever. “That differentiates you,” says Brinkley.
He expects housing supply to continue to be a huge issue driving up prices. (“Municipalities are dragging their heels on this issue.”) And he’s confident that the luxury market will continue to be strong, particularly as buyers in this segment tend to have secure incomes and not to be as affected by adverse market conditions. As well, there will be continuing demand to buy properties out of the city, Brinkley says.
One more prediction: he wouldn’t be surprised if the current zeal for real estate sales teams eventually fizzles out.
What he doesn’t see dying off is the appeal of the Canadian lifestyle.
“I used to be one of those who always complained about the Canadian weather,” he says. “But after living elsewhere, I truly appreciate Canada, and I think our culture is second to none. We have a very ethical culture. Everyone wants to be the best they can be.”