Moving Up: Century 21 Northland Targets the Top

Number One Up North? Century 21 Northland Targets the Top

By: Beth Milligan

When Brad Platt moved back to his native Northern Michigan in 2006 from Chicago, he and his wife Julia Lilley had been "saving every nickel " they earned for years to fulfill their dream of owning a business in Traverse City.

Platt, a licensed broker and real estate agent, and Lilley, a specialist in brand management and corporate marketing, briefly considered opening an independent real estate office before opting to purchase a Century 21 franchise instead. The couple invited their friend and local RE/Max Bayshore Properties broker Jason Kudary, as well as two silent partners, to join them in the venture. In March 2006, Century 21 Northland was launched.

The only hiccup in the trio’s business plan, as they soon discovered, was their timing.

"We opened right as the market began to cool and crash," explained Platt. "We had 3,500 square feet of office space (in Traverse City, on South Airport Road), and only the three of us working. We were burning through money. It was good motivation to hit the ground running and put in 80 hours a week."

The group’s commitment to weathering the storm – as well as a shrewd recruitment strategy that emphasized selectively targeting high-producing agents from other offices in town instead of hiring new, unproven salespeople – eventually paid off. In spite of the housing bubble, over the last seven years Century 21 Northland has expanded to six offices throughout Northern Michigan and built up a team of nearly 60.

The company is also beginning to take chunks out of the region's real estate market share. This year, for the first time, Century 21 Northland is primed to have the number one-selling individual real estate office in the five-county region (its Traverse City branch) – besting longtime market leaders including Real Estate One and Coldwell Banker Schmidt (though Coldwell Banker Schmidt remains significantly larger with all offices combined). In the last twelve months, Century 21 Northland has brought in $158,545,872 in total sales volume, a figure Platt estimates will be repeated again this year.

The company’s main office is now located in a sleek facility on State Street in downtown Traverse City. Acquisitions of Century 21 Sleeping Bear Realty in 2010 and Remerica Up North Properties in early 2013 gave the company a presence in Suttons Bay, Frankfort, Glen Arbor, Beulah and Elk Rapids.

At the core of the company's strategy has been the emphasis on recruiting top agents, an effort Platt leads himself. Though all brokerages are constantly trying to lure top agents away from competitors, Platt and his partners have made it a stated goal to go and get certain agents, going so far as to have a "target list" and to incorporate recruitment into their marketing efforts.

The combination of the real estate collapse, its subsequent resurgence, and Platt's recruitment work has yielded a lot of movement among agents in and around Traverse City.

Platt contends his realtor support system "is unmatched by anyone else, which is why we’re able to attract such a great team of agents," he said. Platt's own professional background includes stints in head-hunting and corporate recruitment.

"We’ve carefully created a culture of people who share our vision…and it’s led to tremendous productivity."

Also key to Century 21 Northland’s success was a word of advice Platt received from a business mentor early in the company’s development process. Recalls Platt: "He told us, ‘You’re new to this market. You’re not number one in anything yet. So create a category where you can be number one."

The category Platt and his partners focused on was technology. An early adopter of companywide smart phones, online listings and social media engagement, Century 21 Northland foresaw – and strategically positioned itself for – a market in which 90 percent of potential home buyers use the Internet to search for property, as the National Association of Realtors reported was the case in January 2013.

"Historically, the real estate industry is very archaic," Platt explained. "But the impact of technology is impossible to ignore. The average realtor is 55; the average home buyer is 32. You can either see that gap as a disconnect or an opportunity. Understanding that when a 32-year-old texts you, they expect an immediate response back – we saw that as an opportunity. And we zeroed in on and invested in that."

While the company’s primary market focus is residential (acknowledged Platt: "I’d love to have a strong commercial division, but that and vacant land are our slowest markets right now"), Century 21 Northland’s leadership continues to look for ways to expand the business’ reach.

Fledgling divisions including Northland Property Management LLC and Northland Vacation Rentals have extended the company into the long-term and vacation rental markets, and Platt and his co-owners are committed to bulking up their market share in the five-county region – before potentially expanding outside of it.

"Our goal is to be number one in market share in Northern Michigan, and to do it with a much smaller group of people (than our competitors)," Platt said. “Then we’ll look at markets outside the region.”

Mike Schmidt at Coldwell Banker Schmidt, the powerhouse that Platt's team is gunning for, says the "pie" continues to grow, and that's good news for all in the business.

"”I want to congratulate all of our fellow brokers in the market who experienced great growth. We have a lot of respect for fellow great brokers such as Real Estate One, ReMax and Century 21. They have all done a nice job as well as many others in the past couple of years.”

Platt looks at the recent real estate boom and says that the influx of millenials to the area has made certain niches – such as downtown-adjacent homes valued at under $200,000 in Traverse City – "white-hot," while well-priced luxury and waterfront homes also drive steady business. Platt sees no signs of slowing down for northern Michigan nor Century 21 Northland anytime soon.

"There’s an uptick in consumer confidence that’s been great for the industry," he said. "As a company, we’re in a good place. Our goal now is to continue building on that…by focusing on quality control and smart growth.”