Owner of Century 21 Leah’s Signature started as a one-person operation — 26 years later it has between 30 and 35 agents who sell over $30 million worth of property annually
By Stefan Yablonski
Q: How long have you been in business?
A: We opened in 1996 as Leah’s Signature Realty and became Century 21 Leah’s Signature in 1997 when we acquired the Century 21 franchise. Originally, I rented a room in the Video Keepsakes building, which was located on the corner of Pratt Street and Route 481 in Fulton. After a couple months, I purchased the building we are in now. At that time it was owned by the Ron and Evelyn Taylor who had their antiques shop located there for many years and then it was Ron Clark’s dive shop for a while.
Q: Why did you decide to go into this type of business?
A: I had been selling real estate as a licensed real estate salesperson for approximately three years and needed to make a change. I obtained my licensed real estate broker license and at that time wanted to stay local, so I opened up my own brokerage. After doing a lot of research, I purchased the Century 21 franchise in late 1996.
Q: Do you have background in this line of work?
A: I had previously sold premium condominiums with a developer in El Paso, Texas.
Q: Did you have a job prior to starting your business?
A: I worked a variety of jobs growing up. I was taught early on the value of work and the value of doing a good job at work. I worked in the food services industry, retail sales and office clerical work. Each of these jobs taught me something, whether it was being on time, working with the public, paying attention to detail or being creative. The job that led me into real estate sales was when I worked as a sales consultant for a real estate developer in El Paso, Texas. The company was developing a community of premier quality condominiums. It was while working here that I was bitten by the bug and became interested in real estate as a profession. Subsequently, I moved to Buffalo and was attending college. While there I decided to take a real estate law and sales course. I was bitten by the bug once again and knew this was what I wanted to do. When I moved to Fulton I obtained my real estate license and began to work at ERA Abel, one of the real estate companies in the city at that time.
Q: What was the cost to start?
A: The cost to start as a real estate salesperson was relatively low at the time. The most expensive portion was membership in the various boards and MLS’s that one needed to belong to. Initially I worked out of the office at ERA Abel. But, like most agents, I also had a home office and worked a lot right out of my car.
Q: How hard was it to get the business on its feet?
A: It was a lot of hard work, long hours working days, evenings and weekends.
Q: Who has helped you along the way?
A: My husband, Tom, after retiring from the US Border Patrol, got licensed as a real estate salesperson, then got his broker license. As well as my children, my son, Patrick, has his broker’s license and handles many of the managerial aspects of the business. My daughter, Meagan, is licensed as a salesperson and is working on her broker’s license. My whole family works in the business and has been a tremendous help.
Q: Were you the only agent to start?
A: Yes. At first it was just me. Then, within a very short period of time there were four or five of us working.
Q: How many properties did you sell at the beginning?
A: Well, when I started my business I started from scratch, I didn’t buy someone else’s real estate office. Rather quickly other agents joined the brokerage and we were up and going with four agents and myself. The very first year it was a small number of properties that we sold. I can’t remember exactly, but it was enough to keep the company afloat and get us into the second year when we were able to purchase the Century 21 franchise.
Q: How much does the business sell these days? And how many agents does it have?
A: After 26 years the brokerage has grown to between 30-35 agents. We sell more than $30 million worth of property annually.
Q: When did you expand?
A: I am proud to say that we have expanded our area of coverage into Onondaga and Cayuga counties by opening a branch office in 2006 in Liverpool. Thus, we are positioned to assist buyers and sellers in Oswego, Onondaga and Cayuga counties. Although I must add that we have assisted our clients from as far north as Lake Placid and the Adirondack region to as far west as Buffalo. We are pleased to be a part of the Century 21 system, which is a franchise system. Each office is independently owned and operated.
Q: What makes a good real estate agent? What are some of the pitfalls newer agents face?
A: A good real estate is a kind, caring, knowledgeable professional who puts the interests of his or her client first. It takes a special someone to be a successful real estate agent. We don’t just sell houses, we help people achieve the American dream, to be a homeowner! New agents have a pretty steep learning curve. The requirements of the New York state real property law are pretty intricate and demanding to learn. After obtaining a New York state real estate License an agent must then learn the intricacies of the process of assisting people in buying or selling their home. This is a hands-on process and usually involves a good deal of one-on-one mentoring.
Q: You didn’t have websites, email, etc., starting out. What are some changes you’ve seen in the profession over the years —has technology made things easier?
A: Oh my, where do I even start with this question? Technology has affected every aspect of the real estate process. From the earliest use of technology, fax machines to using cell phones as not only a means of communication but also as your computer. Buyers are now searching for homes on the internet. Years ago it was said your first showing of a property was the pictures you post on the listing. At that time, we were limited to six or seven photos of the property. Then, the second showing was when the buyers actually saw the property in person.
Now, between electronic signatures for legal contracts on listing and purchase offers contracts, to scanning all the documents to all parties involved and then forwarding them electronically to attorneys for legal review and bankers for mortgage commitment the process has changed radically.
We now can place 30, 40 or in some cases more photos of a property on a listing. In addition to photos, we can also do videos of the property including professional drone photos and videos and inside photographs.
Instead of steel or wooden file cabinets to maintain records of transactions all documents are now kept online where the agents can have access to them from their laptops or phones at any time of the day or night.
Q: How many employees and agents do you have?
A: Currently, we have one employee which is our full-time admin and office coordinator. However, we have 30-35 agents, all of whom are independent contractors, between the two offices. We’d love to have 50 agents working out of the two locations and are always looking for new or experienced agents to join our team.
Q: What is the best part of the job?
A: The best part of the job is closing day. Whether it is selling a property for a homeowner or when you see that first-time home buyer achieve their dream of home ownership or you help that move up buyer get into the home of their dreams with more living space, land, garages, etc. these are the best days!
Q: What’s the worst?
A: The worst part is the reality that the real estate business is a 24/7 type of business. Without support both at the office and at home it would be very difficult.
Q: Do you have a business philosophy?
A: We have a great culture in our offices. This culture becomes pretty self-evident to our clients. We — all of us — are here to help them. They are our number 1 priority. We give 121% effort each and every time. We recognize we are working with people who are making one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives. We strive to do it in such a fashion that it is as smooth and seamless a process as possible.
Q: Any thoughts of retiring?
A: There are no immediate plans of retiring. We certainly have some very capable people standing in the wings to take over when that eventuality happens.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A: I truly don’t know. I can’t imagine working anywhere else. I have always loved the real estate industry and helping buyers and sellers. Now I enjoy helping my agents grow their businesses. It’s truly wonderful to see people succeed and become the best they can be, while at the same time helping others achieve their dreams of home ownership.