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Top Brokers Hire Coaches to Climb Higher

THEY are seemingly at the top of their game, earning $500,000 or more each year — in some cases much more — buying and selling real estate. So, one might wonder, why do some of the most successful brokers in the country need to have coaches to cajole them into aiming even higher?

Patrick Vernon Lilly, a senior managing director of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy in Manhattan, put it simply: "You need a coach to learn how to become even more successful, more efficient, to provide better service and improve on your skills."

To help him do that, Mr. Lilly has not one coach, but two: Ken Goodfellow, known to his students as Coach Ken, and Fred Grosse, a rabbi who bills himself as a business psychotherapist and corporate consultant as well as a coach.

"Ken is about business, and Fred is about creating a magnificent life," Mr. Lilly said. In fact, he so firmly believes in the effectiveness of coaching that he is becoming one himself, teaching his three groups of eight new and midlevel brokers to increase their business in New York.

The results, brokers say, are proof that coaches are worth the hefty fees they charge.

Toni D. Haber, an executive vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, says she increased her business by 30 percent last year, shortly after she began using a coach, and expects her commissions to go up an additional 50 percent this year.

Paul Chiolo, owner of Oceanside Realty in Wildwood Crest, N.J., tracks his progress this way: "In 2003, we did $63 million in business; in 2004, $127 million; and in 2005, $282 million. This year we project we're going to break the $300 million mark."

Cristina Martinez, who became a Century 21 broker in San Jose, Calif., in 1989, and went out on her own in 2004, said she had made $7.053 million in commissions last year, closing 350 deals, worth $235 million, in 180 days.

How much of those increases can be credited to the rising markets of the last few years and how much to the influence of a coach is impossible to measure. But adherents say that coaches force them to raise their sights.

"When I first spoke with Ken, he said his goal for me was to triple my income, and that I should be making $1 million a year," said Kathleen Murphy, an associate broker with Keller Williams New York Realty, which is opening an office in Huntington, N.Y., this year. "I have four children, and I am Ken's turtle, not his hare, so I said to myself, 'He is crazy.' Now I think he is right and I am on my way." Ms. Murphy has until recently been with ReMax North Shore.

Real estate coaches often compare themselves with the coaches who work with professional athletes and say that brokers need them for the same reasons sports stars do: to constantly hone their skills, keep their real estate muscles in shape and improve their game.

Mike Ferry is the founder and chief executive of the Mike Ferry Organization, which has offices in Newport Beach, Calif., and Richmond Va., and has a team of 70 coaches. "Michael Jordan had a coach from the day he started until his retirement," Mr. Ferry said. "Joe Namath, Tiger Woods and Isiah Thomas had them for all of their careers. Anyone who will be superlative will have someone guiding him."

But in real estate, brokers do not generally sign on with coaches until they are far along in their careers, even though it is presumably the novices who need the most help. Beginners are usually given a phone, a desk and sometimes mentoring, but little else when they join an agency.

"By its very nature, this is a business of cowboys and cowgirls," Ms. Murphy said. "You're told, 'Here's your pony,' and you ride with no training."

Although prospective agents must take a 45-hour course in New York State, for instance, to get a real estate license, Ms. Murphy said that it provided only a foundation. The state course "gives you the very basics of law and definitions so when someone says 'easement' to you, you know what they are talking about," she said. "But it has nothing to do with practical application. If you're deeply desirous of taking great care of your clients, you keep seeking out higher forms of knowledge."

But the requirement imposed by her coach, Mr. Goodfellow, virtually precludes beginners. "They must have a minimum income of $500,000 a year to qualify," he said.

A former hockey coach who runs his business from Ottawa, Mr. Goodfellow screens applicants, making them fill out a 30-page questionnaire. "We want to know if they are coachable, do they want to learn and not just get a quick fix and move on," he said, adding that he rejects 50 to 60 people a month and that he and his coaches work with 150 to 200 brokers at any given time.

Depending on the coach Mr. Goodfellow assigns them — all coaches are real estate agents earning at least $2.5 million themselves — students pay $1,250 to $2,500 a month.

That entitles them to weekly half-hour telephone conferences with their coach in which they discuss goals, time management, business plans, marketing strategy, use of the Internet, hiring and firing, wealth building, investment and such lifestyle issues as preserving a private life.

In addition, the fees he charges include large group conference calls known as "power calls," in which Mr. Goodfellow or one of his coaches addresses specific issues. And several three-day conferences each year bring brokers from all over the country together for seminars, panels and networking in such places as Hilton Head and San Francisco.

Other coaching organizations follow more or less the same format. Jim Gillespie, owner of Realestatesalescoach.com, based in Temecula, Calif., works with commercial brokers. Mr. Gillespie said that he views coaching as a cross between therapy and business consulting, and that when necessary, he will put words into his students' mouths.

"I have designed prospective scripts for commercial agents to get past the receptionist to the decision maker and inspire that decision maker to do business," he said. "I also tell agents to write down every situation they encounter where they don't have the right language patterns or phrases to overcome objections. At our next session, I role-play the agent, and they become the person resisting." Mr. Gillespie charges $3,495 for 12 sessions.

Though many coaches have themselves been sales agents, experience in the field is not necessarily a prerequisite for becoming a coach. A license is not required either, although one organization, the International Coach Federation in Lexington, Ky., accredits coaches, based on their experience, on training with a mentor and on a final examination. The organization's certification is for all coaches, no matter the industry.

Schools like Coach U., based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., conduct classes by telephone and also prepare coaches in a variety of disciplines, not just real estate. "We train people to coach anyone and they decide who to coach," said Sandy Vilas, the chief executive of Coach U., who bought the company in 1996.

Some real estate executives are skeptical about the practical benefits of working with coaches.

Paul F. Purcell, a partner in Braddock & Purcell, a real estate consulting firm in Manhattan, said, "Almost anyone can be a coach, and they have created incredible revenue streams."

Still, he added: "It is like a New Yorker going to a psychiatrist. Eight years later, I am still getting coached, but am I better yet? Do I know how to play this sport?"

The top management at Prudential Douglas Elliman, where Mr. Purcell was president and chief executive for three years before it was acquired by Prudential Long Island Realty, has endorsed the use of coaches.

"I think we will see more and more of it in the city," said Dottie Herman, chief executive of the firm, who worked with Mike Ferry. "You learn different techniques and it is mind-opening and it creates a network for those who are tops. It can be lonely at the top."

Once a week, Jacky Teplitzky, executive vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, and her team of six sit down with their coach, Alon Ben-Meir, for four uninterrupted hours.

"I conduct my team as a corporation within a corporation, and I am the chief executive officer," Ms. Teplitzky said. "But you also need a chairman who is not involved in the daily operation to look at it from the outside and say, 'This is what should change' — someone who assists you in putting the pieces in the right place."

Her coach is on a retainer, and her team members are encouraged to call him at any time. In addition, every six months they reset their goals, and Mr. Ben-Meir helps her choose new team members and defuse whatever tensions may arise between members.

Valerie Fitzgerald, a broker with Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills, who says she is who says she is the top agent in Beverly Hills, Calif., in terms of gross commissions, enrolled in a coaching program in 1992. "I realized that real estate is not just selling one house here and there but a business, and I had no idea how to run a business," said Ms. Fitzgerald, who has been selling real estate since 1988. "I needed to find out what I didn't know, which was everything."

As a result of Mr. Ferry's guidance, she said, "I started to plan my business and understand how much it costs to list a house, how to market, pay for an assistant and for gas to sell one house, which today is probably $15,000 per house."

Now, being coached by Mr. Goodfellow, she has six assistants and said she does about $170 million in total sales a year in 13 markets from Beverly Hills to Malibu. She is also working on a joint venture with the Related Companies on buildings designed by Robert A. M. Stern in Century City and Frank Gehry in downtown Los Angeles.

When a friend urged Alison R. Barwick Bissat, an associate in the Southampton office of Allan Schneider Associates, who works mainly in the $2 million-and-up second home market on Long Island, to use a coach, she was resistant. "I was the top producer in Southampton," she said, "and I thought, 'Why do I need this? My life is already pretty good.' " But last year, she decided to work with Mr. Goodfellow anyway.

"He has made me realize how much worse things were than I realized," she said. "I didn't have a lot of management training. He made me look at the big picture and understand if I can't get others to repeat the success of what I am doing, then I own a job and not a business. And if I am the only one who can do it, then I am stuck doing it. The point is to lighten the load."

That challenge seems to be a cornerstone of successful coaching, and many of the brokers who use coaches say they have started to move away from the round-the-clock work ethic.

"He encourages you to have a balanced life," Ms. Murphy said of her coach. "I need to go to church on Sunday. I need to cook for my family and to exercise five to seven days a week, and I want to vacation, so last year I spent four weeks in Italy. And I didn't get a single phone call or e-mail."



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