Jim Litten has a saying that sums up his approach to operating F.C. Tucker Co. Inc.: “We are a success today, but nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow unless we have our game face on.”
But it’s not the only line of attack that helped him guide the largest Indianapolis-area residential real estate agency through a real estate market that dropped 32 percent between 2007 and 2009.
“Look at most businesses; if their business was off 32 percent, that would require monumental change to everything they do,” says Litten, president of F.C. Tucker. “Do you quit matching on the 401(k)? Do you put a hiring freeze on? Do you evaluate every single expense line that you have? We went through all those different processes, and as we saw the market continue to contract, we continued to cut. If we saw the market dropped 10 percent, we cut 10 percent.”
While cutbacks were necessary, it was disheartening for Litten to make them and to see his family of agents suffer as a result. Nevertheless, he knew he had another job on hand — to keep up the spirits of his employees.
“As a CEO of a company, you have to be realistic about what’s going on, but you can’t be pessimistic,” he says. “In a sales-driven organization, there has to be a cheerleader that keeps the organization moving forward.”
Litten’s 40-year career in real estate sales has taught him that he needs to keep his associates focused when facing challenges. He says that means not backing off and staying engaged.
“And it’s letting the agents know that we were in it with them,” he says. “The downturn wasn’t something that was their problem; it was all of ours.”
Here’s how Litten leads 1,500 agents across Indiana to stay engaged, focused and on top, with more than $2 billion in annual sales.
Empower, but don’t micromanage
Many leaders understand the value of empowerment. You give your employees more responsibility, they have more control of their position, and they start looking for solutions rather than making excuses.
With empowerment, however, comes the ability to delegate. It doesn’t work if the leader is a control freak. Litten says that he doesn’t micromanage the company’s business units or their leaders. When someone is hired to run a unit, the first thing he tells that person is that he expects him or her to run the operation as if it were his or her own. That doesn’t mean that Litten is unwilling to answer questions or offer guidance.
“But if I have to come out and micromanage it for you, I’ve got the wrong person in the seat,’” Litten says.
While empowerment means more authority for employees, it also means more responsibility — and being accountable. Leaders need to have quarterly reviews with each of the division heads and branch managers and review metrics to evaluate where they are, where the market share is and the growth they’ve experienced in the position. Litten also discusses every agent in the office with their managers to see how they are doing and find out where they may need help.
He says that one of the best indexes of performance is productivity, and if your managers keep an eye on individual productivity, they will be able to manage more effectively where it is needed most.
“You may get fooled by some who can sing a pretty good song,” Litten says. “But the reality of it is just productivity. When I look at the offices, are they doing comparable to what they did the prior year? If not, why not?”
In a smaller office, if there are just a few big producers and they are having an off year, it can impact the entire office. A leader who is tuned in to what is going on will be aware of why that office’s sales are off, and instead of thinking it may be a leadership issue in that office, will be aware that agents are simply having an off year.
“You’ve got to know what is going on in your business,” Litten says. “If levels of management just go through the motions, those days are numbered for them because you can’t do it anymore. You’ve got to know what is going on, what the trends are, what the strategic issues facing you are and how you are going to deal with them.”
Communicate, but don’t hover
While it may seem to be at odds with the practice of empowerment, staying in frequent touch with employees is vital to a company’s success. However, the leader needs to draw a fine line, because if it appears he or she is hovering, employees will not feel truly empowered.
Litten says that coaching is critical. Spend time with associates not only to help them but to simply check in and see what is going on with them. If you fail to do so, it may send a message that you don’t really care enough about them to ask or that you are making assumptions about their situation.
“The worst thing that you can do is to assume that somebody is OK,” Litten says. “You have to touch them regularly. Often, unless you are checking in with them, you really don’t know if there is something going on attitudinally on which you need to work with them or just be a good listener to them and let them come in and vent.”
Your leadership team, and thus the company as a whole, needs to understand what the fuel is that runs the engine. In the case of F.C. Tucker, that fuel is the agents, which is why Litten says it is critical to be plugged in to their needs.
In any business, employers try to retain their top performers. Litten says doing so is even more critical in real estate, as the top performers are usually independent contractors with the option to go elsewhere. Litten uses a sports analogy to make his point.
“Imagine the Indianapolis Colts having a stable of superstar players, with virtually no contracts with them, and those players have the ability to take their talents to any team in the NFL,” he says. “As an owner of the team and coach of the team, you would make sure that you bring value to them every day in what you do and the systems that you put in place, the platform and the tools of differentiation that you give them.
“In our case, if an agent doesn’t like what management is doing, he or she can pick up and move across the street in a New York minute. You don’t want that. Our only real asset is our sales force.”
Use tools to be proactive
Businesses today have to be proactive, says Litten. If they just react to what’s happening around them, it can be fatal.
“And never, ever, ever, ever be satisfied with the status quo,” he says. “One of two things happen in life: you grow or you die. The same thing happens in business. You either grow or you die.”
Business is continually evolving, and if a business tries to rest on its laurels, it will find itself left in the dust, because there is always someone behind you looking to take your market from you.
“Certainly it would be nice to be able to sit back and catch your breath, but business today is just so competitive that if you back off, you become vulnerable.”
To help agents stay on top of trends, changes and sales techniques, F.C. Tucker Co. established Tucker University to offer tools of differentiation for the agents who are interfacing with the consumer and keep the management team’s skills at a game-day level. Tucker University recently started a new sales training class. During classes, Litten usually talks to agents about the company culture, its values and its belief system. He also tells them that the only things they can really control are their attitudes and their activities.
He says that if you can control those two things, you are going to get your share of the market that you are operating in. But if your activity level isn’t top-notch and your attitude is bad — whether it’s because of the economy or worrying about what will happen if the mortgage interest deduction goes away — you will find yourself struggling.
“And if you play the best you can play by being on top of your game every day, you’re going to win,” Litten says. “If you don’t, shame on you; you are going to lose.” ?
How to reach: F.C. Tucker Co. Inc., (888) 588-2537 or talktotucker.com
The Litten file
F.C. Tucker Co. Inc.
Born: Dayton, Ohio. I was raised in a small town called Martin’s Ferry. It’s on the Ohio River by Wheeling, W.Va.
Education: I went to Ohio University on a football scholarship. I studied physical education and was going to be a football coach. When I tell people that, they look at me and say, ‘You’re doing what now?’
What was your first job?
When I was 15, I delivered groceries for a small grocery store in Bridgeport, Ohio. When I became 16, I could drive, so I could go further on the route. I was very blessed. My dad was a salesman for an oil company, and he had a tremendous work ethic. Every morning by 7:30, he had his suit and tie on and was out making calls to steel mills. I also think athletics instilled a discipline in me so that if I were going to get ahead, there were no shortcuts.
Whom do you admire in business?
I have friends in the Realty Alliance. There is a man named Ron Peltier who is president of HomeServices of America, a Berkshire Hathaway company. Ron and I have been friends for 25 years. He’s a good businessman and an exceptionally good person. I have a friend who is a U.S. senator from Georgia, Johnny Isaacson. He used to run a real estate company in Atlanta. I have tremendous respect for Johnny. He is a very, very bright and a very compassionate individual.
What is the best business advice you ever received?
Our office used to be in the OneAmerica Tower (formerly AUL Tower) in Indianapolis. When we bought the company, we were on the 25th floor. My mother and father came up to visit, and my dad was always scared of heights. He walked into my office and looked down. It was shortly after we bought the company. We were sort of all starry-eyed about it, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Son, be nice to everybody on the way up because on the way down, you're going to need friends.’ He was holding on to the side of my desk and looking out the window at the time. My father was just a wise, wise man and just a very good person.
What is your definition of business success?
To be respected by the people who you serve and to be respected by your competitors. You go about doing things the right way, and you treat people the way they are supposed to be treated.