By Clifford Davis, Contributing Writer
Sonny Downey and Ray Rivera couldn’t have picked a worse time in the last 85 years to start a real estate brokerage franchise in Florida.
The pair opened Exit Real Estate Gallery in 2007, trying to break into a market with the most ominous of storm clouds hanging over it.
“When the market shifted, I think everyone was waiting for a correction,” Downey said.
Downey said he and Rivera’s franchise competed against one owned by Stan Bishop. In 2008, the three realized the market wasn’t going to correct itself.
“The idea that if you just keep throwing money at it that it would correct itself kind of went out the window,” he said.
So, they decided to combine the companies.
Instead of three costly brick-and-mortar offices, the trio consolidated into two profitable offices. Besides, to Downey’s way of thinking, large offices were becoming less and less important.
“The brokerage model shifted from what it was back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “In those days, agents were more reliant on a broker having a brick-and-mortar office with things like copy machines and fax machines, because not every American had access to those things.”
In modern-day real estate, agents post ads from a table at Starbucks for houses on the internet that are instantly spread across the nation and the world. Instead of relying solely on yard signs and telephones at the office, agents conduct business with clients over their cellphones.
This reality, Downey said, has changed what agents need from their broker.
“Now, they’re looking for other services like marketing, coaching and training,” he said. “Those really ended up being our focus.”
Downey said his background in hotels and the hospitality industry led him to base his approach to real estate on the client — who, in this case, is the Realtor.
With education, technological resources and a compensation plan for agents who recruit other Realtors who perform well, word eventually spread.
Today, the company can claim some of the top performing Realtors who hold key spots in Northeast Florida industry groups.
Cole Slate is one of the top, young talents for whom Downey was searching.
At just 29, Slate is not only a successful Realtor, but also chairman of councils within the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors and the Northeast Florida Builders Association.
It was Downey and Rivera’s innovative approach to real estate that attracted him, he said.
“They’re not your traditional real estate company,” Slate said. “At Exit, there is a younger atmosphere with more out-of-the-box thinking.”
Slate said an example of Exit’s innovative approach can be found at the first place many visitors and potential residents see in Northeast Florida –– Jacksonville International Airport.
“I think we’re only the second brokerage in the country to put an office in an airport,” Slate said. “Think about how many people fly into Jacksonville to interview for a job or relocate. It was a great idea.”
Diane Cook joined Exit in 2007. She not only is a successful agent, but president of the Women’s Council of Realtors Jacksonville Chapter.
Cook said a former co-worker who had moved to Exit talked to her about what the company and what it was offering.
“They wanted to grow their company and they’re going to do it in a way based off of what we need in the way of tools and training to make us successful and good agents,” she said.
Last year, Cook recruited Marc Jernigan from Watson Realty Corp. after 15 years with the firm. He is the 2017 president of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors.
“They just convinced me their business model would be successful,” Jernigan said.
After coming to Exit, his suspicion was confirmed.
“I’ll give you one example: Diane brought me on, so she’s my sponsor,” he said. “She gets a portion out of the company’s dollar — not out of my dollar — for everything I do.
“So it’s in her best interest to assist you and help me with any problems or issues that might come up,” he said.
The result, as Downey and the others intended, is an atmosphere where Realtors don’t compete against each other — but with each other. Downey’s job is to give them the tools they need to succeed and help the customer.
“Our agents find value in the knowledge that our brokers offer to them,” Downey said. “The minute they become more knowledgeable than us, we’ve lost our value to them.”
Agents like Jernigan and Cook are exactly what Downey had in mind when he started the company, though building the bench full of quality agents he now has didn’t come right away.
“It’s hard to convince people with real experience to come work for you when you’re starting out,” Downey said.
Because of that, the company focused heavily on new agents in the first few years of its existence. Since then, the tide has turned.
“Now the experienced agents want to come here,” he said.
Jernigan is one of those experienced Realtors. But it’s not just experienced Realtors Exit was looking for, he said.
“I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I do things the right way,” Jernigan said. “That is the kind of agent –– not just me, but the kind of agent –– they’re looking for to help grow their company.”
According to Downey, there are two types of agents. The first takes a used-car salesman’s mentality.
“That type of agent’s focus is only on trying to sell the consumer the very first house –– which often results in buyer remorse,” he said. “Then, the customer doesn’t call them back.”
The second type –– the ones Exit is looking for –– focuses on building their clientele by referral only, with a focus on the customer’s happiness.
“When you’re building a business by referral only, it’s not trying to sell the consumer the first house,” Downey said. “It’s trying to sell the consumer the right house.
“This holds true to any sales and marketing job. It’s easier for us to keep old business, than to keep going after new business,” he said.
Ten years in, Downey is pleased with where his company is. A 6 percent market share and a host of reputable agents is a solid foundation.
In February, Downey and Rivera bought Bishop’s shares in the franchise. The pair is ready to take the next step.
“I definitely feel privileged to be surrounded by the other people in the top five like Bill Watson (founder of Watson Realty), Linda Sherrer (president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Network Realty) and Pete Dalton (owner of Coldwell Banker Vanguard Realty),” Downey said.
“But as much as I would love to say, ‘We’ve arrived,’ when I look at the next 10 years we still want to capture market share,” he said. “Ideally, we’d like to get up to 10 to 15 percent market share.”
His Realtors are on board.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ll never leave the company,” Cook said.