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Tactics for Tough Times

January 1, 2012

A Q&A wth Christine Todd, CEO of the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®

Once you’ve been in REALTOR® association management for 33 years, you may think you’ve seen it all. But Christine Todd, CEO of the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®, says she never thought she’d see the depths of the current crisis in the market. “I sometimes think this is what it was like during the Great Depression. Never before in my career have I seen the number of frauds, foreclosures, and the complete mortgage debacle.”

Yet, NVAR has weathered the storm better than most partially due to a strong local market, but mostly because of the NVAR staff’s tenacity in streamlining, conserving, and seizing opportunities. NVAR even has a budget surplus projected for 2012, which is earmarked for staff raises. “Now that we’re coming out of the recession, we’re making up for our earlier sacrifices,” says Todd.

RAE spoke to Todd about how to do more with less and manage through tough times.

What can help struggling associations achieve financial viability?

Take a good hard look at everything you do to find ways to trim. At NVAR, I pushed the task back to the staff and said, “We’re all in this together.” They found things to trim in their programs and rearranged things that we had been doing for years.

We looked at renting space, job sharing, even raising the deductible on health insurance. We looked at every single line item and every crumb added up.

We made slight increases in fees just about everywhere. For example, the application for the Million Dollar Club went from $49 to $59. We raised prices for everything in our store by just rounding up to the next dollar. These were not big increases, but enough, and no one even noticed it. We increased trade show exhibit space fees and advertising rates, and we cut back on the frills that we gave to affiliate members.

We didn’t cut salaries, but when staff members left, we wouldn’t replace them. Instead we’d distribute the job among other staff members and give small salary increases. The staff loved this idea.

We also began using volunteers for more little jobs that used to go to staff, like checking people into a seminar. Members were happy to help.

Getting the staff involved in finding ways to cut and save is very important because we wanted to be the one recommending cuts to the board, not the other way around. The last thing you want is leadership rushing in and saying we have to cut staff or salaries by 20 percent.

Also, it’s important that AEs are the cheerleaders for their associations. We have to remain positive. If we’re glum or depressed it permeates through the membership. I’m always looking for the silver lining whenever I talk to members and they appreciate that.

If there’s any good to come out of what your association and others have been through in the past few years, what would it be?

For NVAR, the recession helped us become more focused on what’s most important to our members. Today we have a tremendous number of education programs that are free because we’re no longer seeking profit opportunities. This is a change in our culture that I hope will last. Maybe education will not be a revenue source for us at all in the future, and that would be a big change.

For many associations, the recession has compelled cooperation and in some cases mergers. It has forced a lot of associations to ask, “Are we here to perpetuate ourselves as an association or to perpetuate the business success of our members?”

REALTOR® associations are not competitors, we’re collaborators. I hope one good thing that comes out of this is that there are fewer associations, but that not one AE loses his or her job. Maybe you won’t be the CEO of a 500-member association, but you’ll be the member services director of a 10,000-member association. Just look at the associations that are thriving, like Chicago and Miami. We can achieve more by reducing all the redundant things that we do, like accounting and dues billing.