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August 1, 2014

Pat Vredevoogd Combs: Making the Right Connections

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Pat Vredevoogd Combs: Making the Right Connections

She holds NAR’s highest office and still finds time to stay in the trenches. Meet NAR’s 2007 president.

Pat Vredevoogd Combs comes to the top post at the National Association of REALTORS® at a time when housing markets are shifting, transactions are becoming more complex, and the real estate industry is the focus of an unprecedented level of government scrutiny.

So why is the 2007 president of the nation’s largest trade association almost always smiling?

Combs isn’t afraid of adversity. With more than 35 years as a real estate practitioner in Grand Rapids, Mich., the hard-working Combs has succeeded in nearly every type of market — remember when 30-year mortgage rates topped 18 percent in 1981? — and she’s made it look easy.

“She can have 10 balls in the air and yet still have everything completely under control,” says Julie Rietberg, CEO of the Grand Rapids Association of REALTORS® and a longtime confidant of Combs. “She’s extremely focused. She doesn’t allow anything to throw her off course.”

In 2007 Combs plans to cover lots of ground, helping to push forward a variety of real estate–friendly measures in Congress and making NAR’s valuable business tools more visible and accessible to members.

To fully understand Combs’ ability to tackle gargantuan goals without skipping a beat, consider this: In less than a year, she remarried, ushered her independent real estate brokerage through a four-way merger, and became NAR’s president.

All the while, she’s kept up her busy career in residential real estate, maintained a hectic NAR travel schedule, and devoted ample time to her big family — she and her husband, Guy Combs, have a combined family of six children, ages 24 to 33, and three (soon to be four) grandchildren.

Maybe that’s why Combs’ longtime business partner, Jeffrey Schreur, CCIM, CRB, jokingly refers to her as the Energizer Bunny. “She’s got unlimited energy to get things done, both in sales and in her volunteer work with the association,” he says. “She leads by example.”

Schreur and Combs were partners in AJS Realty, a 37-salesperson brokerage in Grand Rapids, Mich., until they sold the company in August to one of the state’s largest real estate companies, Coldwell Banker Schmidt, REALTORS®, of Traverse City. The merger also involved brokerages in Grand Rapids and Holland, Mich.

After the merger, Combs became vice president of the Grand Rapids division, now known as Coldwell Banker AJS Schmidt, and Schreur is president. Combs plans to continue selling real estate in 2007, but she’s delegated most of her management tasks for the busy year ahead.

Connecting the dots

In her term as president, Combs plans to live up to her reputation as a doer. She’ll harness NAR’s existing momentum to make the association more relevant to its 1.3 million members, many of whom are grappling with rising inventory and a drop in sales activity.

“With a lot of areas slowing down, my thrust is to make sure our members have every opportunity to be successful,” says Combs. “We’ll need to use the tools we’ve got and find the tools we need.”

NAR offers a lot of valuable tools for real estate professionals, she says, but sometimes members can’t find what they’re looking for or don’t even know that a resource exists. “My goal is to help members make that connection,” she says.

In fact, that’s exactly the message behind Combs’ 2007 theme, “Connect the Dots.” All the dots you need to succeed are already out there; it’s just a matter of finding the right resources and making the right connections, she says.

That could mean leveraging data from NAR’s annual Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers to fine-tune your business plan, getting involved in a housing opportunity program to help revive your local market, or taking advantage of member savings to buy your new laptop computer.

“Everything we do in real estate is connected,” she says. “There’s the broker-agent connection, the buyer-seller connection, and the member-association connection, to name just a few.”

The other key element in Combs’ 2007 plan is to convey to NAR members the practical value in answering calls to action on federal issues that would benefit their bottom line and the industry as a whole. She’ll continue her predecessors’ focus on enacting a permanent federal ban on large national banks entering real estate and a bill that would make affordable health insurance more available to practitioners and other independent contractors. Already, she’s been to Capitol Hill, providing strong testimony to members of a House subcommittee about the competitiveness of the real estate business.

Indeed, Combs’ feet-on-the-street credibility gives her an advantage as she sets out to tackle her goals and win the respect of Congress and NAR members, says Cathy Whatley of Jacksonville, Fla., who served as 2003 NAR president.

“She’s out there experiencing the same things that members experience every day,” Whatley says. “That makes her well positioned to speak knowledgeably about the issues.”

Combs’ approachable personality won’t hurt, either, Whatley adds. “Pat is a happy person,” she says. “People enjoy being around her because she’s responsive and she makes you feel included.”

Anchored in the Midwest

The down-to-earth persona and unrelenting work ethic that characterize Combs are by-products of her Midwestern upbringing. The oldest of four Thomasma children, Combs grew up in “a typical Ozzie and Harriet Nelson family” on the west side of Grand Rapids.

Her mother, Ginny, was a home economics teacher who judged cakes and cookies at local 4-H fairs; her father, Tom, a war veteran, ran a meat market and processing plant where Combs held her first job skinning and packing hot dogs.

As a child and teen, most of Combs’ free time went to raising and showing horses—a demanding hobby she picked up from her paternal grandfather. She started with an ornery little black pony named Nipper but later found her passion in American Quarter horses.

Even in frigid Michigan winters, she’d wake up early every morning to care for the horses, which lived on her grandfather’s farm. Then she’d rush back home to wash up for school. At night, after her work at the Thomasma Bros. meat plant, she’d feed the horses.

Although she no longer keeps or rides horses, Combs enjoys the equestrian life vicariously through her daughter Jesi, who owns a horse in the Grand Rapids area.

Combs’ love of horses prompted her to pursue animal husbandry studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. But she put higher education on hold when she married high school sweetheart Bruce Vredevoogd and moved to Grand Haven, Mich., where her husband worked a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard.

That’s when Combs “fell” into the real estate business. She landed a job as a secretary at a real estate development company and was hooked. In 1971, after finishing college at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., with a degree in sociology, Combs got her real estate license and started selling homes.

The flexibility of real estate sales and of her first husband’s job as a furniture salesperson was perfect for raising their two daughters and son. It also taught Combs the importance of strict budgeting — and demonstrated the need that still exists for affordable small-business health care. “If it was a down market for either one of us, we wouldn’t have a regular paycheck,” she says. “We had to [cover] our own health insurance and do our own financial planning; we didn’t have a retirement fund. All of these things were on our shoulders.”

Juggling family life with a blossoming career wasn’t always easy. So in the early 1980s when she was presented with an offer for yet another professional commitment, it would have been easy to say no.

Instead, Combs jumped at the chance to serve on the equal opportunity committee of the Grand Rapids Association of REALTORS®. Fair housing was — and continues to be — an issue of critical importance to Combs, and she viewed the volunteer job as a prime chance to put her sociology degree to work.

She was right; her skills came into play as the committee embarked on a controversial journey to end housing bias in Grand Rapids. “We did something back then that was pretty risky but we felt we needed to do,” she says. The association set up a testing program for members. “We weren’t sure there was discrimination going on, and we felt it was very important to train our members on what they can and can’t do,” she says.

The project started with mandatory fair housing training for all association members. Then, through a partnership with the sociology department of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, testers pretended to be home buyers and sellers and recorded their experiences.

“There were some really good tests, and some really bad tests,” Combs says. “The members who had the bad tests were absolutely astounded. They didn’t realize what they were doing. We all learned a lot, and we were a better association for that.”

The self-testing program earned Combs recognition as a champion of fair housing and inspired her to become an agent of change at the state and national levels. She went on to chair the equal opportunity committee for the Michigan association in 1985 and later for NAR.

“You can sit on the sidelines and moan and complain about things that aren’t working well, but that won’t make change happen,” she says. “The only way you can affect change is to get involved.”

The path to the presidency

As Combs’ real estate business grew, so did her association involvement. In the mid-1980s, with more than a decade of solid sales experience under her belt at residential real estate companies, she joined AJS Realty as a partner and broker-owner. Soon her sights were set on becoming the Grand Rapids Association’s first woman president, a goal she accomplished in 1990. Five years later, she served as the Michigan Association’s elected leader.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to get involved in leadership or get on a committee because it’s going to take time away from my business.’ There could be nothing further from the truth,” she says.

In fact, the year she became president of the Grand Rapids Association, she had one of her best years ever in sales. “When you’re busy, it makes you more tuned in to your business practices and how you get things done,” she says.

Following her term as the Michigan Association president, encouragement begin to pour in from current and past NAR leaders who thought she’d do a great job leading the national association.

But in 2000, just as she was about to launch her campaign for NAR president, tragedy hit home. Her husband Bruce, who had been diagnosed with melanoma two years earlier but was in remission, learned in April that the disease had returned in the form of brain cancer.

Combs pushed her ambitions aside to spend time with her family and husband, who passed away in December of that year.

With support from friends and family, Combs decided months later to continue on her path to become NAR president. That path led to New Orleans, where she took the oath of office on Nov. 10 during the 2006 REALTORS® Conference & Expo.

Beaming in the crowd were her biggest fans: coworkers from Grand Rapids, colleagues from the Grand Rapids and Michigan REALTOR® associations, her children, and her husband Guy, whom she married in April 2006.

Rather than bask in the excitement surrounding her new role, Combs flew back home the day after the convention ended to catch up on her real estate business and start working on her first tasks as NAR president. After all, she has a lot to accomplish in one year.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” she says. “We can’t say ‘Oh, we’re the biggest or the best.’ There are so many opportunities to do better.”

Essential Combs

Pat Vredevoogd Combs ABR®, CRS®, GRI, PMN. Born Nov. 28, 1947.

BUSINESS

Combs, a REALTOR® since 1971, is vice president of Coldwell Banker AJS Schmidt in Grand Rapids, Mich. The company, previously known as AJS Realty, merged with three other brokerages in August 2006 to create one of the largest real estate brokerages in Michigan.

ASSOCIATION INVOLVEMENT

Combs has served the National Association of REALTORS® as national fundraising chair in 2003 and as regional vice president, Region 6, in 1997. She’s also headed the association’s Equal Opportunity, Education, and Public Policy committees. On the state level, Combs was president of the Michigan Association of REALTORS® in 1995 and of the Michigan Women’s Council of REALTORS® in 1986. She was voted Michigan REALTOR® of the Year in 2002.

COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES

Combs serves as a board member for Baxter Community Center, a nonprofit group that serves as an island of hope in an impoverished area of Grand Rapids. The center provides health care, day care, food, clothing, and even tax preparation services to local residents. “It’s a place where people who have no other means can go to be well — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” She’s also a member of the Fannie Mae advisory board.

MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY

“I’ve never been a manager who only managed and didn’t sell. If you’re not out there selling, how are you going to know what your salespeople are asking about?” Combs also is a big believer in building consensus rather than forcing a decision on a group. “I’m inclusive,” she says. “I don’t just pop things on people. I like to have buy-in and discuss things. Everyone who’s affected by the change should embrace it.”

FAMILY

Two daughters and a son from her first marriage to high school sweetheart Bruce Vredevoogd: Leah, 33, who’s married to Joel VanElderen and has three children, Ethan, 6, Anna, 4, and Claire, 1; Jesi, 30, who’s married to Jon Josten and is expecting a baby in late January; and Brett, 24. Bruce passed away in 2000 after a battle with melanoma. Pat remarried in 2006 to Guy Combs, whom she’d known peripherally for years. “He’s been a really good sport,” Combs says of her husband. “He’s an easygoing guy and he’s not intimidated by [my presidency].” Guy, whose first wife passed away in 2003, runs a business forms company in Grand Rapids. He has a son and two daughters from his first marriage: Chris, 31, is engaged to Becky Albracht; Sarah, 29, is married to Rich Youngberg; and Erin, 27.

RELAXATION

In the summer Combs heads north to a quaint cottage in Glen Lake, Mich., near Lake Michigan, that’s been in her family for four generations. She also has a condo in Naples, Fla. “I like to sit on the beach at my cottage or in my condo and just take a little time for myself. I have a glass of wine or read a book. It gives me a chance to think.”

TECHNOLOGY

Combs stays connected with a compact laptop and a BlackBerry, and is often spotted listening to her iPod, but she warns of becoming too reliant on technology in a business that’s really about people. “It’s easy to use technology in place of eyeball-to-eyeball, face-to-face interaction, but that hurts us because we’re in a relationship business. We need to keep our relationships going strong while using technology as a tool.”

BEING PREPARED

“I don’t like to sit back and just watch things happen. The most amazing thing about this industry is that you don’t know what the next issue is going to be, but you do know there’s going to be one. We need to be prepared for the next new idea and the next threat that will be coming over the mountain.”

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