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July 25, 2014

Bringing on the Future

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Bringing on the Future

NAR President Gary Thomas isn’t satisfied with "what ifs."

Some considered it a pipe dream.

Speaking to the National Association of REALTORS® Board of Directors in 2007, California broker Gary Thomas painted a picture of what could be. Thomas, who had recently chaired an NAR advisory group exploring the future of the MLS, talked about a “gateway” for REALTORS® into detailed information on every parcel of property in the United States.

“The information... would be comprehensive. It would be timely. It would be relevant. . . . [and] it would be able to be annotated, supplemented, and corrected by the professionals who utilize it,” he said. What it wouldn’t be is a national MLS, Thomas told board members. With their go-ahead, NAR was ready to begin making that vision a reality.

Five years later, in November 2012, Thomas was sworn in as the 105th president of NAR and the gateway he described became available to all NAR members. It’s called the REALTORS Property Resource®, and it may eventually become the most powerful tool to come out of the association since the creation of MLS. RPR combines data on nearly 150 million properties with a robust set of analysis tools. It’s dues-supported—and available only to NAR members.

Gary Okla Thomas
Born: Sept. 5, 1944, Joplin, Mo., to Okla and Helen Thomas
Childhood: When Thomas was 3, his parents moved to Manhattan Beach, Calif., to help him overcome a severe case of asthma. His younger brother, Larry, was born when he was 5. Okla and Helen operated a successful Manhattan Beach realty office, and Thomas remembers a nearly idyllic childhood surrounded by family and friends.
Favorite Childhood Memories: Spending time with family on Big Bear Lake and in the San Bernardino Mountains
About the Name Okla:  Thomas’s grandfather was an Oklahoma school teacher and later a state senator who named his twin sons Okla and Homa.
First Job: Newspaper delivery
Education: Bachelor of Science in Business, Woodbury University
Family: Wife, Frances. Children: Tim, 46; Steven, 44; John, 42; Julie, 39, and Jill, 33
Company: Evergreen Realty, Villa Park, Calif.
Leadership Highlights: President of the Saddleback Board of REALTORS®, 1986; president of the California Association of REALTORS® (and California REALTOR® of the Year), 2001; NAR regional vice president for Region XIII, 2004; NAR vice president and liaison to government affairs, 2009

Taking the Lead but Not the Credit

For Thomas, broker-owner of Evergreen Realty in Villa Park, Calif., RPR may be the largest game-changer he has championed, but it’s hardly the first.

When California experienced a painful recession in the early 1990s, Thomas led the consolidation of several REALTOR® associations into the Orange County Association of REALTORS®. At about the same time, he facilitated the creation of the regional SoCal MLS, which launched in 1995 and grew to serve 33,000 participants and subscribers. He went on to participate in a task force that structured the California Association of REALTORS®’ for-profit Real Estate Business Services. He served on the first board of directors and later as chair of REBS, a company that spawned the electronic forms company zipForms and other successful ventures, says Joel Singer, executive vice president of CAR.

As CAR president in 2001, Thomas made zipForms a dues-based service available to every member in California. “It’s now the most ubiquitous software product [in the business] with more than 500,000 active users nationally,” Singer says.

SoCal MLS merged with the California Regional MLS in 2011 to become the nation’s largest MLS, serving 68,000 participants and subscribers. Again, Thomas was one of the drivers behind the move, chairing the initial task force that directed CAR’s MLS effort, Singer says. “He was ahead of everyone on the role of technology and optimizing the REALTOR® organization structure in California.”

Knowing that change is needed is one thing; making it happen in the face of political resistance is another. Thomas has an innate ability when it comes to the latter, says Bill Brown, an Oakland practitioner and a vice president on Thomas’s Leadership Team. “In a word, he’s unflappable.”

It’s easy to underestimate him, adds Brown, who has known Thomas for more than 20 years. “He’s the strong, silent type, kind of like Gary Cooper. I’ve seen him time and time again—in the process of deliberating an issue—calmly lay out the facts and let you know why he’s taking a stand,” Brown says. “He will always allow open dialogue from all sides, but, in making a decision, he’s guided by what’s best for the members.”

“Considering all Gary’s accomplishments—some monumental, some controversial—he never, never has tooted his own horn,” says another long-time friend, Dick Gaylord, a Long Beach, Calif., salesperson who served as NAR president in 2008. “But of all the people I know, he is one of the most logical, thoughtful, and deliberate.”

As president of NAR, Thomas will draw on those strengths to critically assess where the association should be putting its attention and dollars. He’ll likely concentrate on two primary areas: advocacy and business opportunity.

Advocacy efforts on the federal level will heat up this year as Congress considers secondary mortgage market and tax reforms. Certainly, Thomas will stand the same ground as his predecessors. In a prepared statement in November, he said, “Tax benefits like the mortgage interest deduction help hard-working families begin building their future through home ownership.” Privately, Thomas says, while that message has always resonated with Congress, he’s braced for a more pitched battle this year—one in which deficit reduction is a primary concern of legislators.

As at CAR, Thomas also aims to focus NAR’s attention on technologies and services that spur business activity for REALTORS®. “The market will heal itself over time, and that’s happening,” he says. “In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to help our members overcome barriers and find opportunities.”

The Golden Years

The roots of Thomas’s association involvement go back to his early work as a corporate accountant. A business major at Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif., Thomas began a 10-year career with State Farm Insurance in 1966. He was an accounting manager there when he and his wife Frances and their growing family bought a home in a new master-planned community: Mission Viejo.

“Friends from State Farm would come out to the house, and they were always asking to see the neighborhood,” he says. Talking about real estate came easily to Thomas, whose parents were broker-owners of Sea Realty in Manhattan Beach. “Eventually, I thought, why not get my license and earn some money?”

It was 1975, and opportunities in California’s Orange County seemed boundless. The prime rate, which had flirted with the double digits in 1974, had settled into the 7–8 percent range. Orange County prices were actually below the national median price, he says. “In the first six months, I earned as much working part-time in real estate as I earned in an entire year at State Farm.”

Thomas went to work full time in a one-office brokerage, Associated, REALTORS®, in Mission Viejo. “I was disciplined, and I was aggressive. And I was successful, I think, because I enjoyed listening to people, hearing what they were looking for and helping them get there,” he says. In 1978, interest rates started back up, reaching the 18–19 percent range in the early 1980s. But Thomas’s business did just fine, he says, partly because of a California Supreme Court decision that required lenders to enable loan assumptions.

With his business background, Thomas was quickly tapped to serve on the local association’s budget and finance committee. By 1986, he was serving as president of the Saddleback Board of REALTORS®.

At the brokerage, he had dreams of expansion, but his broker balked at the idea. So Thomas set off on his own, opening a RE/MAX office in Mission Viejo. By 1991, he had offices in Dana Point, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano.

At that point, he was no longer selling. “I was strictly managing and recruiting, and the RE/MAX brand was a big advantage,” he says. “As a salesperson, I’d always gotten a rush from a sale, that moment when an offer is accepted and you know the transaction is under way. I got that same rush from recruiting. I didn’t really proactively go after people, but I met a lot of good people through my involvement in the local association.”

Survival Mode

At the height of the business, in the mid-2000s, Thomas owned and operated 14 offices and 450 agents. It was a heady time—but also a time of increasing unease. “As prices got so high, I felt something had to give. Housing couldn’t stay on the steep climb it was on,” he says. “But I don’t think many of us foresaw how deep the recession was going to be or how long it was going to last.”

Having kept the company intact during the early 1990s recession, Thomas felt he could hang on until the market improved. “By 2007, we realized we’d have to consolidate and reduce. It was very difficult,” he says. “My first thought was, ‘I’ll maneuver.’ I pulled equity from the house, which we later sold in a short sale. I owned a commercial building, and we pulled money out of that, too.” To save money, he ended his affiliation with RE/MAX and formed Altera Real Estate.

In retrospect, Thomas says, he didn’t start soon enough or cut fast enough. In early 2011, he filed for corporate bankruptcy. The experience has been wrenching. But this father of five and grandfather of 16—all of whom attended his presidential inauguration in November—is nothing if not resilient. He opened the Evergreen Realty office in October 2011. Fifteen Altera agents, including his daughter Jill and her husband David, came along, and ­Thomas has since ­recruited 15 more agents. Evergreen, an apt symbol for someone who has lived through the long real estate winter, is doing just fine, he says optimistically. He’s making plans for the future, which may even include a return to active selling next year.

In a way, Thomas’s career arc makes him uniquely suited to serving the NAR membership today. Thomas flashes a wry grin at the suggestion. “No matter what your situation, I’ve been there,” he admits. “I can relate to the CEO of a big company. And I can relate to members who have lost their home and their company but are committed to coming back. NAR is for both.”

Gaylord echoes that notion. “Our members have been through a very difficult time, and Gary is acutely aware of that,” he says. “You can count on him to be a great listener and to make the right decisions.”

“He’ll bring a sense of empathy to the job,” Brown says. “But more important, he knows what it takes to come back, and he’ll do everything he can to provide positive opportunities to help our members make a living.”

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