Designing a sleek and hip brokerage from the ground up

Inman News

Walk through the doors of Red Oak Realty's new office in Oakland, Calif.'s upscale Montclair neighborhood, and you will not see any cubicles, desk phones, desktop computers or agent offices.

You will, however, find a 17-foot-long polished redwood table, a bank-vault-turned-conference room, phone booths, chalkboard walls and a charged-up vibe.

Vanessa Bergmark, 38, and Kevin Hamilton, 37, bought the two-office, 69-agent independent brokerage in late 2009 and have slowly remade it into what they think a modern brokerage should and can be: sleek, fresh, efficient, innovative, mobile.

Hamilton and Bergmark became owners in a tough market, which, they say, compelled them to develop a lean, efficient and intelligent operating philosophy.

"Right after the market crumbled, we saw an opportunity to build the brokerage we wanted while many brokerages were waiting for the market to return," Hamilton said.

"We came in scrappy," Bergmark recalled.

After the purchase, Bergmark and Hamilton transitioned Red Oak Realty to a paperless transaction management system and removed landlines and desktop computers. They helped agents buy laptops or iPads, and swapped out expensive office-management software for Google Apps.

"The savings were massive," Bergmark said.

Brokerage Timeline

Time Event
Late 2009 Vanessa Bergmark and Kevin Hamilton buy Red Oak Realty from previous owners.
February 2011 Aman Daro joins the firm as marketing manager with a mandate to remake the brokerage's brand.
September 2011 Red Oak Realty launches new website built from the ground up with 400 custom-drawn neighborhood boundaries.
September 2012 Red Oak Realty opens its new office in Montclair.

With the extra dough, Hamilton and Bergmark reinvested in the company and took steps to mold it to their vision. They hired full-time support staff -- the office now has 11 full-time staff members, including a graphic designer, who support its 69 agents.

Hamilton and Bergmark, who worked together at another East Bay firm before teaming up to buy Red Oak Realty, also brought on marketing specialist Aman Daro, 42, to help them remake the Red Oak Realty brand.

After Daro came on board in early 2011, they built a website from the ground up. Launched in September 2011, the website features 400 custom-drawn neighborhood boundaries built using 15 years of sales data. The boundaries allow homebuyers to search for homes by neighborhood, and agents to produce accurate neighborhood-level comparative market analyses (CMAs).

Along with establishing the firm's new "seriously local" tagline, the site includes more than 50 neighborhood profile pages each with 10 professional photos and a written introduction of the 'hoods. Twenty of the neighborhood profiles include a minute-long professional video highlighting notable features of each area.

The custom neighborhood delineations allow the firm to produce detailed and extremely accurate and meaningful CMAs, Daro said. East Bay neighborhoods vary widely in character, so accurate boundaries make for accurate market trend analysis.

"Search by neighborhood has been key for my clients," said Julia Temple, who has been an agent with Red Oak Realty for eight years.

Daro said Red Oak's CMAs have helped the firm achieve the highest list-price-to-sale-price ratio of any brokerage in its market. 

The new site, built from scratch, also allowed the firm to have the kind of detailed, pixel-by-pixel control over design that it exercises in other areas of its business. For example, Daro said, the "Contact Us" button on the site's neighborhood page went through at least 30 iterations of the design itself and its precise location.

In September 2012, Red Oak built out and moved into a new office. At 2,489 square feet, it was less than half the size of the 5,000-square-foot office it replaced, but serves the same number of agents.

The new office "was the first chance we got to show our agents who the new owners were," Bergmark said. Taking inspiration from tech and advertising companies, the office has an open layout and includes a hip and sexy feel, she said. "It's great for management. I hear and see what's going on."

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