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Interview with Phil Soper, President & CEO Royal LePage

Phil Soper, President and CEO of Brookfield Real Estate Services, overseeing Brookfield’s family of premier real estate brands, including Royal LePage, La Capitale and Johnston & Daniel in Canada, and Real Living (formerly GMAC Home Services) in the United States.  Under Phil’s leadership the company has tripled in size to over 25,000 REALTORS® in Canada and the U.S.  Phil holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from University of Alberta and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Executive Program.  Learn more about Brookfield Real Estate Services by visiting www.brookfieldres.com or about Royal LePage by visiting www.royallepage.ca.  

 The Company

Tell me a little bit about Brookfield and Royal LePage.

Royal LePage is not only a very well known Canadian business, but an iconic Canadian brand.  It is one of the true gems of our country’s business history dating back 98 years and it has been a leader in Canadian real estate since early in the last century.  Brookfield has been the parent company of Royal LePage for roughly 30 years now, dating back to when the company was called BrasCan.  Brookfield is a lesser known Canadian company among consumers, but ranks among the largest and most important corporations in the country, currently with $109 billion of assets under management and over 15,000 employees in 20 countries.  It is probably the largest owner of Class A commercial properties in the world.

What is your current role?

I am the President and CEO of Brookfield Real Estate Services, a public company that trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol ‘BRE.’ As the CEO, I oversee the strategy and development of three real estate firms: Royal LePage, La Capitale in Quebec, and Real Living in the U.S. and abroad.  I am also the Managing Partner responsible for real estate brokerage services within the parent corporation, Brookfield Residential Property Services.

How long have you been a part of this organization?

I joined Brookfield in the early part of the last decade right at the end of 2000, heading up the Royal LePage Corporate Relocation business.  About 18 months later, the then-CEO announced he was retiring and I was made the President of Royal LePage.  In late 2002 I was named CEO of the company.

 How did you get into the business? What was your first opportunity? 

My path to a leadership role in the real estate industry wasn’t a typical one.  I worked in the technology industry prior to joining Brookfield and Royal LePage where I headed up IBM Canada’s IT consulting and services businesses – overseeing approximately 600 consultants and technologists, a business that generated about $250 million in annual sales.  It was the largest professional service practise of its kind  in the country.  A friend of mine worked for another Brookfield company and introduced me to Simon Dean, the former Royal LePage CEO, and after a few discussions I decided to take a big risk and leave the IT industry – which, throughout the 90s, was easily the most exciting industry to work in.  It took a leap of faith to exit the technology industry and all the excitement of the dot com era, but it turned out to be one of the luckiest career moves I ever made given that the industry imploded shortly after I left and the real estate market took off.  Never underestimate the power of luck in career planning!

Why are you passionate about this role and this organization?

What I found when I entered real estate was that I was working in an industry that affected people everywhere.  Two-thirds of Canadians own their own homes and many who do not, aspire to.  It is one of those pillar industries in any country of the world, but in an advanced nation like Canada, owning the family home is absolutely central to what is important to its citizens. 

Many people search for relevance in their working lives; I never get up and feel like what I do doesn’t matter.  We have such a large company – approximately 16,000 REALTORS®, plus staff in the Canada – and they are touching hundreds of thousands of Canadians.  When you put something into place that helps those professionals do their jobs better, you are by extension helping a much larger number of people chase their dreams.  It is very exciting.

What is the relationship between Brookfield and Royal LePage?

In its simplest form, Brookfield is our parent company Brookfield Residential Property Services is comprised of several complementary companies including: Brookfield Real Estate Services, under which Royal LePage falls; Brookfield Global Relocation Services, the world’s second largest provider of employee mobility services; and Centract Settlement Services, Canada’s largest residential appraisal services business.

 How does being a Brookfield company help Royal LePage, its Brokers and Sales Reps?

On a number of levels, the relationship with Brookfield is meaningful to our Royal LePage family.  The first of which is by expanding our real estate holdings internationally we have created a much bigger internal referral network.  Now the global network includes a real estate company that shares many of the same attributes outside of Canada.  In fact, we are hoping to create within the Real Living network professionals whose values and practises closely mirror those that have made Royal LePage such a success. 

Our next step in bringing value to members of the Royal LePage network will be in enhanced products and services.  The Real Living real estate services platform launching in the 4th quarter of 2010 will be the leading platform of its kind in the world when it is released. I hope that what we learn in the United States will help us enhance future releases of the Royal LePage platform.   

What sets your company apart from other brokerages in Canada?

Traditionally, real estate companies have fallen into three large buckets.  Starting with the segment that has received a lot of attention since the Competition Bureau started its recent investigation into the industry: the limited service or discount brokerage.  Their predominant value proposition is that they charge very low fees in exchange for a small basket of services.  The higher priced and richer services categories tend to fall into either advertising centric or services centric segments.  We are services centric.  Many of our competitors direct their companies’ resources towards consumer-facing advertising.  The problem with that approach, and the reason we decided many years ago it didn’t make sense for our business model, is that research shows real estate consumers don’t care about brand nearly as much as REALTORS®. The fact is, companies who take an advertising-centric approach to the business are really speaking to themselves. The ads they buy make their own membership happy but do little to influence consumer buying decisions.  Our studies have shown that when you ask Canadian consumers which brand their real estate agent is affiliated with, many get it wrong. They know their REALTOR®’s name, but not their affiliation.  Every company spends money to prosper and grow – we invest in substantive services – training, marketing, technology and general business services - that help our brokerages and their agents succeed.  Our Royal LePage motto is “helping you is what we do” – it means it’s not about us, it’s about our clients

 The Leader

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? 

Firstly, I’ve got four beautiful teenagers, so between family and a very busy job that involves, at times, a painful amount of travel....there isn’t a tremendous amount of spare time. That being said, I’m your classic attention deficit company president:  the role tends to attract people who like to keep a lot of balls in the air, so I have a lot of varied interests.  I like sports: I’m a sailor; I like to golf; I’m a motorcycle rider and have taken my girls on long trips, from Toronto to Cape Cod to the Florida Keys.  I’m a very enthusiastic – although only marginally talented – musician so I write songs and occasionally I can trap people in the room and make them listen to my music.  I love photography.  When I lived in Calgary I was on the Ski Patrol at Lake Louise.  It sounds like a long list, but I don’t get to do any one activity often.  When I retire someday if the far off future, I won’t be one of those people who wonder what they’re going to do with all that free time.

 Who would you consider your mentor? Why?

What’s the old saying “the teacher appears when the student is ready”? I’ve had different mentors in different periods in my life. In my current role, my predecessor – Simon Dean – was hugely influential in how I view the industry and in providing me with a framework with which to assume the presidency.  Before that, there would have been two people in my business life who helped me develop my leadership philosophy; both were IBM executives.  Al Aubry taught me to lead in a fashion whereby people want to follow and fear disappointing you.  It is leadership by voluntary engagement as opposed to the hammer of position.  And very early in my career, when I made the move from computer systems engineer into sales, Dexter Lindsay, taught me the fundamentals about satisfying customers, about doing the right thing because it was right, about deal making, about the art of engaging people and active listening. 

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I’d probably say that the thing that surprises people, because I am generally an affable person, is that I have a hard edge and can become passionately displeased when someone behaves unethically or doesn’t meet expectations with plenty of opportunity to do so.  And that I’m a closet perfectionist.  In general, when you are in a job like this you have to become very comfortable with delegation...and yet my staff sometimes dread sending me something to edit because it tends to come back covered in red ink  The desire to make everything precise is in conflict with my more public persona.     

 What is your best advice for professionals wanting to ‘give back’?

I am a passionate believer in the ability of professionals to weave their business goals with their philanthropic goals.  I don’t think in any way the two should be – or need to be – separated. Case in point is the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation – it is good for our company, its good for our people in the field and it does immeasurable good for women and children across Canada.  I did a roadshow some time ago for the Canadian Women’s Foundation on what we called the economic benefit of good works.  The concept was if a company sits back, thinks about, structures and puts focus on their corporate philanthropic strategy they can use good work in the community to help improve their firm’s performance.   These programs can really ignite employees’ passion and in the end they feel better about the organization they work for.

Talk to me about your Twitter-life. How do you find the time? Why do you find the time?

To begin with, you have to be someone who likes to share ideas.  Luckily, a lot of business leaders are in fact people who enjoy sharing insight.  Participating in a social network like Twitter is just another means of doing this, but in very quick blasts, so you can touch many, many people with short and succinct messages. It’s hardly perfect. You only attract who you attract and is an imperfect tool in that you aim a message at a target audience but you are going to catch other people along the way. 

As I travel and do the conventional form of communications, a surprising number of people will say they valued what I said on Twitter or Facebook, so at this point in time it appears to be worth the effort.  To speak to the effort, you have to be smart about it.  I write my own material, but I use a publishing tool, for Twitter predominately HootSuite.  I’ll sit down for half an hour and work out a week’s worth of tweets and schedule them.  I am a BlackBerry® user, so I have found the app for BlackBerry® a useful way of sharing spontaneous thoughts as well. I probably tweet 80 percent on real estate related matters and 20 percent on personal matters.

What area within yourself do you most often work to improve?

The easy answer for me is timeliness.  I am the classic “try to squeeze one more thing in” person. I figure I can somehow miraculously cross Toronto in 20 minutes, so I am constantly in a rush and it is an ongoing battle for me.  I am better than I was and keep trying to improve, but I thank the heavens above for Sherry Nadolny, my executive assistant.  I wouldn’t want her job for the world!

 What accomplishment are you most proud of?

One of the ways I’ve been very lucky is to have been able to be a part of organizations that grew rapidly and created many new employment opportunities.  When I think back to when I joined Royal LePage, the network sat at about 8,000 REALTORS® and now we are at 14,000.  Plus of course La Capitale in Quebec and Real Living in the U.S.. I like to think in some small way I was able to contribute to happy, more enriched lives and careers for some of the people who have joined the company during my tenure as CEO.

How do you most often encourage those around you?

I think successful leaders, particularly of growing companies, tend to be almost obnoxiously enthusiastic – even the most dour of professionals can’t help but feel somewhat encouraged when their leader is obviously so jacked up and excited about the company’s prospects.  I really do in my heart of hearts get excited about our prospects, and I believe that enthusiasm gets passed on.

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