Real Estate Agent Podcast 25: John Sebree
I was the only business person on the trade mission staff because I've successfully made the case that economic development isn't going to happen without the real estate component.
About This Episode
After starting his career as a lobbyist in D.C., John Sebree has been involved with just about every kind of policy decision that a board of REALTORS is likely to encounter. Having lived in Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and D.C., he's seen how agents across the country approach real estate.
Today he's the CEO of Missouri REALTORS, running a state-wide organization representing over 20,000 agents. You can learn more about Missouri REALTORS at http://www.missourirealtor.org/home
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JON: Hello and welcome to Shop Talk: The Real Estate Show. I'm Jon Forisha and joining me on this episode is John Sebree, CEO of Missouri Realtors. How did you get started in real estate?
JOHN: Well, I grew up in Kentucky and after being student body president at my university, I was offered a job in Washington DC and that was sort of my dream. I always dreamed that I would end up in Washington. And so I was working on Capitol Hill for the House Banking Committee and this was during the savings and loan crisis and the realtors were lobbying us quite a bit, as were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the bankers. And someone came to me and said, Hey, the National Association of REALTORS are looking for a new lobbyist to handle housing issues and your background would be perfect based on your experience on Capitol Hill. And I had one interview and got the job. So I felt pretty fortunate after only two years on Capitol Hill to end up with such a great trade association.
JON: Wow. That is impressive. So I mean, what was that like? I mean you must've been pretty young when you were first in that job. Right?
JOHN: I was very young. I couldn't believe that someone as young as me could be working on savings and loan policy and housing industry testimony and that kind of thing. But it was, it was such a good learning experience and I had great people around me. So I really had a baptism by fire on Capitol Hill because you just, you jump in with both feet. And I think I was ready for that National Association of REALTORS move and they had me focusing mainly on housing and veterans housing and rural housing testimony and that kind of thing. So I was pretty specific in the first few years and that was good for me as well.
JON: Nice. That's awesome. So did you know about the National Association of REALTORS before you joined them?
JOHN: You know, there were so many organizations lobbying us. I knew about the National Association of REALTORS, but beyond just a couple of people stopping by our office to talk about their issues, I didn't really know the magnitude of the association or how many members it had or anything like that.
JON: What was one of the biggest things that surprised you when you first got started in the world of real estate?
JOHN: I think I was surprised by how many local boards there were and then I had to work with. You know, there are maybe 1300 local boards of REALTORS. Back then there were many, many more because that was, you know, that's 28 years or so ago. And things were very different back then. So, you know, my job became working with state associations and local boards on the advocacy issues that they had and just how many there were and how different they were. That was probably the biggest thing to me at the time.
JON: Hmm. I didn't realize that there were more of them back then.
JOHN: Back then. Yeah. In the last couple of years, actually in the last six years, we've seen a pretty big decline. The National Association implemented something called core standards, which are basically minimum standards for associations. And as soon as we did that and required that every local association has to have an attorney and everyone has to have a CPA and everyone has to do all these other things, a minimum standards, we found that a number of them started, um, dissolving or becoming chapters of larger boards. Yeah, that makes sense.
JON: All right, so you've sort of lived all over the country by now. I mean, you, you said you started in Kentucky, you were in DC for awhile, Florida, and now you're in Missouri. Why did you choose Missouri?
JOHN: You know, um, I've always thought that my move seemed very natural. You know, moving from Kentucky to Washington was very natural, right out of college job on Capitol Hill. I never thought you could after being in Washington for 15 years, I didn't think you would blow me out of there with a stick of dynamite. Florida came knocking and they worked on me for about six months and finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And I, I really had to step out of my comfort zone to leave something that I loved. But I found after 11 years there that it was just, it was amazing. I loved it and I wasn't looking to leave, but I had been a lobbyist at that point for 24 years.
JOHN: And, and that's tiring. And Missouri came to me and offered me this job of CEO so I could go beyond where I had been and suddenly be the CEO of my own association versus continuing to be a senior person and work around the clock as a lobbyist. So again, it was a tough decision, but it brought me back closer obviously to Kentucky. And I had a lot of interests there. I work on, you know, I have a big, I have a horse farm, I, you know, and it's fun to be able to get home to Kentucky and drive there on the weekend if I want to versus in Florida. I couldn't do that. Um, so I think there were professional reasons, but also personal. And while it was tough to leave Florida, I stay in close contact with all my Florida realtor friends and, um, this has been a really good move for me.
JON: So it sounds like you never worked as an actual salesperson.
JOHN: No. And you know, that's interesting because I did come up through the National Association of REALTORS. We were discouraged from being real tours or, um, having a license because we would have been seen as our own members' competitor.
JON: Oh Wow.
JOHN: So that's, that's where I grew up. You know, I came from that school of thinking and so when I got to Florida and I suddenly had my own staff of 12, and I was hiring new staff to rebills and do, um, that kind of thing, I started asking my staff as a condition of hiring to spend a week in real estate school, not to get their license and actually take an exam, but just so they knew what the issues were our members were dealing with. So I've sort of come partway, you know, I'm the one who doesn't believe our staff at the association should be a competitor of our member, but also know that it can be helpful to those in certain positions to know what our members are going through.
JON: Yeah, of course. And we do the same thing here at The CE Shop. All of our new hires, we have them take a few of our courses to just understand areas that agents are coming from. I think it's essential. I mean real estate is one of those jobs that it's such a huge industry that I feel like a lot of people might think they understand it, but they don't really.
JOHN: The way we looked at it, if I'm the lobbyist for the National Association of REALTORS and I'm working with every member of Congress from an eight state region, when that Congress person and their spouse are buying a job in Washington or buying a house in Washington DC to come move, I'm their realtor contact in DC. Is that fair to my members? Sure. Suddenly I'm also making a commission on someone that I gave a pack contribution to. It's just a weird, a weird thing.
JON: Definitely a conflict of interest at that point. So do you miss being a lobbyist?
JOHN: There are times that I do, I have to, this is an odd time in political history and I'm not missing it at the moment.
JON: I can believe that.
JOHN: And I learned a lot. I've made such incredible contacts and people that I know around the world that I've worked with that I stay in touch with. So that's awesome.
JON: So having worked in on the policy side of real estate and such different states across the country, how does real estate vary, you know, from Florida to DC to Missouri? Or how is it the same?
JOHN: You know, I think of ways that it's the same, but even within Missouri, you know, coming here now, having to work on different issues, um, you know, we were working on a statewide contract, for example, there were parts of the state that don't want to be on a statewide contract because of the idiosyncrasies of selling in Springfield, Missouri. It's just the way that they've done it for years, which is very different than the way they do it in St Louis or Kansas City. And then we have a very unique situation in Missouri where, well, it's Missouri in Kansas where Kansas KCR ar the Kansas City regional association of realtors is one of the mega boards in the country. It has more than 8,000 members. Half of them are in Kansas, half of them are in Missouri. You don't have other boards like that in the country. There may be a small board on A in Georgia that has a few members from South Carolina or something, but we don't have other situations like this. And so they have to have their own forms that are unique to that situation. So that's been an interesting thing for me as opposed to I came from this much larger state where we all use the statewide forms and contracts and you know, so that's been unique. And then there are just the natural issues that come up. You know, in Florida I was so focused on building codes and, um, when the insurance aware has here, it's, it's just different issues. Yeah. Not many hurricanes are gonna make it up to Missouri. Not many. But you know, we do, um, sit on one of the most active fault lines in America, the new mandarin fall.
JON: Oh Wow. I did not know that.
JOHN: Ardo and southeastern Missouri is on the new Madrich fall. So there are other, you know, things that you don't think of, but I worked on the issue of natural disaster insurance for 20 years in Washington and in Florida and Missouri was always a place we pointed it pointed to as having this disaster, um, potential that people didn't think about. Wow. Yeah. Nobody ever talks about that. No. Interesting. There's a story. I remember being a kid in Kentucky and feeling an earthquake and they say that, um, the new Madryn fault and earthquake in, maybe it was the 1880s ring church bells in New England. Wow. One of those side notes that, um, yeah, pretty fascinating.
JON: Gee, that's crazy. Well did you ever, did you ever consider becoming more involved in politics? It sounds like you were pretty hard down the lobbying road.
JOHN: I mean, you know, this is sort of, this is a funny one for me. I did think about running for Congress. Um, I had several jobs at the National Association of REALTORS after being a lobbyist for a number of years. I actually asked to move back home to Kentucky and be a political field representative and work in the, so I'm, I had eight states that I worked that congressional delegations for lobbying them in Washington. And I came up with this idea that we needed someone to live in the field, prove that it can work and traveled to those states and work with the members of Congress on their own turf versus just working with them in Washington. And it proved successful. But I had an ulterior motive. My ulterior motive was I'll go back to Kentucky. I was the student body president at the largest university in the congressional district. I had delivered the Kentucky Post as a kid. I had sort of lived this life that I felt sort of lent itself to running for political office. But I've found when I got home that I enjoyed my work too much and the travel and the commitment to give all that up, you know, a member of Congress gives up their job and be a full time member of Congress. That is their job. And uh, I wasn't willing to do that anymore, but I'm glad that I at least thought about it and um, put it behind me. Yeah. At least to explore that avenue.
JON: So what do you think makes real estate special?
JOHN: I, I believe everything relates to real estate. No matter what business you're in, no matter what you do, you can make a connection to real estate. And you know, it, it hit me more when I left Washington and moved to Florida. Um, at the time, Jeb Bush was governor and he had been a commercial REALTOR and most people didn't know that Jeb Bush was a commercial member of the National Association of REALTORS, but he had to give that up to be governor. And he pulled me aside and said, first, I'm glad you're here to work for the realtors, but I try to promote economic development. And the piece that's missing is the understanding that there's a real estate component to every deal that's done. And he said he was about to go on a trade mission to Germany and I should go with him because there was never any one on these trade missions that can talk about quality of life and cost of living. Everyone was more focused on the widgets they were going to sell or the widgets they were going to produce, but no one knew on that trade mission how to talk about or find a connection to, well what's the cost per square foot of that facility out by the airport if we move our product here or our distribution here or our manufacturing here. And so I learned so much from that over the years. I mean that was an initial foray, but I, I continued to travel with every governor of Florida after him fulfilling that same role. And now I do that in Missouri. I was just at the Paris air show last month with the governor of Missouri on his first trade mission as governor. I was the only business person on the trade mission staff and because I've successfully made that case that there's this role and that economic development isn't going to happen without the real estate component. And that's just one piece, but it's the piece that I've sort of embraced and I think our members can do the same. And I talked to them about that all the time.
JON: That's great. So many agents consider getting an advanced degree as a way to sort of take their career to the next level. Um, you have an MBA. How have you, how have you seen that be useful in your career?
JOHN: Well, you know, I was living in Washington DC working for the National Association of Realtors and I got that MBA at night. I was always impressed by George Washington University as one of the top universities in the United States, but it was special because their MBA had a public policy focus. And you're not gonna find that at most other MBA schools. Yeah, it's pretty specialized. Might have something like that. But most MBA schools are so focused on economics or some area of business. And for me it was a wonderful connection of business and public policy. So that was the start. But then I've, you know, I think it, it made me resourceful because working a full time job, taking classes at night, I still got my MBA in two years. Wow. You become very resourceful and I think that that trait has continued on with me and I've always been someone who knows where to find answers and you know, I've got 23,000 realtors in this state and they asked me questions I don't have the answer to, but I can find them an answer because I'm resourceful and that's just something that came from that time. I believe I'm getting my MBA. Yeah. I think that's a big case for, for schooling is that it almost more than what you actually learn and teaches you how to problem solve and how to agree you get it done.
JON: Okay, so you are the CEO of Missouri Realtors. What exactly aside from traveling with the governor of Missouri, does that entail?
JOHN: You know the difference in when I used to do where I was just the lobbyists. Now we have public policy staff that are doing that. We have five verse six staff here. They do advocacy every day and work with the state governments and city governments and our members. But we have a legal line and we have an education program and we have communications and all the things that we're working with our members to get them to network and learn more and be more professional. Our risk management program with the, um, so I would say the difference is I've now got my fingers in a whole lot of other areas and I'm becoming more of a generalist. I used to think of myself as a generalist within advocacy because I knew so much about so many pieces of lobbying and grassroots and pack and electing candidates and the political part and the policy part. Now I see myself as more of an a generalist in the entire association world. Um, you know, how to operate the association, but how to also promote the interaction of our members and the education and professionalism of our members.
JON: So you said Missouri Realtors has about 23,000 members?
JOHN: Between 22 and 23,000. Yes, we're probably the largest medium state. There have been times where we are the smallest large state. Um, but there are a few of us on the cusp there. Washington state, Missouri, you know, a few others that sort of bob up and down a little bit.
JON: Yeah. So what are the benefits for an agent to join their local board of REALTORS?
JOHN: You know, there are so many, but I think the biggest there are first networking and finding someone to help them as a mentor. That's probably one of the most fascinating things to me that you're part of this association with your competitors yet they want to help you be better, you know? And so we're all part of the, you know, well I'm not, I get paid to do what I do. I'm lucky. But so many realtors are in these volunteer positions at the local state, national level and they want their colleague that they work with on deals to be better and they, they volunteer their time to help with that. So that's probably a practical reason for a new realtor to be involved. Then there are the things that they have no clue about that they need to know. And that is that local board. Is the difference between a new sign, new ordinance going into effect or non there the reason that the department of revenue in their city or county is going to, are not going to raise taxes, you know, because of their advocacy efforts on that. And so a lot of times our realtor doesn't get that, you know, they're drinking out of a fire hose at the beginning or they've maybe never worked on a commission before and they've gotta be laser focused. And sometimes it takes a while for them to understand the benefits of being involved in the association inactive. Um, but just to have that, um, that association, uh, standing behind you and making sure your business is going to do better than it would have because they're providing education, they're providing ways to be more professional, um, and that kind of thing.
JON: So do you recommend for agents to join their local board as soon as they're licensed?
JOHN: I do because I mean they, I think they need to, well, first of all, if they're joining a company, they need to be a member of the local board because their broker is going to be a member of that local board. They don't always understand our three-way agreement that when you join at the local board, you're a member, you're paying all of your dues. So you pay all your dues at the local board. And then the local board keeps their portion, send the balance to the state. We keep our portions and the balance to national. And I think we're unique that way that you have this membership in three levels of the association where again, when they're new, they don't understand that a doctor doesn't have that same choice. The doctor may join the local medical association or may choose to join the National Medical Association, but they're not really required. Where in our situation joining the local board has so many benefits for them more, you know, I can say it coming from the state, the local association is where they have their most benefits. It's where they pay their largest amount of dues and that's where they get their education and so many other things. The state then is, you know, adding to that by offering a legal line and advocacy at the state level. That is sort of the cherry on top with additional federal legislative advocacy and all the things that they come with that. But it takes that new member a while to figure this out. I can see that the hierarchy of it. You've got the local board, then the state and the national.
JON: How many local boards are there in Missouri?
JOHN: In Missouri have um, 32, maybe 31 local boards. Yep.
JON: How often are new ones formed or old ones? Dissolved?
JOHN: New ones are hardly ever formed anymore. I would say since I've been here we've probably had three or four dissolve or become a chapter of a larger board. That was a new option that the national association offered a few years ago. What I'm seeing more is mergers between boards to have become more regionalized. And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. All over the country. Brokers are more regionalized and I've heard this for nearly 30 years since I've been involved. A groper would say I'm a member of eight boards and five MLS is and I'm paying to all of these, you know, will, does that make sense? Is that the best way to approach business? And so I think this has been driven by brokers and just by nature, when you start seeing more, there are economies of scale of being regionalized in some respect. And so why am I putting my information in 12 MLS is when it makes sense for some of these to merge. Um, those are things we don't promote. They're just things that naturally happen and we think our members should be the driving force in that we shouldn't. At least that's my theory and that's how I've approached it. I have colleagues around the country who are very different. They promote mergers. I believe. I, I help facilitate them, but I believe it's our members that drive the merger. So I will, I'll be a facilitator, I'll go work with two boards, I'll talk them through the pros and cons and, and we work together and either make it happen or not. But I, I try to remain objective throughout the whole process. And I think I've done that. Uh, but we're seeing more and more mergers.
JON: And how much interaction do you have with the other CEOs of other states?
JOHN: I'm very involved with the CEOs of other states. I just had an email pop up since we've been talking from one asking a question where are we're our own, our best resource for each other and many of us have known each other for a long time. You know, I was in government affairs for a State Association, a number of the state CEOs now were my colleagues as government affairs directors in their states and we've all moved up together and we've been friends for a long time and we meet at national meetings, but we also meet outside of national meetings every year just to share ideas and talk about what's working well for us. Because as you, no matter what industry you're in, if your colleagues are having an experience, you're going to have the same one eventually if you haven't already had it. So let's work together on how we're going to respond as a group or you know, how we can get ahead of the curve. So we're very close and we work really well together. I'm actually the national vice chair of the, uh, of all association executives this year. Local and state, the National Association of Realtors has an association executives committee community. And um, so next year I'll be the chairman of that and it's local and state CEOs.
JON: It sounds like you stay busy.
JOHN: I do. You know, yes.
JON: On the education side of things, it's always shocking how different every state can be. You know, between when they renew their license or what they required even to get your license. It's crazy how much it'll vary from one state to the next. So that's interesting to hear that the boards are also interwoven.
JOHN: You know, it's also interesting to hear how each state handles education to, you know, a state like Iowa. The state association basically handles education for all the local boards and it's a profit center for them in Missouri. I have a predecessor who basically got rid of the education department and said that's the locals job and we're not going to compete with them. But then we've done member survey research over the last few years to find out if you're a member of a large board like Kansas City or St Louis or Springfield, you're getting great educational opportunities. But if you're a member of one of those other 25 boards, you want your state association to offer some education. So we're somewhere in the middle.
JON: So what would you recommend for a newly licensed agent to do in the first few years of their career?
JOHN: You know, it would depend on maybe what local and what state you're involved in. But in our state where we have this structure that's very welcoming, so we encourage new members to come to our meetings. It's free. Our business conferences are free. We offer mentorship and scholarships even to help them get, even though it's free, we offer scholarships to help pay their way and for their hotel room as a first time attendee. And we get them there and have them realize that they can be part of the solution. And so we don't have old fashioned subcommittees that we're a popularity contest that you get appointed to. We have what we call output groups and there are what would be a subcommittee at another association. Our output groups are open to anyone who wants to be on it. So if the output group handling communication or the output group handling our pack or the output group handling economic development is doing something that you don't like, it's hard to complain because you could have been there. It's open to everybody and we find that it's a great way to get involvement because you have a seat at the table, whether you've been to 50 meetings or never attended a meeting, you're invited to attend and be part of that. And that's probably, it's a dream to think that a brand new agent would come to that. But we have 'em all the time. Um, it's more likely that you want them to do this same thing at their local board. Just start attending events, go to networking events. Um, if you came from another industry, which is so common in real estate, what made you successful as that mortgage banker or that news anchor or whatever it was, you did use that resource to make you successful at your local board. I tell new members that all the time. If you were the king of fill in the blank, your local board needs that in some way or another. It may not sound natural, but they may have a communications department, but you are a writer for a newspaper in another city or another state and you moved here because of a spouse transfer or whatever. Um, they can use you. They have a committee that deals with that. So become that indispensable resource that your local board and it'll, it'll pay off over time.
JON: Oh yeah. That's something I always find amazing about real estate is just how malleable it is. You know, any kind of previous experience can be moved towards success and real estate. It's really, it's really unique. All right. Uh, my last question, which is when I ask of all of my guests, if you could go back to the beginning of your career, what one thing would you have done differently?
JOHN: Uh, you know, I always say I don't have regrets, but at that time that I was getting my MBA and I was 22 years old, I do wish I had done a combined juris doctorate at the same time. And, um, I think a law degree in my profession, not as much being the CEO, but the lobbying that I did over the years, the 24 years, I think a law degree would have just supplemented that I did fine. But, um, it's a little easier to make those tough choices and work through the night and not sleep when you're 22 years old versus going back and doing that at a later time. So I do wish I had done that early on, but, but I still wouldn't say I have regrets. Yeah, it seems like you're doing great. Well, thank you again for joining me. This has been a great chat. If somebody would like to learn more about Missouri Board of realtors or if they're in Missouri would like to join a, how would they do?
JOHN: So we have a wonderful interactive website, um, MissouriREALTOR.org so they can find us there. Um, but also look up the local board of REALTORS. We have these 30 plus local boards that are all doing amazing things and um, we can help connect a new, a real estate agent to the right local association to get them started.