Asked to describe the Columbus housing market in 2015, Reynolds Bickerstaff is forthcoming, calling it “average.” In fact, he said, there may have been a few more homes sold in 2014 than in 2015.
“It’s a nominal amount, but I think what we need to be worried about is 2016 with Fort Benning’s reduction,” said Bickerstaff, referring to the local military post losing the 3rd Armored Combat Brigade Team and, ultimately, about 2,300 soldiers, with departing family members pushing the population loss to an estimated 6,500 people.
Such is the life of Bickerstaff, who as managing partner and chief experience officer of Waddell Realty in Columbus is tasked with sizing up situations and anticipating what might impact the business down the road.
It’s a role that he enjoys, operating the company of about 75 employees and agents alongside veteran real-estate broker Allen Parham. The firm was founded by Richard Waddell, who now manages his personal real-estate interests throughout the city.
But Bickerstaff, 37, isn’t only concerned with the real-estate market. He’s also chairman of Uptown Columbus, the downtown operational entity, and sits on the commission of the Columbus Water Works and the board of the Hughston Foundation.
With that expansive community connection as the backdrop, the Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Bickerstaff recently to discuss his job, the company he helps operate, and his passion for those extracurricular pursuits.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
First off, you have the title of chief experience officer? Did you create that yourself?
I borrowed it from someone else. Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s written a couple books, “Crush It!” and “The Thank You Economy,” and I think I read about it in another one called, “The Experience is the Marketing.”
I’m not saying that I do everything, but how can you just say CEO, president, chairman, whatever the title is? I want to be responsible for everyone that comes through Waddell Realty, be it an agent, a buyer, a seller, an owner of investment property where we manage your property on your behalf, or even a tenant and our employees. I’m doing things everyday to make sure they all have a great experience with our company. Let me tell you, if they don’t, they’re going to let you know immediately and that’s something that I take very seriously.
Yes, I gave myself the title CXO because I want them to ask about CXO. What is that?
How long have you been a partner with the company?
My partner is Allen Parham. He and Richard Waddell became partners in 2001 and they both invited me to become a partner in 2011. Then Mr. Waddell’s remaining shares were acquired, so now it’s just Allen and myself.
How did you get to this point in your life?
My family was in the brick business for a very long time and I always thought I’d start out at least mopping floors or something down there and work my way up. They sold the company as I was going off to college. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. So I started at Lynchburg College, transferred to Auburn and then moved to New York after I graduated with a finance degree, and thought I was going to get into investments with one of my roommates from Lynchburg.
After a little over a year I had gotten a great education in Manhattan. You learn a lot about yourself and a lot about business in a very short amount of time.
But I came back to Columbus also because the woman that I was dating, now my wife, we’d never lived in the same city. We decided that we should at least live in the same city to see if it was going to work. She was graduating in December and I moved home in January or February the following year.
You worked initially as a store manager at Kinnucan’s in Columbus?
While I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be, a friend of mine was running Kinnucan’s and I had worked there one or two summers in high school and college. I just asked him if I could help out or if there was something I could do. Then he sold his interest back to (founder) Charlie Kinnucan and obviously left and I, by default, became store manager.
Real estate wasn’t on your mind at that point?
Real estate’s not even on my mind and this was 2003. I just purchased my own house and it seemed like that was ... how should I say this? ... It didn’t seem like it was a very complicated process. I also looked at what the agent made and, my gosh, that was a quarter of my salary.
I knew I could learn a lot from Charlie Kinnucan. He was a great mentor and anybody that does retail sales knows there’s lots of lessons to be learned, especially with customer service. Lots of real-estate agents would come into Kinnucan’s and I got to know them and actually went and took some tests at the Pastoral Institute, the Meyers-Briggs DISC test and, I think, the third one was the FIRO-B test. They’re personality, skill tests that help you determine what you might be best suited for. I knew sales because my dad is a natural salesman; he was in sales at the brickyard.
On one of those tests it had three circles, and I can’t remember exactly what they were, but it was maybe sales, marketing and customer relations. Then it would insert professions that met all three of those criteria. Real estate was one of them and I think it was maybe the only one that involved all of those.
I didn’t want to sit in an office all day long — ironically that’s what I do a lot of now — and I wanted to always be learning something. That was really important ... I told Mr. Kinnucan that I was going to take the real-estate class at night at (Columbus State University). At that time, the auditorium was packed. I mean there were 90 people in that class.
The housing market was great at that time before the recession?
Yes, it was booming.
I asked Mr. Kinnucan if he would consider paying me a percentage of the Columbus store sales quarterly, as a bonus, if we exceeded a certain benchmark. Then I was also going to be taking the real-estate course. If he didn’t (offer the bonus) I’d be moving on to real estate. Well he didn’t, so I gave him my notice June 1 and started working at Waddell Realty right after July 4, 2004.
You passed the test on the first try?
I passed the test, yes I did, and the first try.
For anybody who’s thinking about real estate, is it a tough test?
It’s really not. It’s just vocabulary and terminology. There is some basic math. What I wish they’d taught you in that course was actually how to run a real-estate business.
Because each agent is, in essence, a little bit of a business person?
That’s right ... You have an independent sales person’s license. Once you pass that state test you do have to hold your license with a broker, but they’re not obligated by any state law to teach you anything. Obviously, if they’re investing in you, they’re going to offer training and guidance.
I really wish the real estate commission would add some chapters about building a business because in 2004 it was just (easy) sales — put a sign in the yard, it’d probably sell for 5 percent more than what you listed it within a week, if not in a couple days.
You didn’t have to be all that great at it?
Sometimes you didn’t have to take pictures. You knew it would sell before you put it on the market. It’s really gotten back to being a business where you need a business plan, you need to know how much money you can invest in your marketing budget and monitor your return on that investment. It’s interesting how much it has changed just in the last four, five years.
When the housing market started going downhill did you, at that point, wonder if you needed to be in real estate?
There’s a company called Hobbs/Herder Advertising and they’ve been, for the past 30 years, helping brand and market real-estate agents. One of their representatives came to our office to promote a seminar. This was 2007 and I asked Allen, my partner, who was my broker at the time, ‘Do you think I should go to this?’ He said it would be the best three days I’ve ever spent. I think it cost me $900 or something, which was a lot of money. I sat there and took more notes than I ever have at any seminar, any conference I’ve been to, and I came back with a full marketing package and brand for Reynolds Bickerstaff.
The reason I did that is I knew the market was changing and that I had relied (previously) on the market conditions to determine the success of my business. If the market was going to change, I was going to be forced to suffer with it or create a brand, some kind of business that could be successful in any market conditions.
That’s when I decided to specialize in the older home market. Yhey call it niche marketing, and I built a whole brand around that. (Hobbs/Herder) has helped us rebrand Waddell Realty and has now helped brand seven of our agents. That’s because now that you’ve got Google, you’ve got a vast Internet where 85 percent of the buyers are searching on their own.
Before they do anything else?
Before they even call someone. (It’s about) how are you going to stand out over and above someone else as a real-estate professional? There’s got to be a unique difference and it didn’t necessarily have to be a skill. It could be something you’re passionate about. A lot of the reasons we connect with people is because of a shared passion or hobby. You buy cars from this guy because you go to church. He’s in your Bible study or he coaches your son’s baseball team or you’re both members of the American Legion or VFW.
It’s about marketing. They taught me how to market myself, not market the property.
To make people realize you’re a human being, so they can relate to you?
In fact, how they would easily relate to me and how that would benefit them. People want to work with folks that they have something in common with.
Has it worked for you? Has it been the best money you ever spent on a career?
I firmly believe that it’s one of the main reasons that Allen and Richard invited me to become a partner at Waddell, because I told them that this is what I want to teach the agents at Waddell Realty. We never want to be the biggest. We just want to be the best.
If we wanted to increase our market share, we would need to teach agents how to control individual segments of the market. Instead of having 200 agents, we would have 15 or 20 agents that are dominant in individual markets, some that specialize in land, the athletic community, Harris County. Buyers and sellers want to deal with someone that specializes in the product that they’re trying to sell.
So, in a nutshell, how’s the local housing market looking?
It’s about the same as last year, I checked some numbers last week ... I’m talking about just number of units sold.
If you had to put an adjective to it, what kind of market would this year have been? Average or mediocre?
I would say average. There’s not much difference in ’15 than ’14. In fact, I think in ’14 we may have actually sold a few more houses. It’s a nominal amount, but I think what we need to be worried about is 2016 with Fort Benning’s reduction.
That’s a major concern?
It is, especially when you look at how many of them are renting, have been renting the homes of soldiers that were stationed here prior to their arrival.
Whether it was renting or they are owning, we’re not replacing them with someone. I love Columbus, I wouldn’t have moved back here if I didn’t. I see lots of opportunity for us. But we’ve got to bring in some other businesses that are growing and that can create jobs, because if a business is not growing, then it’s dying. It will be replaced with some other business a few years down the road. We can’t just solely rely on one sector to supply our workforce. That’s not fair to them. That’s not fair to the citizens.
Is that a common feeling among Realtors and the business community in general?
It is ... When you ask about the market and why I had a hard time giving you an adjective, if only 3,000 people are going to buy and sell real estate each year in our market, for my business to grow I’m going to have to pull market share from a competitor and they’re going to have to try to do the same thing. That’s not how I want to run a business.
I think if we all work together we can figure out ways to grow our population and grow the market. But at the end of the day, everyone’s got their own expenses to cover and they’ve got businesses they’ve got to run. Maybe some of those agents or some of those businesses are giving up business by not staying in touch with their clients. That happens every day in every sector.
But if everyone’s doing their job and staying in touch with their clients and their customers, we have a limited market for buyers and sellers in Muscogee, Harris, Russell and our portion of Lee County that we work. That’s because we’re not attracting folks like other communities are.
Does that mean Waddell Realty is thinking of expanding to Atlanta or elsewhere?
We’ve talked about that and I don’t think we’re there yet. We’ve got to bring some value to that marketplace (we enter). If you look at a Savannah, a Macon, those cities have similar qualities that we do as far as size and culture. You look at Auburn, Ala., and does Auburn ever stop booming? Every time I turn around someone’s coming back saying it’s great, I’m building houses or I’m opening up a restaurant. That corridor off I-85 has got a lot going for it, which is exciting.
Would you say we need a big corporation to announce a plant or headquarters in Columbus in 2016?
I’ll tell you, we need somebody that could use water. We need to look at what our natural advantages are and the commercial agents should be doing this. I know our new man at the chamber, Brian (Anderson), is going through their strategy on how Columbus can market itself in ways that other communities can’t compete with.
The Water Works has excess water capacity?
Yes. We can sell at least 40 million more gallons a day of water (than the city now uses).
Have city leaders marketed it like that in the past?
I don’t think they have. But that’s why we’re here. Columbus is here because of the river; the same thing with Phenix City. That was the life blood of the mills and that powered everything here. That’s how W.C. Bradley shipped cotton up and down the river. You look at everything that’s happening out West (with the drought), even just up in Atlanta with fighting over water usage and restrictions, and the EPD and EPA are coming out with new regulations every year. We have an amazing resource here that someone could use, a commercial user, whether it’s a bottling company or a brewery, someone could take advantage of that.
We could be the brewery capital of the Southeast?
I’m pretty sure they need water to make beer.
You’re also the chairman of Uptown Columbus Inc. What do you do in that role?
When I first started there (about seven years ago), really all I did was review financials. We went out and raised money to support the organization and we tried to have events. I don’t know if you remember, we didn’t have many events. When we started the concert series, it started with one concert.
Which are free events for the most part?
With this market, it’s hard to sell an outdoor event that’s ticketed. We’ve gotten people used to coming to the free shows ... But this is public property when you step out of this building. It belongs to the public and we’re managing and programming events in public space, and that does take support from other stakeholders, businesses, from the city.
Things have changed in recent years downtown?
I look at us as a manager, whether it’s managing a construction project, an event, expectations of the community, we spend a lot of time doing that. Now what we’re focused on is we’ve got all these events happening, which is amazing. We have tons of concerts, the market days. Now, we’re focused on getting more people down the river, getting more visitors here to experience all that we have. ... We really don’t even manage everything anymore. There are the runs; we have a 5K run almost every Saturday it seems. And there are the Tuesday night bike rides.
All we did was just help get things going and we’re now, not necessarily trying to move out of the way, but just sit back and let some of these businesses get involved with their customers and create their own unique experiences. That’s why people come down here. It’s because they want to experience something.
Has downtown developed as quickly and the way you thought it would?
Richard Bishop has done an amazing job. I don’t know how he does it and I’m worried about the day he leaves because he will be a very difficult person to replace. With our limited staff, they’ve done a great job at managing these events. The only thing that I’m disappointed in is that we haven’t really doubled the number of (whitewater) rafters. With any event or any business you have a very limited amount of time in which you can successfully double your numbers. Go from 10 to 20, 20 to 40, 40 to 80, and I had hoped that we would be closer to 100,000 people going down the river by now.
I’m very thrilled with the numbers that we do have, because some of them are going to the zip line that maybe wouldn’t be rafting. But when we get to 100,000 people going down the river, paying to raft ... they’ll spend a night or two, they’ll go to a restaurant, they’ll stop in a shop, they’ll go back home with pictures and they tell their friends about the awesome time they had in Columbus.
If you’ve ever gone down that river, man, there is nothing like it in this region. You can get out of the raft and walk to a restaurant. Any other river I’ve rafted you’re probably 30 minutes at a minimum away from a business.
But we’re not doing a good enough job telling the story about our river. We’ve made a significant investment, the city has invested, businesses and lots of private individuals and families have invested to make this happen. We simply need to do a better job telling people about it. Until that’s done, I won’t be satisfied.
So 100,000 rivergoers is the key figure in your mind?
It is, because that’s when you’re going to see a van and bus of yellow rafts doing laps (through the streets) and you’re going to see plenty of people everywhere ... You’ll see masses of people coming up the side streets looking around for what to do next.
How do you juggle operating the real-estate company with everything else you’re involved with?
I’m very fortunate that the organizations I’m involved with are very well run and have great staff and employees and leaders there.
What we decided to do when I became a partner at Waddell ... we hired a new office manager and a new accountant and we raised our expectations, but also raised the amount that we were willing to compensate someone for those duties. That’s allowed us to focus more on business development, our community obligations. If we did not have our office manager, our accountant and our property manager, I might not have had time to talk to you today because there’s a lot going on.
That’s important to me to help the community and serve and allow others to have the freedom to make some decisions, not all decisions, but make a lot of decisions without Allen and myself. We give them a lot of flexibility in doing that because it helps them grow and it helps us grow.
Talk briefly about being a member of the Bickerstaff family and business, a company that helped build Columbus brick by brick?
I’m the youngest on my father’s side. My granddad had a brother and they both ran the business until his brother passed away. Being around a family business, I learned very quickly what not to do. I learned a lot by the example they set on hard work. Making bricks is not easy. It’s labor intensive and it takes time.
I learned from my dad the importance of taking care of your customers and showing appreciation. He was in sales, but I guess if you want to give him a title back then, you’d call him chief entertainer. I’ve never seen anyone frown when you mention the name Rennie Bickerstaff. Everyone has a smile when you mention his name. But I learned that it’s really important how you take care of people, and it doesn’t matter what it costs, you should always do the right thing and treat people fairly.
I wish I’d had a chance to work there. I know it would have been fun and the brick business is still good. It’s gotten a little smaller and tighter, but I would have had fun working with my dad and my uncle ... and they did a lot for Phenix City job-wise.
Finally, with 2016 coming up, what’s your best piece of advice for someone buying a home and someone selling a home? What should they expect, what should they do?
If you’re selling a home in 2016, I would advise you to do everything you can to be perceived as the best value in your price range. People are looking for value, they’re not looking for a bargain. A bargain is something you don’t need at a price you can’t resist. Try to do everything you can to be perceived as the best value. That will ensure that you’re going to be one of the first sales in whatever your price range is. If you’re in the $150,000 to $175,000 range, what do you need to do to be perceived as the best value? Is it new siding? Is it new paint? Or whatever.
If you’re buying a home, I would think really long and hard about how long you expect to live there. If you don’t expect to live in that home for more than five years, I would recommend purchasing a home that you actually intend to rent out when you move.
If you’re not putting down a substantial amount of money, with 20 percent you’ll probably barely come close to breaking even in five years.
If you’re getting a mortgage, you’re really just renting it from the bank, but you have the authority to make any kind of modifications to it whatsoever. You can’t put a price on that, on making your own decisions.
We’re also trying to advise millennials. They can’t think beyond a year or two, and that’s fine. Don’t think about your forever house; buy something now when rates are low. You’re going to have to pay rent somewhere anyway; why not pay yourself rent and if you move to another city, or you move up the ladder career wise and you want to live somewhere else, you’ve got something you can rent out.
I wish I still owned the first house I bought. It’d probably be paid for by now. That was a little over 10 years ago.
Name: Reynolds Bickerstaff
Current residence: Randall Creek Farms subdivision in Midland area of Columbus
Education: 1997 graduate of Brookstone School in Columbus; attended Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., from 1997 to 1999; earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University in 2002
Previous jobs: Ad sales for publishing company in Manhattan, N.Y.; store manager with Kinnucan’s in Columbus; residential real estate agent with Waddell Realty; is now a partner and chief experience officer
Family: Wife, SaSa, and three children — daughter Bunny, 6, and 2-year-old twins, Rennie (boy) and Charlotte (girl)
Leisure time: Loves playing with children and laughing with his wife; also enjoys whitewater rafting, playing golf, hunting birds (quail and dove), reading and drinking craft beer
Of note: Currently is chairman of Uptown Columbus Inc., is a commissioner with Columbus Water Works, and a board member of Hughston Foundation. A tongue-in-cheek personal note — he holds the record for most consecutive wins of Halloween costume contests (“My mother made an amazing Gizmo costume, the fuzzy creature from Gremlins”)