By any measure, Paul Fincher has plenty on his plate.
The Columbus native is a successful real-estate agent who also operates a property investment company with business partner, Garrett Groce. He also owns a 70-acre farm in southern Harris County, where he’s building a home and raising a family, which includes a daughter adopted earlier this year.
Fincher, 35, also happens to be heavily involved with his place of worship, CrossPointe Church, where he serves as a worship pastor. He serves on advisory boards at Columbus State University and with the nonprofit organization, Warrior Refuge. And should we even mention he’s an amateur beekeeper?
If that’s not enough, the graduate of Columbus High, Columbus State and Troy University has a full-time “day job” as well, which would be director of operations for Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Davis, the Coldwell Banker affiliate in Columbus that has nearly 150 real-estate agents in its fold. In that position, Fincher’s focus is on supporting the company and its agents in the areas of marketing, recruiting and information technology services.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” he said in an apparent understatement during an interview about his job and his career path, which has included cutting grass with a lawn company, where he learned Spanish which would serve him well as a bilingual recruiting specialist at insurance firm Aflac. He also was a retail business manager with Cricket Wireless before deciding that path was not the one he preferred.
The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Fincher recently about his job and work experiences, where he spoke about how it can seem overwhelming at times. He also talked about what it’s like to bring seasoned and younger real-estate agents together so they may learn from each other to benefit both the company and their customers. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. First off, how do you manage to have enough time for everything you’re involve with?
A. If I’m honest, the last two or three months have really required me to be a lot more efficient with my time management, particularly with just having a healthy relationship with my family and making sure I’m spending enough time with them ... The first two months I was in the job, I was burning it at both ends of the candle, for sure.
Q. That can be a challenge for anybody juggling so many things, I take it?
A. There’s been a need for this (director of operations) position for a long time, so there’s a tendency to come in and survey the landscape and go, man, there’s 10 or 15 projects that could be worked on right now. And I want to prove to myself and prove to the folks that hired me that they made a good decision. You really want to create results quickly, but I’ve had to sort of say we’ve just got to bite off manageable chunks. What we’ve really tried to do is identify three to five major initiatives that are the most important things that we can be doing right now.
Q. Has it been a pretty easy transition since starting the job last summer?
A. I’ve had the luxury of working here before, so I’ve had a great relationship with all of these agents and brokers who work here. But you still feel like you need to show some tangible progress. There’s still some of that desire. We’ve got such a good, healthy organization, but there’s so many things that we can do better to bring value to the agents that are here. It was like, let’s lean in hard and get some of these low-hanging fruit items done early. So it’s been good to settle into a normal pace. We’ve got two or three major projects we’re trying to wrap up by the end of the year, but we’re past the hard work on that stuff.
Q. Why did you venture into real estate in 2012 after being with Aflac and a wireless company?
A. I grew up in Columbus and always just sort of assumed I would do one of two things. I would either go into ministry or I would do what every good Columbus kid does and that is go to college and come back and work at TSYS or Aflac or Synovus, then work my way up the ladder. I kind of worked in that sphere for a long time.
About 10 years ago I had been working for Cricket, which was the job I had before getting into real estate. Cricket was being bought by AT&T and there was going to be some sort of flux in my position. At a minimum my job was changing, but it was likely I was going to need to move if I wanted to stay with the company. But I’m just a Columbus guy. My family’s here. My wife’s family’s here. My church is here. We bought that farm a few years ago. So I didn’t have an interest in doing a move. And, frankly, I was just kind of tired of big corporate life.
Q. It was decision time?
A. A friend of mine, I guy I went to high school with named Garrett Groce, had been in real estate for a handful of years and was doing really well. His business partner was his wife and she was pregnant and was going to have to step away for awhile with the baby, and he just didn’t have enough capacity to handle the workload they had. So he said, ‘Hey, have you thought about real estate?’ I said, no. Everything I thought about real estate was late, middle-aged ladies doing open houses. That’s all I thought real estate was. So I sat down and talked to him and his stepdad Doug Duncan, who is one of our owners here, and I realized that my perceptions of what a real-estate career looked like were really wrong.
I was in a good spot and had a really, really low house payment, had just paid off my student loans from college, and thought, well, if I’m going to crash and burn from starting my own business, this is a good time. So I jumped into it and it’s gone remarkably well.
Q. You and Garrett are still together?
A. We are. On the sales side, I still work with Garrett, and then we have an investment firm also, Groce and Fincher Investments, where we own a small portfolio of rental properties and we do flips and stuff like that.
Q. What are your thoughts on the real-estate market in general?
A. When I first got into this we were working primarily with banks that had foreclosed on properties, so we represented Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo, Regions. We did some (Veterans Administration) foreclosures. In 2012, the foreclosures out there were dictating the market because anywhere you lived — whether it was Green Island Hills or in a lower price area; if you were in Brookstone or Windsor Park, it didn’t matter — you were competing with foreclosures.
The recession was so impactful that folks who wouldn’t normally go into foreclosure through financial hardship (did so). It was affecting people at all different levels. We made a living for the first three or four years just working with banks, and then I kind of realized again that it was kind of like working for a big corporation, because these foreclosing banks wanted marketing reports and broker price opinions. As the market started to turn, we began to have a lot of just regular clients, which was the main reason I got into this, and that’s to help people I knew and cared about.
Q. How did it go from there?
A. In 2014, we started transitioning out of foreclosure work and we started to see some of the bulk of foreclosure inventory come down. One of the biggest things that sellers are seeing the benefit of now is that in any given neighborhood or price bracket, the amount of inventory that you’re competing with that’s foreclosure inventory is either non-existent or much, much lower. You really have a true, regular resale market. It just puts everybody on an even playing field. If I’m a seller and I’ve got to get a certain dollar amount (from my house sale) and I’m competing with a bank that’s just got to get rid of it, it’s a hard place to be.
So as the inventory has come down from a foreclosure standpoint, we have seen inventory overall go down. The demand goes up and prices are starting to rebound. It’s still very cyclical. The busy season is still the spring and the summer. But I got into it (in 2012) not knowing what a healthy market was. Of course, the people that have been doing it a decade or so or longer, they go, ‘Oh, man, you wouldn’t believe what it used to be like.’ It’s still not like that, but to me it’s great because it’s better than it was during the first two or three years that I came into it.
Q. What would it take to get the market back to a seller’s market such as that prior to the Great Recession?
A. We need more buyers. About 42 percent of homebuyers right now are Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s). That number is going to continue to grow. In Columbus, we’ve got some of these fringe areas of new construction, like Ladonia and Fort Mitchell, where those have kind of eaten away some of the buyers for middle (priced) Columbus resale-type stuff. But the more buyers we can get through job growth — and I don’t mean lower-income job growth — there are going to be folks that are going to buying from the $120,000 and up range. That’s really it. Because the number of buyers drives demand, which drives the pricing.
Q. So the Millennial generation will be making more of an impact on the market in some way?
A. You’ve got a lot of buyers coming into the market now. Whereas 10 years ago you were always told that real estate was a safe investment and that most people’s wealth was in their homes, the mentality of a lot buyers now is not that, especially the Millennials because they were coming of age during the recession, when people were losing their shirts. So I think there’s a higher propensity that people have to rent and to maybe be long-term renters. It’s just going to take some increased confidence in real estate as an investment. I’m going to sound like a real-estate agent right now, but I think that’s why it’s really important for people to use a real-estate agent, one that cares about them and understands the market values.
Q. Describe your mission as director of operations and what it entails?
A. The company’s always been focused on this, but I think our primary goal right now is to figure out how can we create the most value possible for agents who want to be a part of our team. And when we do that, when we give them meaningful resources that they can use to better their business, it by default serves our (home-buying and home-selling) clients.
We’re also looking at resources that we’ve been spending money on for a long time and that probably don’t match the market today. For example, in 2007, we made a pretty heavy investment in a technology called Voice Path. You’ve probably seen the signs in front of a house for sale and you dial a number and get some information on the house. Year after year we’ve been paying for this service, which is like a hotline and it will connect that customer to a real-estate agent on the other end. But another thing came out in 2007 and it was the iPhone and the market share of people with smartphones is now through the roof. So (Voice Path) is just not an effective technology now to be providing our agents. We’ve unhooked from that and we’re hooking into more web-based stuff, like Zillow.com leads and Realtor.com leads, and providing agents with technology tools that can help them market better and maintain connections with their database better. A lot of it right now is determining how to create value for agents and then implementing those projects.
Q. How do your days generally go?
A. On a general basis, there’s a lot of day-to-day stuff like looking at whatever IT problem we’re having and coordinating with our IT folks and looking at training gaps we’re having and coordinating with our training folks. But we’re still very much at a 35,000-foot level, just kind of surveying everything. But we’re also taking dips down into areas. So we’re launching a customer relationship management program between now and the end of the year. We just brought our entire organization onto Google Suite (intelligence apps). Every agent here has enterprise-level Google Suite service. So it’s implementation stuff like that.
But a lot of my days are working through complex problems and trying to find solutions and, all the while, we’re still managing one of the busiest real-estate sales teams in the city. So it’s a handful right now and it’s a lot of fun and I don’t know that I would do it any other way.
Q. You’re working with veteran and newer agents. How are you approaching that dynamic?
A. We have agents here that are some of the most successful in town and they’ve been here for decades. I think Linda Campbell — we were trying to calculate it up, she’s helped thousands and thousands of families. But you have a lot of these veteran agents who understand that even though they’re very, very good at writing a contract, and they’re very, very good at serving a client, and they’re very good at listing a property and knowing where the price needs to be, there are gaps in sort of doing the marketing today, whether it’s social media or interactive media and digital. It’s been really encouraging to me because some of my biggest advocates for the stuff that we’re doing here are these veterans agents who see the value of it. It has also been neat to interface with these seasoned agents who have had incredibly successful careers that can teach me a lot about the practice of doing real estate, and come along beside them and see them really want to change and modify their business.
Q. And the newer members of the staff?
A. The younger agents pretty much all intrinsically get it. I think that they’re part of a generation that has lived with social media and lived with interactive media. But it’s still very easy for them to miss the boat on some of the in-the-trenches work it takes to be a good real-estate agent. So it’s been neat to see both sides of the coin, and sometimes we’re trying to partner younger agents with older agents to sort of shadow and learn from each other.
Q. How many real-estate agents can the Columbus-area market support?
A. The market will support more good, knowledgeable, professional agents. In any given year, there’s about 7,000 to 7,500 people in the community who are either going to buy or sell a home. That’s if you took 3,500 or 3,700 transactions — there’s a buyer in that transaction and a seller. And the number of agents in Columbus is up. I checked the other day and it’s between 600 and 630 people that have licenses with the Columbus Board of Realtors
Really, for an agent to be successful, if they can get 25 or 30 of those 7,500 transactions, where they’re representing one of those folks, they can be pretty successful. That’s if they’re a good agent that cares about their clients, that knows how to market, that’s using the tools that are available to them, and listening to the training and trying to develop and grow their business. There’s plenty of room to grow for that type of agent.
Q. Do you see yourself making another career transition or is real-estate your life now?
A. If somebody would pay me a pretty good salary to fish or hunt elk or farm, or if I could get my beekeeping ramped up to where my cost per jar was less than about $500 per jar of honey, then I may transition out. (laughs) But I just told my business partner, Garrett, the other day that I just can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I don’t know what else I would do. I enjoy this. I make a good living doing this. I’ve got a lot of flexibility. And, honestly, one of the coolest things for me is I genuinely feel like I have the opportunity to take some knowledge that I have and use it to benefit somebody. It’s been for the longest time me helping my clients, and now it’s me helping agents who are then helping their clients. So it’s pretty gratifying, and it pays the bills and is flexible.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
A. It really is like in most small to medium businesses, and that’s how I see the size of our company … It’s just way more complex as a manager-director of the company now. I never really understood how complex it is and how difficult it is to prioritize the most important things, and to do that in a way that’s meaningful and brings value to people. I think it’s just sort of shuffling all of that around, and we don’t have the luxury of having a person on staff for every single little role like you would at a large corporation. So you have to wear a lot of hats.
You’ve got to be pretty flexible and nimble, and there’s only so many hours in a day. So I think it’s just going home and not feeling overwhelmed and being able to give quality time to my wife and kid, and that can be challenging. But it’s also rewarding because it’s the type of job that if my son’s got a soccer game, I can go to the game. I’ve got the flexibility to do that.
Q. Finally, what do people considering a real-estate career need to ask themselves before taking it on? And what skills do they need?
A. There’s two things I would say to anybody that’s thinking about real estate. Number one, you don’t ‘try’ real estate. If you ‘try’ real estate, you’ll probably fail. You’ve kind of got to give yourself to doing it. And if you make the decision that you want to give yourself to doing it, then I think you have to, have to, have to start right. Just getting a license is not how you start right. You’ve got to think very strategically about how am I going to learn to do this job well, because the Georgia Real Estate Commission license course is good at teaching you the legal ins and outs of how to not break license law. But it is terrible at teaching you how to run a real-estate business. And if you don’t know how to run a real-estate business, you’ll do what the majority of new agents do and you’ll last about a year and then be out of it.
In terms of the (skill) prerequisites, I would say it would be hard for me to find anybody, if they just had any personal skills at all, and they really genuinely cared about people more than they cared about a commission (payment for a sale), and if they’re willing to work and willing to be trained and have some interpersonal skills, we can take just about anybody and make them a successful real-estate agent. That’s just because there’s enough business out there for folks that care about people and that want to do their job well to make a good living buying and selling real estate.
Current residence: Currently building a home on a small farm in Cataula, Ga., just north of Columbus
Education: 2000 graduate of Columbus High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in Spanish from Columbus State University in 2005; earned a master’s of science degree in management and organizational leadership from Troy University in 2010
Previous jobs: Retail business manager with Cricket Wireless, bilingual recruiting specialist with Aflac, and even further back, was a grass cutter at Mac's Landscape, and a janitor at Evangel Temple
Family: Wife, Rebecca, and two children — son, Michael, 4, and daughter, Betsy, 6 months, who was adopted in April from El Paso, Texas
Leisure time: Spends a lot of time outdoors, hunting, fishing, farming and working on his family’s 70 acres of land in Cataula; he’s also trying to visit all of the National Parks with his family
Of note: Has been worship pastor at CrossPointe Church in Columbus since 2005; is on the advisory board for CSU’s Department of Communication; and is on the advisory board for the non-profit organization,Warrior Refuge; he also happens to be an amateur beekeeper