On Keller Williams as an Extended Family, Values and Changing People’s Lives
“Did you start your day with a hug?” Well, you probably should have. William Soteroff, a true leader, an entrepreneur, an expert in franchising, and a motivational speaker, is a strong believer in the seven hugs per day practice. I would characterize him as a man of contrast and clarity at the same time. Contrasts as to his life story which took him from an archeology student to an accountant and eventually to real estate, followed by leaving the most successful company as he did not feel the values and people were respected, to join and help build Keller Williams, the biggest real estate franchise with more than 180 000 real estate agents in 950 Market Centers. Clarity as to the values and his walk the talk authentic leadership. He was born in Canada, but currently lives in Austin, Texas. He connects the seemingly unbridgeable in bringing values, modern technologies and community spirit to an industry that we tend to associate with solo-entrepreneurs, one-time deals and traditional haggling approaches. Our interview held at the opportunity of Keller Williams entering the Czech market, turned into amazing and enlightened discussion about history, business and leadership. We ended with a hug.
Great leaders can be recognized by the ability to connect, by showing a genuine interest in others, by their capacity to inspire others and last but not least by creating a comfortable environment in the volatile world of today. After I witnessed Bill launching the first official training day for KW market center agents, I fully understood why KW was mentioned as the no. 1 training organization across all industries, no. 3 on list of happiest companies to work for in 2017 by Forbes and one of the top 50 Franchise for Women.
Bill, welcome to Prague. The Czech Republic joined a big family of KW on June 4, 2018. How do you perceive the Czech Republic?
I truly feel connected to your country and to the region in many ways. I was born in Canada and since my childhood, I have been interested in history. Already as a school boy, I followed the news of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Growing up in Canada, I knew many famous Czech immigrants, such as famous Tomáš Baťa or Tomáš and Marie Jelínek, the famous ice-skating pair siblings, who did not want the Canadians to forget what happened in 1956. As a high school student, I witnessed, albeit from distance, 1968 Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet Occupation. I remember that when I went to Berlin, from the West part I was allowed to visit, I could not see the front side of the Brandenburg Gate. I want to share with you the most amazing moment I had when my daughter took me back to Berlin recently and I was able to see the Brandenburg Gate, as I had never imagined I would live to see the regime change. And by the way, in 1989, I was working in neighboring Austria so again I had a chance to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent Velvet Revolution from the region. Every city I visit, I want to know what happened there. Therefore, the first place I have visited in Prague was the church of Cyril and Method where the parachutes died after assassination of Heydrich.
My next question is about the current real estate market. I will refrain from the traditional question whether to buy or sell, rather I am interested in trends and outlook.
This is a question I am always asked. Everywhere in the world, people want to live in a house or an apartment and they always want to improve the living conditions. The challenge is that you do not know exactly how much your place is worth. That is why you need an expert to find out the exact price. The economy in today’s world changes so dramatically, that within just a couple of weeks, the price can skyrocket or plummet. I see three really good economies in Europe, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. The Czech market place is very robust and strong. But I always make sure people are cautious. Like men’s ties go wider and thinner or women’s dresses go longer or shorter, do not get too comfortable in any economy with a long period of recovery. Keller Williams leader and founder Gerry Keller points out that the shift in the economy will come eventually. Our job, as real estate agents, is to know when the shift is coming and it’s necessary to help our clients during the shift. Do not believe that the shift will not happen. Politicians seem to be always surprised but we as experts must be ready to advise properly.
You mentioned that this is the perfect time for Keller Williams to enter the Czech market. However, the main reason is not the current stage of the economic cycle, but the leadership represented by Jana Hrstková, the Czech market leader and Operating Principal of KW.
(Note: Those who know Jana Hrstková personally, are aware that she is one of the most modest people when it comes to her achievements. However, she has made a successful career, both as an entrepreneur and a lawyer. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the President of Harvard Alumni Club. With her passion for art, she is also on the Board of Jan and Meda Mládková Museum Kampa Foundations, a co-organizer of Burn’s Night in Prague, a founder of several start-ups with her husband, and a great mother).
My job is to look and search for the great leaders. Jana, being an excellent lawyer, and, entrepreneur, has gone through the challenging one-year process to launch the Market Center. Under the auspices of Keller Williams Systems, she has successfully formed a business within the Keller Williams system and she became the Operating Principal. She works closely with the Regional Director who is responsible for growth and the Regional Administrator. She found another great lady, Jarmila Rádlová, who will lead the first franchise Keller Williams Prague Prime and they also engaged 24 market center agents.
As you can see, our systems are more advanced, not relying on usual individual or a couple scheme opening a real estate office. We did not allow Jana to open the market prior to nine months of coaching and training, including several visits to Austin, Texas and finding the right people. Why? One person cannot change anybody’s mind. Currently, we have one market with 24 market center agents, my expectations to have four market centers quite soon. I have mentioned during the press conference that the future belongs to females and we are proud that we have Jana Hrstková and Jarmila Rádlová as visionary women leaders at Keller Williams.
You are known to attend every KW family reunion that each country holds. How many trips have you scheduled for 2018?
This is the question for my wife! She will know for sure. She is the most important person in my life. By the way, in July, I will be celebrating my 38th wedding anniversary. Let me get back to your question. In 2018, I have travelled about 180 000 kilometers. I have attended family reunions in Portugal, USA, Spain, Mexico, Turkey, and South Africa. I have visited 10 more countries. In last ten days, I have visited South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and now I am in Prague. The most important thing for me was to see hundreds of people who were coming to get special training, advanced education and were part of Keller Williams culture. Real estate agents are everywhere, some are better, some are not so good. As I mentioned, at Keller Williams, we offer training, education and the culture exchange that makes the difference. Yesterday, I witnessed a special moment. Imagine ten people having a conversation in different languages but at one moment they all simultaneously said: Keller Williams. I stopped them and mentioned that this is the momentum I want to create. We have representatives from countries where we are present or where we will launch our franchise, we have agents, we have market center leaders, regional leaders but altogether we are Keller Williams as one family.
You are successful in whatever you do. As a leader, an entrepreneur, an expert in franchising, a motivational speaker. Why did you choose the traditional business of real estate, as opposed to trendy areas of law, finance, politics or science and technology?
Except my wife, no one has ever asked me. I met my wife at university and I was studying archeology. I quickly learned that you cannot eat dirt. There were no wealthy archeologists I knew at that time. As you probably noticed throughout our discussion, I still love archeology and I have a passion for art and history. Then I wanted to enter politics because I wanted to change the world. I worked with the government for a while and I realized that politicians do not want to have vision and change the world. Governments do not create businesses. People do. When I wanted to get married and have a family, I looked for the most stable business. Guess which? I went into accounting. Can you imagine me in an office with 70 men, all lined up at little desks and working on big machine calculators? No one talked, no one moved, they just sat and were doing…accounting. One day I left after my lunch break and never came back. I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I also needed some stability. I got married and I joined the Canadian construction company which provided the stability but also allowed me to bring my entrepreneurial spirit. By the way, I currently teach this very subject “Corporate Entrepreneurs” at the University of Colorado. After 10 years I learned a lot and experienced both side of cycle, as we discussed before. On December 22, I got a message from the CEO about the recession coming and the need to reduce the staff by 30%. I had 16,000 people working for me at that time and I had to get rid of thousands of them. They did not do anything wrong, it was not their fault and many of them had became as close as my family. Companies never reduce payments to shareholders, they never sell property. They always reduce people. I hate that. In 1987, I gave the list with three names – the one of the CEO, the president’s name and my name. I said: “We are supposed to be leaders and we are the ones who did not prepare the rest for the change.” My wife mentioned: “Do you know that we have one year old daughter? And I replied: “I am doing the right thing because I believe that people are truly valuable”. By people, I mean team members, employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers. They should be treated equally, and nobody should be put in front of anybody else. In the US, where I live now, you hear mostly about shareholder value. I often ask and what do we do for team members and all employees? When recession comes, I always suggest reducing shareholders. If you reduce the employees, you reduce your business. To make the long story short, I joined the real estate business, RE/MAX company. I was responsible for RE/MAX Europe and RE/MAX International 98 countries. I left because I did not believe in the company anymore. Keller Williams called me five years ago to develop new markets for them. I said no as I had not heard about them before. They had been quite persistent and kept calling for about a year: “Come and visit us”. I went, and I found everything I had been looking for: valuing people, developing the culture, having a vision for the future. The one thing I regret is that I had not joined 20 years ago.
KW has been mentioned as the no. 1 training organization across all industries. No. 3 on list of Happiest companies to Work for in 2017 by Forbes and one of the Top 50 Franchise for Women. Is the secret sauce of Keller William the notion that you are not a mere organization, you act more like a family?
I joined Keller Williams when I was 58. I had a fear of failure, like everyone has. I moved to a new city, there was a different company culture, I did not know the people, I was not sure if I could be successful again. I met the company founder, Gerry Keller, and I heard: Fail often and fail forward. I replied: “Where have you been all my life?” I have been afraid to fail. We all are. The more often you fail, the more you will learn and the more you will do well. Every month we discuss not only successes but also failures. Good leadership shows how you deal with things that did not go well. What does it mean for my team? It gives us strength, power and confidence. We are afraid of nothing. Now, it is my job to support 33 countries in the world. We have monthly calls, quarterly business reviews, we get together up to six times per year and we openly shared what we tried and what worked or did not work. We do not work in isolation. Jana and the Czech team is supported by colleagues around the world. Jana will be featured in both our annual meetings in August 2018 and February 2019 and I want her to share her story. I have four other markets opening and they will learn a lot from her. To all newcomers to Keller Williams I say three things: “I want you to be part of the worldwide family Keller Williams. I want you to learn the systems and models that we have to work as estate agents. I want you to feel confident that you are not by yourself. And I want you to be successful, so you can make more money to take care of your families.”
Bill, thank you for one of the most amazing interviews I have ever done.
Following on what you said about the future belonging to females, I will ask Jana Hrstková for the final words for Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers.
I will follow up on the Bill’s words. Come and visit us at our inspiring premises at Václavské náměstí 3, Prague 1. Whether you are looking for a place to live, whether you are selling, and you need a trusted estate agent or even if you are considering a career change. The extended family of Keller Williams has a lot to offer to everyone.
By Linda Štucbartová