“Success is a recipe that includes different ingredients”

Pragmatic prowess from Ralph Stephen, president of Royal LePage Atlantic

For more than 30 years, Nova Scotia-based Royal LePage Atlantic has served the eastern-most region of Canada with real-estate-brokerage services. Ralph Stephen joined the firm in 1999 and became president in 2003. He’s seen the best and worst of times. After a period of robust growth, the company experienced the downturn in the global economy, which hurt the industry. Still, Royal LePage thrives, and it has expansion plans. Stephen, who attributes the company’s positivity to its people, talked to Advantage about Royal LePage’s past, present, and future.

Advantage: What attracted you to Royal LePage?
Ralph Stephen: This company was going places. When I came on board in 1999, I was at a career juncture. I sought new opportunities. The company was in a growth mode. So we were on the same track, seeking the next level. It worked out well.

Indeed. You’re now its leader.
In 2003, I was appointed president, which represented a culmination. I’ve been in real estate for 22 years and have learned every aspect of the business.

During your tenure, the company has experienced significant growth. How did you achieve this?
Don’t give me credit. Several things happened. We either merged with or acquired companies that shared our values, and we recruited the right people. Our management and sales people are equally responsible. Success is a recipe that includes different ingredients. I’ve partnered with people who added ingredients.

In fact, some partners are former competitors?
Exactly—people like Carl Sherwood and Jim Ouellette.

That’s one of the most interesting elements of the story. Why join up with the competition?
Like-minded people attract one another. They seek to accomplish the same thing, and it’s better to be stronger together than apart.

What is Royal LePage’s niche?
We serve two client sets: brokers and sales associates on one side and the general public on the other. Our charted course is to be North America’s undisputed leader in real-estate consultation. Currently we focus on Atlantic Canada, but our ambitions include expanding into the northeastern United States.

How will you do that?
By continuing to do what we’ve always done: recruiting the industry’s top talent and seeking strategic acquisition opportunities.

What are some of the challenges involved?
Canada is undergoing a real-estate metamorphosis. Much change is afoot. What’s happening here previously happened in the United States. There are new and numerous scenarios. For instance, a lot of low-value providers have jumped into the marketplace.

This has to do with recent global economic circumstances?
Yes, they’re exploiting the circumstances. At the same time, that creates opportunity for us, because of the position we’ve gained and the reputation we’ve established. The past three years have been a learning experience, about running a business in a down market. When the revenue tap shuts off, you have to make a lot of hard decisions. I learned so much more about the industry, about the people around me, and about myself.

How did Royal LePage shift gears to address such changes?
We turned a negative learning experience into a positive one. Our defining value is consultation—the advice we provide. You can’t commoditize consultation. As the market moves forward, there will be bigger demand for organizations that can clearly articulate a value proposition in a way that can be easily understood by the client. The client wants to know the value of the fee charged. Clarity in transaction—that’s going
to differentiate one company from another.

That involves your personal mission: to positively influence peoples’ lives?
Yes, but I don’t want to celebrate myself. I want to celebrate the people I work with. I perceive my role as a CEO a bit differently. True, my responsibility is to run the business, but that can mean different things to different people. Whether I’m dealing with an officer manager or a sales associate, I go out of my way to be a sounding board, or to be a mentor in an industry that lacks mentoring. I’m passionate about passing on my knowledge.

What are your goals?
To grow our business, to expand our coverage area, and to be the undisputed leader as far as consultation. Everything we do relates to those goals. Any decision I make—whether it involves hiring support staff, financial administration, or establishing new business premises—is part of a shared vision. You execute vision by recruiting and retaining top talent. Everything will fall into place.

In these rough times, what are necessary qualities in a leader?
In challenging times, people need leaders to be authentic. It’s more than just saying that things will be okay. It is incumbent for leaders to not only have a corporate vision but a personal vision. I clarified my vision. If you can’t do that, people won’t perceive you as an authentic leader.