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Becoming a better broker – six lessons from J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler

Being a better leader often takes learning lessons from other industries and other leaders. This inspirational look at J. Crew’s CEO will leave you inspired to lead your own charge!

Being a better leader often takes learning lessons from other industries and other leaders. This inspirational look at J. Crew's CEO will leave you inspired to lead your own charge!

Above: the interior of the men's J. Crew in Tribeca, New York.

The eternal pursuit of improvement

In my mind, what separates true leaders from the pack is the eternal pursuit of improvement. In an era where Twitter has made some appear to be leaders and conferences have propped up egos, it is the elite few who are focused on this pursuit of improvement that are true leaders. They may not be on a stage near you, they may not be profiled in the NY Times, but they are leaders in their companies.

I have long been a fan of J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler and have read endlessly about his career, not because he collects real estate like art but because his personality inspires actionable goals. While much of the world looks at Steve Jobs as the quintessential CEO, I look to Drexler. Both are of the school of thought that there is an eternal quest for improvement.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal wrote a lengthy piece on Drexel that has had me inspired for quite some time. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it in full.

How to become a better broker, Lesson One:

Drexler was an executive at Gap prior to J. Crew and he cashed out. Big time. Drexler doesn’t have to work, he’s a millionaire, yet he obsesses over his work as if the day is never over. How many executives can say they never have to work a day in their life again, yet they suit up every morning? Few.

The lesson: Brokers, do you have to work every day, or is it an act of passion? There are brokers running small teams that became highly profitable years ago. Some made investments that even in today’s climate would allow them to retire. But they suit up every morning and fire up their business.

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Lesson two

Drexler is a very fast paced person, he relies on his instincts and teaches his staff to do the same. He has a sophisticated intercom system so he can speak to any of his 695 employees at any given time and impulsively checks his phone and computer for messages. He is extremely connected and personally handles endless communication, he welcomes direct feedback and responds to customers himself.

The lesson: Many brokers prefer not to speak to anyone but their assistant or the client in front of them. It is a prestige thing in this industry to be so big you don’t have to do that. Take a page from Drexler and handle your own communication. Will it mean extra hours at work each day? Sure. Does it mean his staff, production team, designers, sales people and ultimately consumers appreciate the access and feel tended to since they didn’t have to deal with a gatekeeper? Of course. And his team and customers are fiercely loyal to him for it.

Lesson three

What impresses me the most about Drexler is his “drop ins.” He visits physical stores four to five times each week. He rearranges shelves, he asks staff what is going on, and most importantly, in his unassuming J. Crew style outfits, he walks up to customers and without announcing who he is, asks what they think of the product. He asks what they’re seeing on the street and what they plan on wearing next season. But what is most inspiring about Drexler’s visits is that he makes changes in real time as he gathers intel first hand, not translated by a marketing group.

The lesson: Brokers need to be more hands on. You don’t see yourselves as retailers, but you are. Visit your properties every day, get angry when they’re not presentable, when your sign is crooked or dirty, when the flyer box is empty. Don’t let the homeowner be the one to tell your assistant to tell you something is wrong- know before they do. Be a retailer and obsess over the details. It’s not just about your damn Twitter profile picture, it’s about the box in that person’s yard- is it up to your standards and are you personally insuring that it is?

Lesson four

Drexler not only touches every step of the product from conception to the store windows, he is willing to experiment. Last year, Drexler was getting considerable feedback that brides were buying simple dresses in multiple colors for bridesmaids and his lightbulb went off and they’ve since opened a stand alone bridal store in NYC. Drexler doesn’t believe in “can’t” and is willing to experiment so long as it avoids distractions.

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The lesson: Be willing to experiment. In order to expand your business, is there a niche that is underserved that you know you could provide high quality services to? Is there a demographic that is growing and not being tended to? Are you able to switch up your focus based on live data, or as real estate tradition goes, does it take you a decade to shift gears?

Lesson five

Drexler still gets angry when he walks by a Gap. To this day. He was fired from his executive role and his best revenge, I believe, is that he has moved on and succeeded. Wildly. Drexler thrives at a smaller company and is extremely modest about his achievements. He doesn’t have time for the spotlight and takes his role at J. Crew very seriously.

The lesson: Brokers are getting distracted by shiny things and chasing after ghosts. Be okay with running a nimble company, it is no less prestigious, and don’t let the blue hairs convince you otherwise. Wherever your strengths lie, that’s where you belong and you should not covet what others have. If you don’t franchise, don’t get distracted just because there is buzz around someone else franchising, put your nose to the grind and shore up your existing services. Bigger is not always better and humility and success running a boutique may not go far at the Realtor luncheon, but it will wildly please consumers.

Lesson six

Drexler decided when he came to J. Crew that for a higher price point, consumers deserved to receive a higher quality product. His strategy revolves around “consumers aren’t stupid.” He chastises the CEO of Saks for lowering price points because they also lowered quality. Drexler believes that consumers see through that and has set out to provide higher quality products for that price point you’re used to at J. Crew.

The lesson: Many brokerages focus on growing team sizes and adding more agents most of all. Growth, growth, growth. It makes sense if you’re on the desk fee model, but if you’re on the quest for eternal improvement and your focus is service, you should think like Dexler- consumers aren’t stupid. If you offer them a rebate and sneakily reduce your services, they’ll sense the disservice. If you show them that you’ve added services to your offering yet kept your commission the same, they’ll appreciate that. And furthermore, when you add real benefits (I’m not talking the “we’re offering classes” or free koozies or “10% off at X store” gimmicks) for your agents yet keep their split the same, you’re tending to what is right and they’ll sense that.

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The takeaway

Brokers, always push for better and forget what the blue hairs say about you at broker opens. If you stay focused and always seek ways to improve your business based on your gut instinct rather than what the social media guru told you on stage last month, you’ll win. Obsess over the details, act like a retailer, manage your own communication lines and always focus on the consumer. Do that and it won’t matter the accolades or industry perception because you’ll be so well off that like Drexler, you’ll suit up every morning because you want to, not because you have to.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. elizabeth cooper-golden

    March 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Lani, Bravo! My favorite line that you wrote is: “Bigger is not always better and humility and success running a boutique may not go far at the Realtor luncheon, but it will wildly please consumers.” Yes!

    I was very disgruntled with the company I worked with after relocating to Huntsville from Nashville…They didn’t get it then, and don’t get it now. Bigger is NOT always better and the consumers are catching on. I let 3 agents go my first year. All 3 were great people, just not great agents. No one could believe I would do that, including me quite frankly. My vision is mine and I don’t have to bend to those that don’t believe in the model that I am forming. Some local competitors have made “light” of my “where the consumer comes first, always” branding. Poke jabs all you want. My agents are producing, a sure sign that the consumer likes us. The consumer deserves better and they realize there is a choice.

    My company is still a baby and I’m learning daily. I’ve had a few bumps and bruises along the way and will always be searching for ways to improve and make it a wonderful experience not only for the consumer, but also for my agents. My intent is never to be the biggest, but to be the best. Ya know…that 20% that does 80% of the business!

    I’m excited because I am now expanding so I can grow my culture…more on that later 😉

    • Lani Rosales

      March 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

      Elizabeth, I’ve very much enjoyed watching your brokerage grown from afar and your consumer focus is evident in all that you do- keep up the great work! 🙂

  2. Jay great falls Virginia

    March 25, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Wonderful piece…

  3. Lisa Heindel

    March 27, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I’m not a broker, but certainly you could substitute the word agent and get the same great lessons you’ve laid out here, Lani. It took me my first 5 years in business in the halls of a very traditional, old school local brokerage to figure out that this is my business, my company and I’m the CEO of it. So, I moved to a more progressive broker, formed a team and have focused on consumer education and internet lead generation as a model.

    I truly wish that all of my colleagues were on the same page, worried about the consumer instead of the next awards banquet or Realtor night out.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 27, 2011 at 11:51 am

      Lisa, you’re right that the words can be interchanged. In most cases, it takes running “in the halls of a very traditional, old school local brokerage” (or running Gap in Drexler’s case) to realize what the ideal path is. You and Drexler are right- if you worry about your trophies and not the consumer, you’re in the majority and consumers know they’re getting the short end of the stick.

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