A conversation with John McKenzie

07/28/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

John McKenzie grew up in the south Bronx and came to Kansas in the 1960s to attend college at a small Presbyterian college in Emporia and play baseball for the school as a walk-on player.

Today, McKenzie, 63, is the owner and chief executive of one of the area’s largest real estate firms, Coldwell Banker Plaza Real Estate, which has 88 licensed staff and two Wichita offices.

He’s guided the firm through one of the toughest housing markets in decades. But he said he’s enjoying the industry as much as he ever did because technological advances and the wants and needs of a new generation of agents and buyers are challenging him, his firm and the industry.

“It’s the most fun I have ever had in the business because … everything is evolving,” he said.

When you first came to Kansas to attend the College of Emporia and play baseball there, did you envision a career as a baseball player?

Baseball was not the primary reason I wanted to go to college. I am the first generation in my mother’s and father’s families to go to college. I just wanted to go to school. That’s what drove me more than anything else.

How has the real estate business changed during your time in it?

Really the best way it sum it up is to draw a picture of what it looked like in 1972 and now. The largest real estate company in 1972 probably didn’t have more than 42 agents. Today it’s 350. Interest rates were 7 percent. Today you can get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.5, 3.75 percent. There was a MLS (Multiple Listing Service) but none of us belonged to it. An agent had to get in their car and drive neighborhoods, look for a sale sign in a yard and write down an address. Today we have a viable MLS with cloud computing. Data and information is instantaneous. The future of our business and where it is today is we’re having to manage — and trying to figure out how to manage — four different generations (of employees) … with different wants and needs. (For instance) the Gen Ys require a lot more technology, innovation, social networking. There’s so many pieces to our business today it’s just incredible.

When you founded Plaza Real Estate in 1981, is this how you envisioned it would turn out?

No. Absolutely not. When we started the company in 1981 … there were 16 of us, and all of us were selling brokers. We just saw ourselves as independent agents. We never envisioned having more than one office and 16 agents. There wasn’t a master plan. It was just osmosis. We set high standards … we just became very discriminate in who we hired. And that’s how it evolved.

Is Plaza primarily a residential brokerage?

Initially that’s what we were. We currently have about nine associates who more than 50 percent of their activity is in commercial (real estate). We evolved into that. But I would say 80 to 90 percent of our business is on the residential side. The rest is commercial, and farm and ranch.

What’s the hardest part of being a real estate broker-owner these days?

Staying ahead of what’s coming down the road, trying to forecast and anticipate changes that are going to be needed. Constantly looking to be innovative. It’s all across the board. We’re having to be a lot of things to a lot of people. The biggest challenge is the consumer is evolving. The information they want, they want yesterday. Agents who aren’t responding in a timely fashion are probably going to lose out.

Likewise, what’s the best part?

The best part is that it’s constantly changing and … it makes us think outside the box.

How different do you think it would be to open a real estate office today versus when you did 31 years ago?

We opened the office with $8,800 and the most sophisticated piece of equipment we had was an IBM Selectric (typewriter) and a mimeograph machine. Today, to open a real estate office, the lowest-end office copier you couldn’t buy for $8,800. You couldn’t touch (opening an office) today for less than $100,000.

How would you characterize the current home sales market in the Wichita area?

Good. The market has evolved. We have just come off of three very difficult years in Wichita. For first time in three years we see a good foundation of properties on the market. What’s more important is the attitude of the buying and selling public is more upbeat, more positive, with a dose of realism. In other words, they know they have certain things to accomplish – good credit and a cash down payment. Pricing is becoming more realistic. Anything that is on market for more than 90 days is primarily the result of two things: price and condition.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

A lot of people don’t know that I’m a foodie. I love food and I love wines, and as you can see, this body didn’t get here through osmosis.

I know you enjoy playing golf. Have you had much opportunity to do that in the past few years?

When the market tanked in ’08 and the first part of ’09, I think that whole year I played four rounds of golf. In ’10 I played six rounds. So far this year I’ve played the most, 16 rounds since January. My only regret is I’m not playing more golf.

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