It’s hard to imagine anyone with more success than Gary Keller, founder of Keller Williams Realty. Now with 83,000 employees worldwide, the company he brought to life 27 years ago was named the top real estate franchise in the country in 2009 by Entrepreneur magazine.
That honor just tops a long list of accolades: The Wall Street Journal named Keller Williams Realty to its Franchise High Performers list in 2006; Keller himself was voted one of the Five Most Admired People in a recent Real Trends magazine survey and named one of the 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders by Inman News in 2006; in 2004, Keller was a finalist for “INC.” magazine’s Entrepreneur of Year.
In addition, Keller has written five books about how to succeed in the notoriously fickle profession of real estate, including four bestsellers.
What makes the 53-year-old, limelight-shy real estate icon even more remarkable is that he is not just successful in business, but he is also successful in life.
“I’m a values-driven person, not a goal-driven one,” he said. “I think about what is important to me in life, the things that are the most valuable. If these things are important to me, then they are probably important to other people, as well. Those things should be a part of how we live and how we do business. That’s how my life bleeds into my business life.”
The subtitle to Keller’s first book, “The Millionaire Real Estate Agent,” says it all: “It’s not about the money.”
For Keller, success is about finding balance and purpose to life. It’s about family and community and working together. It’s about challenges and courage and learning to shift through the never-ending changes that come our way. It’s all about building a life of value.
“I don’t work for money; I never did,” he said. “I work for passion.”
His story and the story of Keller Williams Realty weave a tale fraught with challenges and change. Make no mistake about it; the man has faced some tough times. He has turned challenges into opportunities and built a career on finding creative ways to run a business and creative ways to compensate people for their helping him do that.
“The blessing in my life is that I went through a lot of real challenges early on,” he said. “It led me to get in touch with my real self.”
Armed with a degree in real estate and marketing from Baylor University in 1979, Keller immediately proved his metal. It was a terrible time to enter the real estate business. Interest rates for home loans were at 10 percent and quickly skyrocketed further to 20 percent. Home sales across the county dropped to half of what they had been. None of that affected Keller’s outlook. He sold five houses in his first month in business in Austin. By the time he hit 25, he was vice president of expansion at Austin’s largest real estate company. He left that all behind to start his own company in 1983.
“I left because, buried deep down in my consciousness was the desire to build a company where people come first,” he said. “People should always come first.”
Keller has often said he and his colleagues launched Keller Williams Realty out of his house in Austin as a kind of grand experiment.
“I had an idea that the best way to run a real estate company would be to partner with the agents and do everything possible to help them build their careers,” he said. “Their success would build the company. I wanted to see if it would work. I felt that real success depended on the company serving the agents, not agents working for a company.”
That was a radical way at looking at running a business, particularly a real estate company, back in the 1980s.
“Gary sees the company from the standpoint that he has been lifted up by his people,” Mark Willis, Keller Williams Realty chief executive officer. “That was an interesting philosophical paradigm shift. That’s different from how real estate companies were 20 years ago.”
The first two years saw Keller Williams Realty double its initial 30 employees. Then the real-estate world changed. In 1986, the bottom fell out of the Austin real estate market. Five of Keller Williams Realty’s top 10 producers left for another real estate company.
“When the economy crashed, I had to reinvent myself and my company,” Keller said. “I needed to make more money or get into another line of business where I could. That’s when I became a person who created models and structures.”
As Keller looked at reinventing his company, he made what has become a trademark move when he approaches any new challenge or idea – he sought the input of others with experience. He met with his associates and asked them what it would take to build a company that no one would ever want to leave. What they created together was what Keller Williams Realty remains today – a company built on a value system and a way of life.
“At the heart of what drives Keller Williams are responsible business models that produce a profit and a culture that really values and respects the people,” Willis said. “Make no mistake about it, Keller Williams is a really good business model that is wrapped up in a feel-good culture. Neither one of those things in and of itself is going to succeed at a remarkable level. But you put the two together, and you have an award-winning formula.”
Keller’s ability to rise above challenges and embrace change has helped define him.
“It’s tempting to be defeated by bad breaks, but the reality is that every break is an opportunity, an opportunity to go up or down,” he said.
In the midst of the business turmoil he faced in 1986, Keller’s personal life also hit rough ground. His first marriage ended in divorce. The personal and professional setbacks shook the 29-year-old businessman to his core.
“I realized that I had been thinking small,” he said. “I had led a very limited life, and I didn’t even realize it. Then I had all these problems, and they forced me to re-examine myself. I came out a different person. I created a new life. It’s a life of choice.”
Keller gives a lot of credit for shaping a happy life to his wife, Mary Pfluger.
“She is all about love,” he said. “When I met her, I changed from a hollow, goal-driven person to a value-driven one. It was a meaningful journey.”
Much of Keller’s philosophy about life and his value system come from his personal spirituality say his friends.
“Gary is a person of real faith, and he thinks about what the demands of that faith mean for his life,” said Doug Fletcher, Keller’s friend and former pastor at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church. “He doesn’t flaunt it, but it is very much a part of who he is.”
That faith coexists with a well-developed sense of right and wrong, said longtime friend and Austin attorney Kim Brightwell. He and Keller grew up together in Houston. They played football and mowed lawns together. They manned the debate team in high school.
“One of the things I really admire about Gary is that he is about doing what is right and what should be done,” Brightwell said. “He just wants to do the right thing, and he doesn’t care what kind of labels people put on him for doing it.”
Even in elementary school, Keller was not one to go along just to get along, Brightwell said.
“If something was going on that wasn’t the way it should be, Gary wasn’t going to let it slide,” he said. “If we walked past a group that was picking on someone else, he was going to stop and get involved. He was going to take a stand.”
Like his business models, Keller’s books contain powerful business strategies. They also contain a lot of human philosophy. That comes naturally to Keller.
“I was a pretty questioning child,” he said. “I wanted answers. I sought out my own path, and I have never stopped.”
At his heart, Keller is both a philosopher and a teacher, according to his friends.
“I actually think that is his true passion – to teach others,” Willis said. “He cares more than any other teacher I have ever known. That genuine caring empowers him to reach people. They listen.”
But Keller really isn’t comfortable being singled out for applause.
“I am a reluctant figure head, a face for the company,” he said. “No one succeeds alone. The leader that hogs the spotlight isn’t much of a leader.”
In the end, Keller said, he is just a man trying to bring purpose to his life.
“I wake up every day and try to fulfill that purpose,” he said.
Early on, Keller never had any real vision of what his life would be. Before his parents pushed him into college, he really just wanted to be a rock musician. So he doesn’t waste time trying to decide if he is surprised at his own success. His friends aren’t shocked at it.
“It does not surprise me at all that he is a successful person and that he has a happy life,” Brightwell said. “It would have surprised me if that had not happened for him. His commitment to following through with what he starts and his loyalty to his friends and business – those things are a big part of who he is and what makes him successful.”
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