Labor of Love After 25 Years

Labor of Love After 25 Years

Founder prepares McEnearney Associates for its future.

Chinese philosopher Laotzu in his treatise "The Way of Life" wrote:

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists,

Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,

Worst when they despise him.

Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.

But of a good leader, who talks little,

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,

They will all say, 'We did this ourselves.'"

That ancient advice could apply to McEnearney Associates and particularly to John McEnearney, founder, owner, president, and CEO of the real estate brokerage firm he founded 25 years ago this month. In 2006 he and his managing brokers expect to surpass the $2 billion mark. They are presently at $1.5 billion in residential sales not counting their commercial market.

"We were shooting for $2 billion this year. But, we are seeing some softening in the market. Properties are still selling but the higher priced ones, in the higher hundred thousands and a million and over, are not getting as many offers or as quickly as they were," McEnearney said.

"Last year we saw increases of 23 percent over 2003. That couldn't be sustained and things are not appreciating at 23 percent at this time. However, the commercial market is still very strong and we've seen a lot of small businesses expanding," he said.

Just 18 months short of 80 years of age, McEnearney is still at the helm of this most successful of local real estate firms in Northern Virginia. But he has also created a "management team" that seeks to ensure a seamless transition to the future.

It is composed, in addition to himself, of his daughter Maureen McEnearney Dunn, who serves as the firm's chief operating officer, based in the McLean office, and the managing brokers from each of the firm's three offices: Dave Hawkins in the flagship Old Town Alexandria office; Julia Criss, Arlington office; and David L. Howell, McLean office.

"This is something that we put in place some time ago. It is nothing new at this time. People have been asking me when I was going to retire for years. I don't even think of retiring," McEnearney said.

"Sometime in the future I suspect I'll fade into the distance on my favorite horse. Right now I'm still very much enjoying things. Except maybe I pay more attention to whose car I walk in front of with the engine running," he said with a smile sitting in his office at 510 King Street in Alexandria.

FROM ITS INITIAL single office operation in 1980 with two agents, in addition to John McEnearney, and one staff member, McEnearney Associates, Inc., has grown into an organization with 250 agents and 54 staff. "We now have one staff member for every five agents. That's very unusual in this business," he said.

There are approximately 100 residential and 12 commercial property agents in the Old Town office. The other two locations have about 65 to 70 agents each, according to McEnearney.

"We've had slow growth, steady growth, and particularly smart growth. Most of our agents have lived in this area for a long period. This is particularly true in Old Town which is a very special market. And, we know Old Town better than anyone else," he said.

"It's a family firm, but not in a literal sense. Everyone in it is part of the family," McEnearney said.

That was echoed by David Hawkins, managing broker of the Old Town Office operations, both residential and commercial, who joined the firm in 1992. "John has always reinvested in the agents rather than bricks and mortar. He invests in the things that will help to make agents better agents," Hawkins said.

"There has been an explosion of real estate agents in recent years with people leaving other careers. The ranks of Realtors has doubled over the past six years. One out of every three in the business today in most firms has less than three years experience," Hawkins said.

"But, as the market softens, both buyers and sellers are going to be looking for experienced agents. That's where our agents' experience and training is going to prove to be even more valuable," he said.

"We recently hired a director of professional development to keep those agents on the cutting edge. The quality of the agents and management knowledge is extremely important. It takes a good agent to be productive in this market," he said.

Hawkins was buttressed in that analysis by Julia Criss, managing broker, McEnearney Associates' Arlington office which opened in 1995. "We have an entity in each office known as a manager's advisory group. The purpose is for the agents to get together with the managing brokers and talk freely about their ideas and concerns," she said.

"Every agent has a key to every office in each location. It's a very open operation. One of the great things to me is to really love what you do and where you work. We all want to keep the core things that built this company," said Criss, who joined the company in 1996.

"The truth of the matter is that John turned over the day-to-day operations of running the company many years ago. The managing brokers, Maureen and John, we all function as a management team," she said.

JOINING McENEARNEY Associates about 10 years ago, David L. Howell, managing broker, McLean office, became the fifth member of that team, most of whom also have some level of ownership in the company. "This is the best professional career move I ever made," he said.

Howell and his wife, Margaret, had their own firm in Falls Church prior to merging with McEnearney Associates. "This presented the perfect opportunity and it's just the right size for this market. We are able to really know all our agents and clients," Howell said.

Situated on the Old Town office, Margaret Howell is the firm's human resource director. They also brought approximately 25 agents into the firm, according to Howell. Most are based in McLean. "Some went to the Arlington office because it was more convenient for them," he said.

Maureen McEnearney Dunn, as she describes her history with the firm, has "done it all." She started as a receptionist in 1983. "As most agents would agree that is one of the most important positions in any office. That person is the initial face of the office to any caller or visitor," Dunn said.

Although she holds an agent license, those in management at McEnearney Associates do not function as agents, according to Dunn. "I love to work with agents on marketing and training. I'm very interested in the marketing aspects," she said.

"We have our own in-house desktop publishing. It is overseen by my sister Kathy who I got Dad to hire in 1987. She holds a degree in computer science and was working with Honeywell at the time. Now she oversees our tech department of five people," Dunn said.

"While I tend to be involved in the whole company, John tends to focus on Old Town. It's unusual for someone like him to give the decision making over to a group, even though he has the final word. He doesn't feel the need to name a successor," she said.

That was verified by McEnearney himself. "Almost every year I've gotten questions about selling the firm. Now I have an exit strategy. And, now when I do retire there will be hardly any change. The succession has already begun," he said.

As Hawkins phrased it, "Much of John's personality has become the personality of the agents that work here." For John McEnearney, as he acknowledged, "it has always been a labor of love."

Anne Best Rector, a real estate broker in Alexandria since the mid-1970's, owned and managed one of McEnearney's closest competitors, Rector Associates, from 1981-1998 and is presently the managing broker of Long & Foster's Old Town Historic District office. She said, "I have known and respected John McEnearney and his company since the company's start in 1980. John runs an outstanding company that is a true asset to our community. He has a terrific group of agents and I congratulate him and his agents on their 25th anniversary."