In 1974, a young, 24-year-old Tom Stevens was offered his first real estate management position. The Vienna resident, who had three successful years as an agent under his belt, recalled one caveat: he’d been asked to work out of the conference room.
Back then twenty-something managers weren’t common. "It was unheard of at the time," said Stevens. For 30 days, Stevens ran the office out of the conference room, "kind of like on a trial basis," he said.
Now, more than thirty years later, the provisional post signifies the start of Stevens’ rising career, which has led to the industry’s top advocacy post.
In January, Stevens, 56, started his one-year term as president of the National Association of Realtors, taking the helm of the largest trade association in the country.
STEVENS, WHO WAS born and raised in Northern Virginia, left college focused on a career in real estate, following in his father’s footsteps. "I liked what he’d been able to accomplish in the business," said Stevens.
But it was the industry itself that really excited Stevens. "It’s not a hard sell. People want to own a piece of America," he said.
From a professional standpoint, he liked the entrepreneurial aspect of being a real estate broker. "You control your own destiny," he said. "And while you’re not punching a clock, you get paid in direct proportion to the work you put forth."
For nearly 20 years, Stevens held various management posts. Staying close to home, he opened and managed the Shannon & Luchs Vienna office in 1977. Three years later, he became the company’s first regional manager.
In a thirteen-year span, Stevens helped the company grow from three offices to 27 offices, and from 100 agents to 1,000.
Along the way, close friends were hardly surprised by Stevens’ achievements. "He’s a perfectionist in anything he does," said Doug MacLeod, a friend since the mid-1970s.
"I thrived on the competition, and real estate is very competitive," said Stevens. But Stevens also said he didn’t shy from difficult decisions. "You have to be willing to take some risks," he said.
HIS MOST DIFFICULT decision may have come in 1993, when 11 Coldwell Banker offices came on the market.
"I crunched the numbers for 48 hours in my accountant’s basement," said Stevens. Despite thinking the purchase was "a bit risky" — the market at the time was just inching out of a recession — Stevens decided to take a chance.
"I’d done it for others for so many years, I thought I could do it for myself," he said.
The Coldwell Banker Stevens firm became the fastest growing real estate company in the 1990s. In 2002, when Stevens decided to sell his firm back to NRT, the Coldwell Banker parent company, he’d grown the firm to 39 offices and 2,000 agents throughout the region. After selling the firm, Stevens became an executive with NRT, a position he currently holds.
Tom Morcom, a Coldwell Banker office manager in Woodbridge who worked eight years for Stevens, credits Stevens’ success to forward thinking and tenacity. "He was tremendously strong about going out and getting something done," said Morcom.
Stevens embraced technology and anticipated change at a time the Internet was just taking root, Morcom said. "Technology was what he always thought was going to lead us and put us ahead of other Realtors," said Morcom.
Stevens recalled one of his first decisions as owner. He bought 50 of his top agents laptop computers.
The agents quickly put the technology to use, preparing PowerPoint presentations to win listings and increase sales. "I remember getting calls from other company managers asking, ‘What did you do?’" said Stevens. "We were able to attract a lot of people that way."
EARLY IN HIS career, Stevens became active in the local trade association, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (NVAR). He says he first got involved "to give something back" and to protect consumers and to protect the business.
Like his professional career, Stevens quickly rose through the ranks of the association. After years of working on committees, Stevens became president of NVAR in 1985. Four years later, he became president of the Virginia Association of Realtors.
In the last 27 years, Stevens has missed just one national convention. "His commitment to help [the industry] helped propel him up the leadership ladder," said Morcom.
Mary Beth Coya, vice president of public and government affairs with NVAR, remembers working with Stevens on many issues the past 19 years. "He’s been a champion looking after Realtors, this industry and the public consumer," said Coya.
Stevens is the first former Northern Virginia Association of Realtors president to lead the national association.
WITH THE NATIONAL market cooling, Stevens acknowledges that his term has been challenging. He said there have been "a lot of attacks" on the industry recently. The assault, he said, includes everything from controversies surrounding the appropriate role of technology to new emerging business models.
For much of the last six months, Stevens fought against banks moving into real estate. "They’d be able to compete at an unfair advantage," said Stevens. "It muddies the water and it’s not in the best interest of the consumer."
Concurrently, Stevens has promoted a law that would allow small businesses, like real estate companies, to pool their members across state lines for the purposes of reducing the costs of health insurance.
Stevens said the law has been log-jammed in Congress this year because of political wrangling on the Hill common before mid-term elections. "We’ll get this bill passed after the elections, which is unfortunate," said Stevens, adding that roughly 400,000 Realtors do not have health insurance.
ANOTHER PRIORITY FOR Stevens has been to strengthen communication between NAR and agents at the grassroots level.
The idea, he said, is to increase NAR’s influence in the legislative process. With better communication, Stevens hopes to better mobilize the group’s 1.3 million members when a legislative "call to action" is sent out. "You can never have enough communication," said Stevens.
Yet Stevens’ term may be most remembered based on a decision he made last fall when he reaffirmed that NAR would hold its annual convention in storm-ravaged New Orleans. "He was adamant about doing our part to help the economy," said Coya.
The November convention — which is expected to inject as much as $40 million into the city’s economy, according to Stevens — will be a chance for 30,000 Realtors to help rebuild, he said.
NAR will sponsor the construction of seven Habitat for Humanity homes in the New Orleans area.
"One-thousand Realtors a day will participate in community projects," said Stevens. Since the hurricane ravaged the Gulf coast, NAR members have contributed $5.6 million to Katrina victims through the Realtor Relief Foundation.