John Smaby, a longtime sales manager for Twin Cities-based Edina Realty, was recently elected to the top post at the National Association of Realtors. In the real estate world, it’s a one-of-a-kind distinction. Smaby is only the second Minnesotan to do it. His father was the first. After a grueling, three-year campaign, the board of directors of the Chicago-based NAR earlier this year elected Smaby as its first vice president for 2017, starting a multiyear commitment to the NAR’s executive leadership team that will end in 2019 after he serves as NAR’s president. Smaby, 61, has been a broker and agent for Edina Realty and its predecessor companies for 36 years. He was president of the Minnesota Association of Realtors in 2015 and was the 2014 Realtor of the Year. His father, Philip Smaby, started the Bermel-Smaby brokerage in 1946 and was NAR’s president in 1976. John Smaby discussed his new NAR role, which begins in November, and the broader industry recently. Some excerpts:
Q: NAR is massive, it represents more than 1.1 million members that belong to about 1,200 local associations and boards in 54 states and territory associations. How were you able to connect with so many of the people?
A: I spoke at all 13 regional conferences. States invite both candidates out and speak in front of board of directors (there are about 800 or so board of directors). Each state gets one director for every 2,000 Realtor members. California, for example, has 180,000 members. Minnesota has about 18,000 and North Dakota has about 1,300, but it’s all local. As you travel around the country, every city has different issues and different problems. I found that to be very energizing. I visited at least 35 states over last two years. At one point, I was in the Atlanta airport five times in eight days.
Q: Now that we’re living in a digital world, has the role of the agent changed dramatically?
A: Yes. In many ways we have less control of our business than we did in those days. But again, our job is to provide great service for the consumer, and as technology has given consumers more access, we have to make sure the info they get is good info.
That process will evolve as technology changes. The consumer is going to tell us what they want, and we have to make sure we deliver it to them. Ultimately, in today’s tech world, they need someone to decipher that info.
Q: With the rise of technology and greater access to data and listings, the industry today is radically different from it was when your father was in business. How do you think he’d react to these changes?
A: I think he was a leader, and leaders understand that our business evolves, that’s important for all of us. It’s important for us to embrace change. Technology has changed our whole life for everyone and how we do business.
Q: Do you expect more turbulence?
A: We could see sweeping changes for the real estate industry. Number one, we’re concerned about tax overhaul/changes after the next election. We want to protect the mortgage interest deduction. We could see a change in how second homes are treated on a tax basis. Tax reform will be a huge deal. And data is a big deal. I want to see ultimately that the consumer gets good information and that ultimately they can look at a real estate professional as a person who can provide the kind of service they’re asking for. We have to make sure that the data we give them is accurate.
Q: What issues will define your tenure?
A: Having gone through the bust in the mid-2000s, I think you sometimes end up with regulations stiffer than they should be, and I think we’ve been through that period, but we’re seeing some positive changes on behalf of the homeowner across America. Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have certainly a lot of regulations to the mortgage and title process on behalf of consumer.
Our industry tries to make sure it’s not over regulated and that the consumer isn’t harmed by over regulation. Some of the new rules are very good for the consumers. It gives them more information to understand the buying and selling process, but we have to make sure those processes don’t cost the consumer.
We’re a watchdog to make sure that the fees and regulations are fair. And we have to make sure that the home mortgage process is relevant for the consumer.
Q: Did your father ever pressure you to follow in his footsteps, and to accomplish what he did?
A: No. He said do it your own way. He was certainly proud that I chose this path, but he did not have that expectation and it was never a goal of his for me or any other family member to follow him.