During times like these, a real estate office is the last place you'd expect to find happy people.

Yet despite the worst real estate market in generations, employees of the Keller Williams Realty offices in Minnesota voted the company the best place to work in the state, according to the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces 2010 survey conducted by WorkplaceDynamics.

Respondents gave the company high marks for making them feel empowered and well-trained, winning the company special distinction for a senior management team that seems to understand what's happening on the front lines.

"It's a company that's run by the agents for the agents," said Jason Gorman, an agent in Keller's Woodbury office. "It's a bottom-up type of approach."

Keller, a national franchise based in Austin, Texas, opened its first office in the Twin Cities metro area in 2002. The privately held company now has about 1,200 employees under 14 franchise owners throughout Minnesota, making it the state's fourth-largest real estate company in a market dominated by Coldwell Banker Burnet and Edina Realty. Nationwide the company has more than 77,000 employees.

Perry Hurth, training manager for the Minneapolis Lakes office, says the company is unique among the competition on many levels. Each office is independently owned and the agents are independent contractors. Unlike the traditional real estate commission model in which agents share a split of every commission with the company, Keller has a commission structure in which agents pay the company no more than $25,500 annually (the cap varies by office).

At some companies agents share more of their commission with the company, sometimes as much as a 50-50 split, while at the opposite end of the spectrum other companies take almost nothing from their agents and charge them for everything they provide, including office space and support staff.

Keller Williams also tries to make agents feel as if they have a stake in the company's financial performance by offering a profit-sharing model that returns an average of 47 percent of the profits to employees and agents, but they also get to decide how to spend their own money.

Hurth calls it an "interdependent model" in which agents are treated like business partners who have access to all financial information. "There are no secrets," Hurth said. "And we give agents a say in how the business is run."

For example, agents are charged a small monthly technology fee, and are responsible for paying for their own errors-and-omissions insurance and business cards. If they want to rent space in the company office, they pay for that space on a per-square-foot basis.

"We'd rather give them the money and let them decide whether to spend it rather than to take it and pay for them," Hurth said.

And that goes for promoting their own brand. The company doesn't spend agent commissions on promoting the company, but instead lets agents promote themselves, because the company believes that buyers and sellers care more about their relationship with individuals rather than the company itself.

"You'll never see a Keller Williams advertisement anywhere," said Todd Butzer, regional director for the north central region.

Employees' suggestions work their way to the top via several channels, including a regional Agent Leadership Council (ALC) that meets at least once a month (the meetings are open to all the agents) with the team leader (broker) and the operating partner to make big decisions about company policies and to come up with ideas for how to improve the workplace. The profit-sharing program and RED Day, a one-day promotion aimed at giving back to the community through volunteerism, were both employee ideas that started with the ALC.

Front-line employees have also been at the forefront of initiatives aimed at helping agents cope with the down market, including a new company-wide training program called BOLD, a monthly sales seminar aimed at giving agents the tools to compete in a challenging market. For example, after Gorman appeared on a panel during a training session, he got a call from company founder Gary Keller, asking him to appear with Keller during a podcast discussion of the topic that was broadcast to agents who couldn't attend the original discussion.

In the end, though, Gorman said the company's focus on maintaining a balanced life and a healthy perspective through difficult times has been key to thriving at a time when the market hasn't. His office recently launched a food drive that helped collect 1,400 pounds of food.

"It's a way to keep yourself grounded. As a company we're cognizant that your sales might be down, but you're still doing pretty good," he said. "But it's easy to forget to be thankful, and it's a really good thing to remind yourself how good you really have it."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376