For people who sell real estate, the "cloud" is taking the place of the cubicle as they rely more on technology. And yet for many agents, it's the face-to-face connections between them and their managers that seem to matter most.

That helps explain why, in the midst of the worst housing downturn since the Great Depression, several Twin Cities real estate companies made the list of best workplaces in Minnesota: Keller Williams Realty ranked No. 1 among large companies for a second consecutive year. Roger Fazendin Realtors ranked No. 1 among small companies. Bridge Realty ranked No. 31 among medium companies. And Edina Realty made the list of other top workplaces.

So what are they doing right?

Shelly Halverson, director of business development at Roger Fazendin Realtors, said it starts with creating a strong sense of community that helps agents navigate challenging circumstances.

"When times get tough, the family rallies together," she said. "It's just part of the culture."

For example, every Monday morning agents get together for a listing tour. They return to the Wayzata office for a group lunch. Employees take turns preparing and serving the meal for as many as 50 people who gather around a big table where they laugh, tell stories and offer insights into how to survive this challenging market.

"We come home, we come back and we regroup," she said.

That sense of community has long been part of the Fazendin culture. The company was founded in 1965 by broker/owner Dan Fazendin's father, and his wife and two sons help run the company.

Halverson said such continuity has been extremely important, especially at a time when technology has made it possible for agents with hand-held devices to work from just about anywhere. And that's why those Monday lunches are so important, she said. Agents can exchange information about listings and they can have face-to-face conversations about marketing strategies for specific listings.

Keller Williams takes a different approach. The company, which opened its first office in the Twin Cities metro area in 2002, taps into a national training network that emanates from its home office in Austin, Texas. It's aimed at helping agents sell houses even when there aren't many buyers. The privately held company now has 1,234 employees under 14 franchise owners throughout Minnesota, making it the state's fourth-largest real estate company. Nationwide, the company has more than 80,000 employees.

Perry Hurth, training manager for the Minneapolis Lakes office, said the company's agents sell more houses than the average agent, proof that closing a deal has little do with the market itself. "It's about developing good habits," Hurth said.

The company tries to promote those habits through several national sales programs. Several hundred agents recently attended "BOLD," a training program at a hotel in Maple Grove. BOLD, an acronym for "Business Objective: a Life by Design," teaches agents the fundamentals of selling. The company also produces books, teleconferences and even videos aimed at helping agents sell houses. Keller recently won a Telly Award for its own online reality TV series.

Stephanie Gruver, a Keller agent since 2009, says workplace support goes way beyond national programs like BOLD. It starts with local leadership, including the broker in her office, John Butler, who is an important resource when it comes to brainstorming and troubleshooting.

"He's always looking for a solution, rather than crying about the issue," she said.

She said the company maintains a culture that encourages agents and managers to support one another. Veteran sales agent Cotty Lowry, for example, recently conducted a spontaneous training session on how to use an MLS search function that tells agents how many showings each listing gets. It's become an important tool that Gruver uses to help price her listings.

Gruver said the tutorial was emblematic of a culture of cooperation rather than competition. That's why she hasn't responded to outside recruiters.

"I've been approached by several companies," she said. "But I'm still a Keller agent."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376


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