- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

Don't ask veteran real estate broker P. Wesley Foster Jr. to explain the resilience of the nation's housing market, which has remained rock solid even though the rest of the economy has softened.
The president and co-founder of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., the Washington area's largest brokerage, has been in the business since Lyndon Johnson lived in the White House. But the market's buoyancy has left him as puzzled as novice agents.
"It's baffling," Mr. Foster says in an interview with The Washington Times.
More than 26 million previously occupied homes were sold in the United States during the first five months of 2001, a 3.5 percent increase from the same period last year, according to the National Association of Realtors trade group.
In the Washington area, 28,188 homes have been sold during the first six months of this year, up 7.7 percent from the first half of 2000, according to Rockville real-estate research firm Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.
Mr. Foster, whom the industry trade publication "Real Trends" recently named one of the five most respected real estate executives in the country, says lower interest rates have probably helped keep the housing market immune from the economic slowdown.
"There's also been a lot of pent-up demand," he says.
Most brokers expected Washington's housing market to tank when the region's big technology companies began laying off workers last year. So far, that hasn't happened.
"We're still having multiple contracts. We're still having record months," he says.
The housing boom has boosted brokerages like Long & Foster, which saw sales climb to $2 billion in May, a 33 percent increase from the same month last year.
The boom has also provided brokerages with a cushion from new challenges within the real estate industry, like rising pay for agents and the threat of the Internet, which many consumers now use to find homes.
"So many people think this business is a wonderful and easy way to make money. It's not. It's tough," Mr. Foster says.

Competitive executive

Mr. Foster, 67, never expected to become a real estate broker.
He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1956, and served as an Army artillery officer for three years. He then became an aluminum siding salesman, which got him interested in residential development.
Mr. Foster plunged into the real estate business in 1963, when he took a job as a sales manager for a small Fairfax brokerage. Five years later, he and a friend, Henry A. Long, set out on their own.
Long & Foster Real Estate grew steadily, eventually becoming one of the top brokerages in the Washington area. Mr. Long left the business in 1979 to become a developer. The two remain friends.
Mr. Foster says he never considered changing the firm's name once he bought Mr. Long's share. "I felt like the name Long & Foster had worth. I wanted to keep it," he says.
Today, the brand is practically synonymous with real estate in the mid-Atlantic. Long & Foster is the largest brokerage in the region, with 165 offices in five states.
Last year, the company sold 79,203 properties worth $15 billion. Long & Foster's sales topped most firms in the area, including Weichert and O'Conor, Piper & Flynn/ ERA Realtors, according to the MRIS research firm.
Mr. Foster has been key to the company's growth, says his longtime friend Richard B. DeWolfe, chairman and chief executive of Boston brokerage DeWolfe Cos. Inc.
Mr. DeWolfe calls Mr. Foster "the most competitive person I know… . He has always been open to sharing the secrets of his success with all who ask, and even some that don't."

Changing industry

This year's strong housing market doesn't necessarily guarantee profitability for Long & Foster, Mr. Foster says.
Increasingly, the firm is paying higher commissions to agents, who work as independent contractors. Some agents even earn full commissions, Mr. Foster says.
The rising pay eats into the company's profits, Mr. Foster says. In recent years, the firm has added side businesses, including title, mortgage and insurance companies to help add to the bottom line.
Mr. Foster oversees all the businesses under the Long & Foster Cos. umbrella name.
"The corporate dollar shrinks more and more every year. We need the other business to stay profitable," he says.
Still, the real estate side of Mr. Foster's house continues to grow.
Nearly 1,500 agents moved from other brokerages to Long & Foster in 2000. Another 900 new agents joined the firm last year, according to the company's research.
"The thing that's attractive to agents is that we are fair. We like the agents. We help them. We listen to them," he says.
Mr. Foster also dismisses the threat posed by the Internet, which some industry observers have predicted could one day eliminate the need for real estate agents.
"We're still needed. The seller needs an advocate in the marketplace. The buyer needs one even more so," he says.
That philosophy helped earn Mr. Foster one of his "greatest honors" in June when the Real Trends publication named him one of the most respected brokers in the country.
The list also included brokers from Philadelphia, Texas, Connecticut and Seattle.
"I was honored to be in that kind of company. They're all fine gentlemen," he says.
But if you think the award is the cap to Mr. Foster's career, think again. He does not plan to retire or sell the business, which he says will eventually be taken over by his son and son-in-law. Both are brokers in the company.
"I'm not going anywhere anytime soon," he says.
Mr. Foster's commitment doesn't surprise his friend, Mr. DeWolfe.
"Most people who have achieved his level of success may think about slowing down, [but] he does just the opposite and continues to forge ahead and get down in the trenches," Mr. DeWolfe says.

SELF-PORTRAIT

P. Wesley Foster Jr., co-founder and president, Long & Foster Cos. Inc.
AGE: 67
EDUCATION: Graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1956.
CAREER: Salesman for Kaiser Aluminum, 1959 to 1963; sales manager, Minchew Corp., 1963 to 1966; sales manager, Nelson Realty, 1966 to 1968; co-founded Long & Foster Cos. in 1968.
FAMILY: Married with three children. He and his wife, Betty, live in McLean.
HOBBIES: Tennis, traveling.
HEROES: Rep. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and real estate magnate. Also: Boston real estate broker and longtime friend Richard B. DeWolfe.
INFLUENTIAL READING: "The Mystique of Super Salesmanship," a Harvard Business Review article from 1965.
SECRETS OF A REAL ESTATE AGENT'S SUCCESS: "They truly have empathy for their client and want to help them. But at the same time, they want to use that person as a rung on the ladder of success."

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