#SP200 Leader: Joel Singer, California Association of Realtors CEO
Editor’s note: Published by the residential real estate strategic consulting and information firm Swanepoel T3 Group each January, the Swanepoel Power 200 (SP200) ranks the real estate industry’s most powerful, influential leaders. It also recognizes leaders in several subcategories, from technology execs to social influencers.
The SP200 rankings reflect a rigorous, careful evaluation process supported by data and a detailed methodology. To help make its selections, the Swanepoel T3 Group maintains a robust database, with stats and information on more than 1,000 real estate executives and leaders. It spends hundreds of hours poring over data, debating internally and verifying all candidates before settling on its list each year.
In the runup to the 2017 list, the fourth, Swanepoel T3 Group is profiling leaders and executives included on one of the nine 2016 SP200 lists published earlier this year.
Joel Singer’s outsized industry influence began in 1989 when he became CEO of the California Association of Realtors, which now has over 180,000 members. He also serves as CEO and president of zipLogix, which provides software to thousands of agents and brokers across the country. ZipLogix is a CAR subsidiary.
His leadership role in these two prominent industry organizations earned him the No. 31 spot on on the 2016 SP200 Powerlist, which ranks real estate’s 200 most powerful leaders.
CAR and zipLogix have had big years. CAR helped pass a number of California state bills supporting homeownership and the industry this year, including a provision that clarifies the disclosure process around home loans.
In addition, ZipLogix kicked off its $12-million-per-year agreement with the National Association of Realtors in January. The agreement provides versions of the firm’s popular form-filling software zipForm and transaction management platform zipTMS as a free benefit to NAR members. (NAR holds a minority stake in zipLogix).
Singer answered some questions from SP200 about leadership and his vision for the industry.
Briefly describe your career trajectory.
I was pursuing my doctorate in economic history at UCLA in the late 1970s. A few years into my program, I was in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship engaged in research when I realized I was setting myself up for an austere career. I was purely on a research track. I realized I wanted to be in a less academic environment and do more real-world work.
I ended up at CAR somewhat at random. I applied cold to a CAR economist job opening in 1978. I didn’t know much about CAR beforehand, but I got the job and I’ve been with CAR ever since!
What did you study during your Fulbright in Freiberg, Germany?
I was conducting my doctoral research. The topic of my dissertation was proto-industrialization in southwest Germany. The southern Black Forest was among the first regions to move toward industrialization, yet it ultimately failed to sustain the transition to an industrial economy, making it an interesting case study in terms of economics, demographics and social change.
You lead both CAR and the prominent real estate tech firm zipLogix, a CAR subsidiary. How do you balance the two?
I’ve always been a tech junkie. The mid-90s, when the internet was just emerging, was one of the most exciting times of my career. We were very early movers on the internet at CAR. Together, with almost all of the California MLSs, we were able to aggregate our MLS listings database online well before realtor.com and the other large players.
Since we define ourselves at CAR as our members’ business partners, we feel compelled to deliver value to our members. We knew we could do that by developing Realtor-centric technology, because it was clear even back then that the industry would experience a massive transition from paper to the digital world.
Our tech platform feeds right into CAR’s mission. I don’t view them as separate and distinct; they both feed into the goals of advancing and optimizing the role of the Realtor.
Joel Singer’s desk at CAR’s Los Angeles headquarters.
You’ve served CAR for 37 years. What are you most proud of? Where would you like to see the association go?
I’m most proud of our success in supporting the market share and productivity of our members and trying to maintain a favorable climate for homeownership in California — against tremendous counter currents.
I take great pride in helping to maintain our members’ key role in real estate transactions. We have led with innovative services, like our Legal Hotline and we provide our members with a significant tech advantage with zipLogix and other productivity tools.
We’re seeing the brokerage industry continue to grow, but there are enormous threats on the homeownership side at the moment, which is something we want to change going forward.
We want to create an environment that gives people access to safe and affordable housing, both as renters and ultimately as owners and participants in the American Dream. But affordability is greatly constrained in the state, disproportionately affecting the young, minorities, and immigrants, which ultimately undermines the California economy.
Who have you learned the most from about leadership? What did you learn?
Academically, I consider myself most influenced by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who guided his country through the immensely challenging period of World War II.
I’ve read many of his writings, in addition to secondary sources. He was a quintessential leader in a challenging, dark time. His ability to maintain hope, without diminishing the reality of war, proved a remarkable force in trying times.
His leadership shows that ideas matter, concepts matter, and that words really matter. Presenting ideas in an inspiring and elegant manner goes a long way in helping people realize their dreams.
Routines you practice to stay on point as a leader?
Leadership is a lot about stamina.
For me, staying on point starts with two things:
- A serious 60-plus minute workout each morning, typically on an elliptical machine or in a spinning class.
- Staying up to date on the latest news and information. This is crucial. I devour a couple of newspapers each morning — The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. In addition, I catch up on industry news and other articles from around the web. I’m a CNBC addict. This period of information absorption typically runs 90 minutes – often concurrent with my time on the elliptical.
After that routine, I’m ready to hit the day running.
What’s at the top of your to-do list right now?
I’m focused on wearing two hats — as the CEO of CAR, I’m focused on public policy and information dissemination. As the CEO of zipLogix, I’m totally focused on improving our products and optimizing the transaction experience for our users.
The legislature’s gone home for the year and our association just finished its annual EXPO, where we had more than 8,500 practitioners in attendance. So my CAR role is transitioning toward our 2017 legislative and policy objectives. We’ll be heavily focused on housing issues, as well as a number of industry concerns.
We’re releasing a major new feature in zipLogix’ transaction management platform zipTMS — a broker dashboard — so I’m involved in making sure everything’s prepped and ready to go prior to full release.
I’m also beginning the strategic planning cycle for 2018-2020 with both of these entities.
Favorite TV show currently watching?
I sometimes binge watch TV shows, but I have none on my plate right now.
Favorite relaxing activity that’s not hanging with family?
I love athletics and really enjoy skiing. The Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia is one of my favorite mountains to ski. We lived in Europe for a bit, and Whistler and its 5,000 vertical feet of skiing, feels a lot like the mountains there.
I also regularly enjoy hiking and seeing movies.
What are the biggest trends you see in the industry right now?
The strongest trend has been the shift of market power to the highly productive agent. It’s the biggest industry change I’ve seen over the last 30 years. This has led to the rapid emergence of teams in today’s practice. With brand awareness going to agents and teams, this puts a lot of pressures and stresses on brokerages and raises questions about the future industrial organization of the entire sector.
At the same time, the industry clearly has too few transactions for the number of active licensees, and the average number of sides per agent has dropped precipitously. This market pressure, and the ability of high-producing agents to effectively use technology (and team members), has led to a historic productivity and income gap between the high producers and the typical agent, with the number of part-timers increasing quite significantly.