Nov 27 2007

CEO Interview: Stephen Baird

Baird & Warner's CEO reflects on his best and worst technology investments

The incredible pace of change and innovation means that the real challenge for business leadership is not technology. It is predicting and embracing the “next” right technology. And the one that no one sees coming.

The pressure to build a team and predict the future means every day is a decision-point of when to spend sparingly and when to budget for game-changing people and upgrades that reinvent entire industries. There is a common recognition that some new breakthrough or some new idea is just around the corner. The worry is a competitive innovation that enables the same functions (or more) to be accomplished with even fewer local resources.

It’s no wonder that chief executives such as Baird & Warner’s Stephen W. Baird say that hiring the right IT talent is the best bet they’ve made to protect their technology investments. Ben Bradley, BizTech’s editor at large, spoke to Baird about his biggest technology mistakes and investments and how Baird & Warner turns to technology to address its biggest business challenges.

Baird is the president and chief executive officer of Baird & Warner. Established in 1855, the firm is the oldest residential real estate brokerage in the United States and currently ranks among the nation’s top 12 with an annual sales volume in excess of $6 billion. Under Baird’s leadership, the firm has grown dramatically — currently with a sales force of more than 1,800 sales associates, who operate from 35 strategically located offices throughout Chicago and its suburbs. In addition to the highly successful residential brokerage operation, Baird has added a suite of dynamic and innovative real estate-related companies to augment the firm’s wide-ranging customer service capabilities — these include mortgage banking, title insurance and a home services unit.

What was the best IT investment you’ve made?
One investment I wish I made earlier was finding an experienced IT advisor. Honestly, this would be at the top of my list. I see all the value my current head of IT and his team bring to the table, and I regret not having a team of this caliber on board earlier. This is not just because they understand bits and bytes. There is no shortage of IT pros out there. But we need more than that.

A true IT advisor should also understand the importance of sales and marketing and how these disciplines are impacted by technology and vice versa. Someone with these skills is a unique and defensible asset. Having a true advisor helps me better evaluate future IT investments, and it helps Baird and Warner lead from the front. Our investments in IT go far beyond running our back-end operations. They are key differentiators that contribute to both our bottom line and our ability to recruit top real estate professionals across the market.

The real treasures are the ones that know how to cross the divide between technology and business. In our company, the Internet and our presence on the Internet is the culmination of IT, operations, marketing and sales all working together, so it is important that our technologists understand how it all fits together.

In the past few years, have your expectations for your technical advisors changed?
Absolutely. We’re now looking at our IT team as communicators and advisors. We’re looking for more business savvy and the ability to assume more responsibility for revenue. IT is no longer a support function for the business.

What three behaviors do you want to see from your IT team?
Not to repeat myself, but great communication skills and a well-rounded understanding of the entire business. After that would be an innate sense of urgency. I want everyone in the company to not be afraid to lead from the front and take the initiative.

What is your involvement in the IT decision-making process?
I’m pretty involved in terms of the technology strategy because it is the strategy of our company relative to the Internet. The Internet has had a big impact on our business, and we’re a leader in the space, so I need to be involved. IT touches every part of our business because every one of our customers and every one of our employees today is interacting with the Internet in some way. It is an odd customer who is not using the Internet as a tool in their search for a new house. Thankfully, I have a really good IT director. He is a very creative guy, and he does a lot of the implementation.

What is the biggest IT mistake that you’ve ever made?
One place where I spent too much money and had lots of problems was when I hard-wired some of our branch offices for high-speed internet connections. On one hand, I wished I had been a slow adopter because running wires for 1,850 agents in 31 offices was pretty expensive. On the other hand, I know high-speed connections dramatically improved productivity for our brokers and offices. Hindsight is always 20/20. And, when we did this, good and inexpensive wireless technology was still a few years away. I certainly wished we could have gone wireless earlier. However, being one of the first real estate firms to offer agents high-speed access to the Internet and being one of the first to institutionalize e-mail for our agents demonstrated our technical thought leadership. There is sometimes a cost for being an early adopter, but it is important to balance the cost by remembering the improved awareness and productivity gained by embracing the Internet early.

When we do make the decision to go with more cutting-edge technology, we strive for ways to leverage all possible benefits, even long after the purchase. In the case of wired offices, they later paved the way for flexibility in locating wireless access points, multifunction devices and IP telephony.

What is the best IT advice you’ve received?
Simple. The best IT advice I ever received was lead from the front and try to use IT to add value to every customer interaction.

You can’t lead from the front if you are worried about protecting your turf. In the real estate industry, access to information is not a defensible advantage. You can’t build a defensible business by hoarding MLS [Multiple Listing Service] data. Everyone has it. Everyone has pretty pictures of every house for sale. All this information is or will be free. The people that win are the people that innovate and improve the data or make the information more useful and really keep the customer’s needs front and center. The consumer wants less complexity and more transparency into the way homes are bought and sold. That’s why everything we do should make the data even more useful for our customers and for our sales agents.

Leveraging data has been a significant factor in our company’s success — from externally providing the public with richest set of data on our Web site (bairdwarner.com), guiding their real estate search, to internally dicing, slicing and joining a wide variety of data sets in our data warehouses and business intelligence systems. Many companies overlook the power of the data available to them, causing them to make less informed strategic decisions.

And finally, what score would you give yourself if we asked you to rate yourself from “total geek” to “I still use a slide rule” and why?
I wish I was a total geek, because I love everything that technology has done for our business and for our industry. I admire people who understand technology. But the truth is I am somewhere in the middle. I love gadgets, and I’m blessed that Baird and Warner has some of the smartest IT people in the world available to teach me how to use them.