The Chaz Stands Alone
From Chicago Agent Magazine

I saw him nearly every day for months, staring down at me from 20 feet above, looking very “GQ” in casual shirt and coifed hair, grinning almost flirtatiously at me and the other drivers heading south down Damen Avenue in the heart of Wicker Park. “Expose Yourself” and “Hot Property” the billboard said. It sounded like a come-on. Is this guy advertising for a date? One friend of mine thought it looked like an ad for a dating service. But as we got closer, we could see the Coldwell Banker logo. “Oh! Hot property! I get it!” she said, as we cruised past the bigger-than-life Chaz Walters.

For years now, Walters has appeared “bigger-than- life” on billboards all over the city of Chicago. But the question is: does he measure up?

If only we could be a fly in the car of every person that passed by one of his billboards. We’d probably hear similar, if not even more curious reactions. That’s the point, after all. “Regardless of the kind of reaction, as long as there’s reaction, that’s what’s important,” Walters says. “I’ve learned that when there is no reaction is when you have to worry.”

He gets reaction, all right. Whenever his name comes up in real estate circles, there is some sort of strong response, and it’s not always pleasant. But Walters sees it as a professional filter of sorts.

“I’ve become numb -- or sensitive, I should say -- to what people say, because no matter what you do or how nice you are, you’re not going to mesh with every single person,” he says. “Somebody who might think what I do is cheesy or whatever and they don’t want to do business with me, that’s fine. I didn’t have to meet them to figure out that our personalities were going to clash. But for the most part I’d say, honestly, the general public has been pretty positive.”

Positive, indeed. Walters has been one of Coldwell Banker’s top Chicago producers for the last several years, working out of the Lakeview and Lincoln Park offces for the past 10 years, doing millions of dollars worth of business in both resale and development, mostly on the North Side of Chicago. He left Coldwell Banker last November and opened his own offce a few weeks ago, with at least one partner as of press time (other partnerships are being considered), Cheri Davis, who is also Hot Property’s new managing broker. Davis was Walters’ old managing broker at one time at Coldwell Banker, and to whom he credits much of his success.

Walters is wary of expressing any disapprobation for his former agency, and insists that he is grateful for everything he learned through them. However, he found that the “superstore” approach the company has taken since being bought by NRT created more challenges than opportunities, and it was time to make a change. “Everything I ever wanted or wished I had when I was with Coldwell Banker I made sure that I had in the offce that I opened,” he says. “If I could just make everything around me that much nicer, doing business would be that much easier.” Parking, for example, was a huge factor; he didn’t want his agents to have to worry about dodging the meter maid all day. The Hot Property offce at 2754 N. Clybourn Avenue has access to a large parking lot, which they share with neighboring retail businesses Golfsmith, Ulta and Subway. Other important elements that he made sure to include in his office are a state-of-the-art phone system that can be accessed for both incoming and outgoing service anywhere in the world; brand new computers; copy machines and printers that would rival Kinko’s; and functional yet stylish decor.

“My projection for the office for two months from now is to have it completely filled with seasoned agents,” says Walters. (They had 12 agents signed at the time of this interview.) “Synergy is important. When you’re with a group of great people, it makes everybody work better.” As a boutique company, he says that they can’t really afford to give up space to brand new licensees, though they will consider mentor relationships. “Our motto is ‘if we have to go to them and ask them to come, we don’t want them. We want agents that want to come to us.’”

Walters’ foray into the business was purely by chance. At age 26, he had changed his mind about becoming an airline pilot, and was skimming the want ads. He answered an ad for an assistant sales manager for a large home development in Streamwood, IL. They projected the sales to take five years, but they sold out in only 26 months. From there he moved to the city and hung his shingle at a Century 21 office (which later changed to Coldwell Banker). Like most other real estate agents, Walters struggled to get a foothold his first two years in real estate. It was then that he decided to try something different.

I’ve heard the buzz around various water coolers; because of his unorthodox ad campaign, some people in the business believe that Walters is a vain egotist. Well, I hate to kill your buzz, folks, but he is just the opposite – humble, polite, self-effacing. He is also keenly observant; more than his casual, down-to earth demeanor lets on. He discovered at a fairly young age that exposure (in any business) works, and that it takes money to make money, also, that marching to a different drummer gets you noticed.

“If you’re with a group of five thousand people walking north on a sidewalk, how are they going to distinguish you? The only way is if you walk in the opposite direction,” says Walters. “When I started working in Chicago, I thought ‘how can I possibly compete with five thousand agents?’ You have to do something pretty outlandish to get somebody’s attention. So I came up with the billboard campaign. I talked to everybody, even my old manager at Coldwell Banker, he’s the first one I told all about it, and he said I was nuts. I was going to be the laughing stock. But in the beginning, when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, that’s when you take those kinds of chances.”

Walters took a big chance and convinced a media company to let him do something unusual for the billboard biz: he got them to let him have his billboard in a different location each month for 12 months. The account rep told him it took her 25 phone calls to get the approval.

The response was not immediate, and his first calls were mostly from people he knew, some calling to say “how could you do that?!” He can laugh about it now. The billboards got him some press; he was interviewed for the Lakeview neighborhood paper, and even The Chicago Reader.

The billboards, he says, were the catalyst that started getting him noticed by the people that count: the potential clients. And he stresses “potential clients,” asserting that the billboards don’t get him business; they just get him air time. “It’s just a way of getting you in front of them,” he says. “You still have to sell yourself, still have to know what you’re doing, still have to be good at sales, still have to make them trust you.”

Walters seems only momentarily concerned with giving away his “secrets.” But are they secrets, really? All spelled out, Walters business philosophy sounds like plain old common sense. Why do the same thing that thousands of other people in the same business are doing?

“My whole career I’ve watched people go to these motivational seminars and they say ‘do that, do this, this is how you make money’ or ‘this is how you get business.’ And I think from the stand point of motivating you, I understand that, but the mere fact that thousands of people graduate these things, and the minute it’s over, all those people are competing against themselves for the same business. It doesn’t make any sense to me; why would I want to be one of a thousand when I could be one of one?” Though he supports the “tried and true” methods that many agents use to generate leads, Walters sees their fallibility: “Whether it be on the phone or sending postcards to expireds, or whether it be their sphere of influence, these are all methods that work. But the way that a lot of agents do things,” Walters gives an example, “you have 60 agents in an office, and everybody has access to those expireds as they come up. So immediately, what do you think happens? All of a sudden, let’s say 10 of those 60 hungry agents that morning get those listings, and there’s 25 offices [in the company] . . . That poor person that lives in that house will probably get a hundred postcards! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that person is going to be pissed off!

“I choose to do it differently. I develop the call to come to me. That way I don’t have to wonder whether or not they’re interested in selling their property or want to do business; they’ve already proven that point and they’re at least willing to listen. So I’d rather spend my energy on people that are willing to listen.”

Walters’ website says that “listening carefully and planning creatively” are the keys to his success. “A lot of listings I take are those that people before me couldn’t sell,” he says. “So I go in and listen really well to everything that has happened, and figure out the problem. There’s always a problem if something doesn’t sell. So I try to pay attention to what needs to be done and figure out an effective way to do it.” Walters approach to business isn’t really unusual at all; it is in tune with the rest of the business world. In order to thrive, a business must evolve. It certainly isn’t rocket science, and it has nothing to do with vanity or arrogance.

“Selling real estate is about overcoming objections,” says Walters. “If you already know ahead of time what the objections are going to be before the buyer makes them, you got it down pat.”