How Boutique Brokers Balance an Intimate Size and Necessary Growth

For boutique brokerages, sometimes staying in the black means growing, but it’s equally important to maintain that intimate, small-business feel.
Professional teamwork scene with increased growth being carried by whole team

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Star Grieff always knew she wanted to open a small boutique brokerage. A full-time real estate agent since 2011, her dream became reality in 2020, when she opened Star Grieff Realty in Pontiac, Ill.

“Our area takes pride in our small self-employed businesses, and I wanted to be able to continue that tradition,” says Grieff.

The building she restored for her headquarters went through a few iterations. It was once a single-family home and it functioned as a real estate office for CENTURY 21 in the 1980s.

“I wanted to bring that back to life for the community,” she says.

Erica Anderson, owner and broker-in-charge at Team Anderson Realty, Holly Springs, N.C., however, didn’t envision running a brokerage at all. Her original plan was to remain an agent and operate as the team lead of a large team. That is until she listened to a successful fellow agent-turned-broker. That conversation opened her up to what was possible as a small, independent brokerage. Today, she has 55 independent agents under her brokerage. They’re spread out across Charlotte and North Carolina’s coast, but she says the brokerage is just the right size for a team-like environment.

Grieff quickly learned that the balance of keeping her boutique brokerage small enough to offer great customer service but competing with the big firms can be challenging. Growing too fast or not fast enough might hinder the success of the brokerage and the agents.

There’s also a fine line between keeping everyone happy and thriving and growing too quickly or too largely to maintain that intimate, hands-on approach. Grieff and Anderson have found the sweet spot though, by incorporating robust planning, communication and strategy into their brokerage models.

Get Specific in Your Vision

Grieff recommends that real estate professionals who want to start their own small brokerage do extensive research and create a plan. This plan should include what the agent envisions in a brokerage, how the business will operate on the day-to-day and a look at costs to get started and maintain.

“We have so many different options now on how to run a business. Not every model will work for everyone and every location. The most important part is to be authentic to who you are,” she says.

It’s also important to stay flexible to accommodate change.

Grow at a Pace Everyone That Works for Everyone

Grieff knows that one of the benefits of running a boutique brokerage is her capacity for hands-on training and individualized attention for her agents. She’s there to personally answer questions and provide support.

“We run the brokerage like a small family, and even though we can be fierce competitors for our clients, at the end of the day, we all also help bring one another up or help each other in any way that we can,” she says.

For the first two-and-a-half years, she only had three agents. Then in a few months, she added three more agents.

“It was at that point that I realized I needed to implement better procedures for training and rules. We have since added another agent for a total of seven now, and our brokerage will be three years old in August,” she says.

She says she has no intention of growing into a large brokerage, and her agents trust that when growth does happen, it works out best for everyone. She doesn’t recruit. Instead, she operates from a “trust the process” mentality, believing that agents who are a good fit will come to the brokerage on their own.

“I do not believe our area can sustain a large number of agents,” she adds. “But regardless of how many agents there are, the top producing agents are the ones who are willing to put in the hard workday in and day out, and it shows.”

Anderson is still comfortable with having just one brick-and-mortar building and not overextending her expenses. She doesn’t want to grow so large that her rent or mortgage costs skyrocket.

“I’m open to getting bigger but not more than 100 agents,” she says. “There’s a lot of flexibility, and the right agents align with that boutique image. I’m hyper local and didn’t want just anybody (working under) my name. I want upper-level customer service and someone with the ability to communicate.”

She says her agents are not necessarily worried about added competition from the growth of her brokerage, because she makes it clear that agents can produce at the level they want to base on their goals, so long as it doesn’t cost the brokerage.

“It doesn’t impact us too much either way,” Anderson comments. “The goal is to get a certain number of producers who bring enough revenue into the firm to pay for events, overhead and more. We do not charge monthly fees.”

Anderson explains that the boutique firm business model is for agents who want to brand themselves but prefer to have more freedom in how they function, which includes the minimal expectation of volume.

Offer Agents What They Need to Thrive

Aside from a full renovation of the firm’s building, Grieff provides a video app for everyone called Marco. It’s a group chat for all the agents to converse back and forth for casual conversation.

“I also provide Canva (for) free to all my agents so they can have fun and be creative with their marketing skills. I also offer a competitive compensation plan and a lead program,” she says.

Anderson has a team leader for the agents who is the profitability coach, and she brainstorms with them in weekly meetings. She also hired transaction coordinators to take the burden of paperwork off her agents.

“There are lot of resources in my firm even though it’s boutique, so they don’t feel alone,” she adds.

When she hires people, she has them take personality tests such as the DISC (Dominance, Inducement, Steadiness or Compliance) so she can better understand how to communicate with them and help them thrive.

“I put people in positions that they like and doing things they like to do and are good at,” she says. “I used to want to do everything and was a perfectionist. But now I do things that make me more profitable,” Anderson adds.

For motivation, she offers agent contests, dinners and top producer trips to fun places like a dude ranch in Arizona or a seaside retreat in Costa Rica. She brings her brokerage into the celebration, posting quarterly figures with special shoutouts for the agents.

“We have team building lunches and events that seem to keep the atmosphere positive throughout the ebbs and flows,” Anderson says. “We have done go-kart racing, gun safety courses, photo shoots, bowling and more.”

Take Care of Yourself

Operating a boutique brokerage means you’re running a small business. It does not, however, mean that you can do everything all at once. Grieff believes the best thing she did for her company and her sanity was hiring her assistant.

“She is great at what she does. She handles organizing my documents, making sure they get to where they need to go, daily marketing, and so much more,” she comments. “This frees me up time so I can put my focus on helping my current clients, obtaining new clients, and helping the other agents' success as well.”

Anderson thinks anyone thinking of starting their own boutique agency should never overextend themselves. Delegation and an understanding of the type of brokerage you want to run is essential.

“Really know what you want to do well in advance and know if you want a smaller or larger firm,” she says. “Pick your niche and take it from there. Pick your location and where you want your branding to be.”

She believes if you have enough real estate experience and you know your strengths and deficiencies, so long as you plan accordingly you can find success.