Whether you’ve known Minneapolis native John Smaby for five minutes, five years, or 25 years, you’ve likely experienced that undeniable quality that friends and colleagues talk about: his ability to make you feel heard.
Over his nearly 40-year career, which has included management of six Edina Realty offices with up to 200 agents, Smaby, 64, has found his greatest satisfaction comes from focusing on others’ success. “I’ve had no greater joy than seeing people grow, watching families grow, and seeing people become successful,” Smaby says.
“John knows how to put people in positions where they can succeed,” says Matt Loskota, e-PRO, GRI, who succeeded Smaby as managing broker of Edina’s flagship office. “He gets the people he meets, figures out their talents, and he’ll somehow put an opportunity in front of them.”
Loskota suffered a torn Achilles tendon early in his career, leaving him concerned about how he’d get around and earn a living in real estate. Smaby paid a house call to the promising young agent and offered to waive Loskota’s fees until he recovered. Not only did Loskota go on to excel in his career, he became an association leader, serving as 2018 president of Minnesota REALTORS®. It was Smaby who encouraged his initial involvement.
“It’s about paying attention to details and treating people fairly but not the same,” Smaby says of his personal leadership style. He’s proud of the number of agents who stayed with his office over his 30-year career at Edina Realty. “I’ve tried to know more about my agents and make sure when they needed me, I was there for them.”
Smaby’s wife of 39 years, Linda (Blattie) Smaby, CRS, GRI, has seen that commitment first-hand working as an agent with Edina. “One of his biggest strengths is that he can pull people together,” she says.
‘My Agents Were Asking for Help’
Now, Smaby turns his attention to the presidency of the National Association of REALTORS®. What REALTORS® are getting is a “relationship master, a walking Rolodex,” says Brian Copeland, CRS, GRI, NAR’s 2019 vice president of association affairs. Copeland, founder of Doorbell Real Estate in Nashville, has developed a friendship with Smaby as a result of their years of service to NAR. “John not only has a heart for REALTORS®, he has a love for our families and those we are connected to the most.”
For Smaby, family and real estate are intertwined. His dad, Philip Smaby, was broker-owner of an Edina, Minn., institution, Bermel-Smaby Realty, a company he co-founded in 1946 and sold to Edina Realty in the mid-1980s. The elder Smaby served as NAR president in 1976. At that time, John, his youngest son, was 22 years old and still three years from starting his own real estate career. But John Smaby was already steeped in the rites of the business. At age 6, he recalls, he was paid a dime an hour to put new listing sheets in MLS books. He and his siblings (two brothers and a sister) were taught how to properly greet people on the phone since his dad would often get business calls at their South Minneapolis home. And the family would sometimes travel to Chicago when his father attended meetings at NAR’s headquarters. “My dad taught me respect for the profession and a love of the association,” he says.
“There’s nobody who loved NAR more than Phil—except John,” says Chris Polychron, CRS, GRI, executive broker with 1st Choice Realty in Hot Springs, Ark.
Smaby has served on NAR’s board of directors since 2001, but it was the housing market crash and the Great Recession that galvanized his resolve to lead the organization. “I was truly frightened, and my agents were asking for help,” he says. “It became very clear to me if we were going to get out of this mess, we had to do it together.” When NAR worked to secure a temporary first-time homebuyer tax credit, it became a lifeline, he says. “I sold the hell out of it. Rates were low and there was still opportunity in that marketplace. Our actions after the crash serve as a classic reminder of the worth and value of our association.”
In 2010, with the country still in the grips of recession, Smaby and Polychron led fundraising for the REALTORS® Political Action Committee. Smaby convinced his counterpart that, in those challenging economic times, a little humor was needed. He had a video crew record the two men running up the steps of the U.S. Capitol and set the video to the theme music from “Rocky.” “He became one of my best friends in real estate,” Polychron chuckles. “I’ve spent a lot of time with John. He truly cares about the association and its members.”
It was Polychron who administered the oath of office to Smaby at the NAR inaugural gala. That same day, Nov. 1, 2018, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed it John Smaby Day in the state.
Foundation in Caring
Real estate wasn’t the only constant in Smaby’s youth. He recalls the music of the Mills Brothers spinning on the family record player. His mother was a prolific artist who taught art to junior high– and high school–aged kids. Summers spent at the family cabin on North Star Lake in northern Minnesota instilled in him the value of connecting with the outdoors, he says. And his parents’ decision to care for seven foster children deeply influenced his passion for giving back.
When Smaby left for St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he continued his involvement in Young Life, a Christian organization, making the hour-long drive to the Twin Cities from his college dorm for weekly meetings to serve as a leader and mentor to younger teenagers. After he graduated in 1976 with a communications degree, he worked at an employment agency and later sold duplicating machines. He and Linda married in 1979, the same year he started as an agent in his dad’s firm. Real estate was no walk in the park. Mortgage rates were hovering in the 12 percent range and by 1981 had hit 18 percent. Yet, by focusing on his clients’ needs, he was able to build a solid business. When Philip Smaby sold his company and retired, his son went into management at Edina Realty.
Smaby has lived and worked under the mantra of doing business the right way, working hard, and having fun doing it. “There are times it’s not fun or fair, but I’ve found a joyful life is a happy life.” He still gets up each day thinking about new possibilities and what needs to get done. He’s part of a leadership team committed to change at NAR, to making NAR a welcoming place, and to leading the association forward so that the “greatest profession in the world” remains a viable career.
Owning the REALTOR® Story
In 2019, NAR celebrates the 50th anniversary of RPAC, and advocacy and regulatory monitoring remain one of the team’s top strategic priorities. Others priorities include enhancing the member experience, heightening NAR’s role as a steward of data, and advancing member and consumer communications.
It’s that last priority—the need for better communications about the industry and about NAR—that captured Smaby’s focus when he was running for NAR office. And it reinforced his commitment to continue 2018 President Elizabeth Mendenhall’s theme of “Own It,” but with a twist. His presidential theme, “Own Your Story,” is aimed at inspiring members to use the power of storytelling to share what the real estate industry means to clients and community.
“We are NAR; REALTORS® are NAR. What I’ve seen around the country are all the great things we do, like giving back to local communities,” he says. “Together, we have a beautiful and compelling story to tell,” says Smaby.
At the same time, the industry can’t become complacent. “We have a valuable product. We’re an economic driver for all segments of our society.” Venture capitalists have poured billions into real estate technology businesses over the last four years, he says, and NAR must keep a watchful eye on these startups and products in order to stay nimble and prepare for disruption. “We’ve had new business models forever in our industry, but I think we need to be in thinking and dreaming mode now more than ever,” Smaby says.
He’s keenly aware of the evolving business models in real estate. Edina Realty has seen tremendous change the past 20 years, starting with the formation of HomeServices of America by then-Edina president Ron Peltier, followed shortly by an affiliation with Berkshire Hathaway. In 2013, after 30 years in the same location, Smaby’s office moved to a more visible location that had half the footprint. To help agents run their businesses away from the office, the company recently launched a virtual assistant program named Emma, after Emma Rovick, the woman who founded Edina Realty in 1955. The artificial intelligence technology will help agents with their CRM, tell them when they need to make a call, and order them “success marketing,” as Smaby calls it, such as “just sold” cards.
When it comes to advocating for members at all levels of government, Smaby says, NAR is a respected voice and must continue to stand up and fight when needed. With Congress and the Trump administration focused on housing finance reform and rethinking a wide range of federal rules, he expects that regulatory issues will be a big priority in 2019. “At the core of what we do is the 30-year mortgage, and we need to do everything we can to keep that because that’s a driver for us. It makes owning a home affordable,” he says.
Tracy Kasper, CRS, GRI, broker-owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Silverhawk Realty in Eagle, Idaho, is NAR’s 2019 vice president of advocacy. “You won’t find a more genuine person. His heart is on his sleeve,” Kasper says. “And in my mind’s eye, there isn’t a better way to lead an association of people.”
Since the two met, Kasper says, Smaby has pushed her to understand the leading—and often the most complicated—issues facing the industry. “He’ll ask me questions like, ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ He has pushed me to pay attention, especially to the MLS and data conversation, which is important to us as an industry. It’s that balance of advertising that information and protecting it,” she says.
“I think that my greatest impact at the end of the year should be that people believe NAR is working in their best interests and that we’re building a relation-ship of trust,” Smaby says. “Job number one is making Commitment to Excellence succeed in a big way.”
More than 10,000 NAR members have begun their journey through C2EX (C2EX.realtor), which encourages professional development through an interactive program that offers each user an individualized path to achieve the C2EX Endorsement.
But C2EX is just the beginning, he adds. “The message we have is that we stand for Code of Ethics and professionalism, and that every member is expected to subscribe to that,” he says. “It’s what agents and clients can expect from the REALTOR® brand.”
As in everything, storytelling will be critical. “Our biggest strength is our 1.3 million members,” Smaby says. “Let’s tell our story and be proud of what we do.”