When Elizabeth Mendenhall arrived at work on a bright September morning, a line of SUVs, sedans, and minivans was already snaking around the parking lot at RE/MAX Boone County Real Estate in Columbia, Mo. Many of the 130 agents in the company she co-owns with her father Richard and brother Ford had lined up early for a “drive through” rebranding event. They were there to order promotional materials adorned with the new, sleeker version of the RE/MAX balloon. Along the way they got bumper stickers, t-shirts, and other promotional swag, along with free doughnuts and coffee. “Good morning, everyone,” said Mendenhall, as she enthusiastically worked the throngs of staff and agents.
It was hard not to feel you were in the presence of a rock star. “I’m stoked about Elizabeth [as NAR president],” said Aaron Rose, a 20-year veteran of the business, who had arrived early and was first in line. “She is very approachable and has so much wisdom. When we need help, she has answers.”
But as Mendenhall assumes the presidency of the National Association of REALTORS®, her approach will be less about providing answers and more about urging the 1.3 million REALTORS® to claim their place at the forefront of a vital industry in the throes of change. Technological, legislative, and political challenges require engagement by REALTORS®, and Mendenhall has unequivocal expectations about what REALTORS®, working together, can do.
Her presidential theme, “Own It,” encompasses Mendenhall’s core belief that REALTORS® need to drive their own success, while feeling confident in the knowledge that she and her leadership team are raising awareness, and fighting the necessary fights, on issues ranging from access to home ownership to preservation of the mortgage interest deduction to the indispensable role that REALTORS® play in communities and the lives of their customers.
“ ‘Own It’ is both an attitude and an action,” Mendenhall says. “And professionalism is an attitude, not just a time commitment. Your success is about owning it in your heart.”
She’s flipping the script about who is ultimately responsible for bringing about positive change in the industry. NAR’s leadership team has made a commitment to carry out the Own It vision not just through Mendenhall’s presidency but through the next three years. That continuity of vision, she says, will enable the team to accomplish goals more efficiently and over a longer time horizon.
Rising to the top of the team’s agenda is the “Commitment to Excellence,” a voluntary program that will enable REALTORS® to publicly demonstrate core competency in ethics, advocacy, technology, data privacy, and customer service. There will be built-in learning opportunities and tools for building skills and knowledge, and members’ accomplishments will be recognized through an endorsement process. The program was conceived in 2015 under President Steve Brown to address the popular desire to raise the bar in real estate. “We intend to get it funded and implemented,” Mendenhall says.
Born to Lead
The downtown Columbia brokerage where Mendenhall has worked since 1996 and been CEO since 2003 is the largest RE/MAX office by transaction sides, and number two in volume, in her seven-state region. She and her family are also co-owners of nearby RE/MAX Jefferson City. Together, the companies reported sales volume of $671 million in 2016, up from $427 million in 2010. Transaction sides grew from 2,674 to 3,698 during that time. The long-independent Boone Realty became a RE/MAX affiliate in 1991. The company has been in her family since 1894, through six generations. Her father, Richard Mendenhall, became broker-owner in 1974 when his mother, Mary Jane, segued from management back into sales. His father Hirst, meanwhile, -handled the property management side of the business. In the fall of 1996, as Richard was becoming increasingly involved in state and national association activities. He called his daughter and asked if she was interested in becoming his full-time administrative assistant. Was she interested? Mendenhall, who had studied accounting at the University of Kansas and was working in -restaurant management, said she was.
First came the two-hour formal interview, when she realized her dad was looking for someone who would eventually take over the reins. “I got the typical interview questions about what would make me a good manager. He asked me about the people I hired and fired at the restaurant. I have to admit going through that formal process with your dad felt really weird.”
Her mother, Pam Newman, helped quash any hesitation. “She pointed out that if I didn’t like it, I was still young enough to start something else,” she says.
Within five months of starting at RE/MAX Boone, Mendenhall had earned both her sales agent and broker licenses. She shadowed her father at sales meetings and trainings; attended franchise conventions and association meetings; and pored over contract language and the nuances of the REALTORS® Code of Ethics.
“I was all about acquiring as much knowledge as I could,” she says. In quick succession, Mendenhall earned three designations—she now holds seven—and three years into the job, she had her own personal assistant. Encouraging others to acquire as much real estate education as possible “became part of my vision” for running the business, she says.
Mendenhall also proved to be a skillful recruiter. “I’m a good judge of people’s character and personality. My father would agree with that,” she says.
The company’s formidable growth is attributable to her eagerness to leverage the burgeoning power of the internet at the start of the millennium. “We were the first brokerage in town to have a website, the first to offer virtual home tours, and the first to offer social media marketing packages to agents,” she notes.
Her direct, open way of communicating has served the company well. “I’m a better delegator than my dad,” she says. “I try to empower the staff. The effect is that people really step up.”
‘Small Stuff Does Matter’
Read more about how to "Own It"
While family businesses are common enough in real estate, NAR dynasties are not. Mendenhall, 45, is the first offspring of an NAR president to ascend to the top association role. Richard was NAR’s 2001 president. His name helped open doors for her in organized real estate, she says, and she values his advice. But as the first Generation X president, she brings her own leadership style and work-life experience to the role.
One of Richard Mendenhall’s professional mottos is “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she says. “But I realize that sometimes the small stuff does matter. I send a lot of thank-you notes. I go out of my way to respond to email because responses do matter,” Mendenhall says. Even on highly charged issues like tax reform, she does her best to answer every comment she receives. ”I’m glad people feel comfortable reaching out to me [even when they have an objection]. I see these as opportunities to provide education and have a conversation.”
Mendenhall likes to face fears head-on (a 2016 skydiving trip with four REALTOR® family pals left her feeling like a super hero, she says), and she comes into the presidency with a reputation for wanting to shake things up. “This ain’t your daddy’s association anymore,” she quipped from the stage last August before a gathering of 1,500 local and state REALTOR® association leaders. “My daddy is here and I think he would agree with me.”
The role of a rebel doesn’t jibe easily with that of association president. “In many ways, it’s easier to be the renegade,” she admits. Yet the stakes have never been higher. Tax reform was a watershed moment, with many REALTORS® expressing support for a simplified code. But NAR leaders saw early on that tax packages put forth by the U.S. House and Senate would raise taxes on millions of homeowners and threaten real estate markets.
In the end, the bill signed by President Donald Trump in December reflected important changes sought by NAR. The law preserves both the exclusion for capital gains on the sale of a home and the like-kind exchange for commercial investors, and it provides tax breaks for pass-through businesses. Mortgage interest deductions remain in place for first and second homes on new loans of up to of $750,000. Deductions for state and local income tax and property tax were retained, though capped at $10,000. (See a complete summary at nar.realtor/tax-reform.)
The theme of “Own It” applies in this realm as well, Mendenhall points out. “America still believes in the promise of homeownership, and our tax structure should support that belief.” Despite NAR’s successes, achieved with the help of two Congressional Calls for Action that registered the highest response rate ever, “we still have some hard work ahead of us,” she says.
Even as federal tax reform was capturing national attention, Mendenhall and her leadership team were gearing up for an associationwide conversation about advocacy at the state and local levels. A presidential advisory group convened by 2017 president William E. Brown showed that the five-year-old REALTOR® Party initiative, which funds state and local advocacy, would need additional resources. The PAG’s proposal and other critical budget decisions will be vetted over the next several months; if they advance, they’ll be voted on by the Board of Directors in May. Mendenhall plans to use Facebook Live and other avenues to seek member input, but for her the decision is clear: “We need to beef up our efforts and fund more issue mobilization at the local level,” she says.
She knows first-hand the value of a state and local advocacy program. As president of the Missouri Association of REALTORS® in 2010, she led a successful effort to change the state constitution to permanently ban transfer taxes in real estate sales. “We got a lot of support through the REALTOR® Party program, and I really came to see NAR as a business partner,” she says. “There’s power in numbers. There’s power in being a member.”
As Mendenhall has moved up the leadership ranks at NAR, improving member communication has been at the forefront of her agenda. Her drive to bring greater transparency and consistency in the way that NAR committees communicate led to the introduction, in November, of a community website called The Hub, built on the same technology used by Missouri REALTORS®. She also is behind the creation of leadership.realtor, a website where members can easily find who’s leading each of NAR’s regions, committees, and affiliated organizations.
Taking a Stand
At NAR, it’s the incoming president who appoints committee vice chairs, so Mendenhall’s appointees now chair the association’s 91 committees, advisory boards, forums, and councils. For her, selecting REALTORS® with the spirit to “Own It” was critical—but just as important was having a diverse leadership. “Better decisions are always made with diversity at the table,” she says, “whether we’re talking about men and women, race, or small and large brokerages or boards.”
Diversity—or inclusivity—will be on Mendenhall’s mind quite a bit this year as NAR commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. The magazine will touch on some aspect of the law each issue, and NAR will continue advocating for changes to the federal law to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. NAR’s Board of Directors amended the Code of Ethics in 2010 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (effective January 2011) and in 2013 added gender identity (effective January 2014).
But driving toward a fair future is only part of the picture for Mendenhall. At a National Association of Real Estate Brokers conference in 2016, Mendenhall addressed the mostly African- American audience and took an unprecedented step, personally apologizing for the association’s past discriminatory practices in housing and membership.
“I acknowledged that we had a history in which we didn’t include everyone, and I noted that I would be the first president [because of her age] who had no tie to that history,” she says. “People at NAREB told me later it was a big deal for me to recognize NAR’s past,” she says. “I felt it was important to apologize, not just acknowledge what happened.”
For Mendenhall, it’s that simple. “Let’s own the past,” she says. “And let’s own the future.”