The Balancing Act of Working With Family

How joining my parents' real estate company led to finding my own identity.

I stopped calling my parents mom and dad when I began selling full-time with their real estate team, The Nellis Group. For one, hearing me call my appraiser “dad” or my team leader “mom” didn’t always instill confidence in clients who were entrusting me with $800,000 transactions. But my parents, Jim and Vicki Nellis, were also well-known and respected business leaders in northern Virginia, and their names meant something to our community. I learned that leveraging my relationship to them — and the power of the name I was born into — could attract more clients and convince agents twice my age to work with me because of my connections.

To the outside world, it sometimes looked like I was being handed my success. Some of my peers who worked in other industries would talk about how they had to earn their positions and accomplishments, and they would suggest I was riding my parents’ coattails to get ahead in my career. I questioned it myself sometimes when clients would ask, “You’re Jim and Vicki’s son, aren’t you?”

Sometimes you have to block out the noise. The truth is I was lucky to have been raised in a hardworking real estate family, and I was eternally grateful for the opportunities it afforded me. I also reminded myself of my own commitment to excel in this industry, create my own niche, and help expand The Nellis Group. My parents may have started our team, but I was going to lead it into the future.

And I started doing that from the bottom of the totem pole. My first assignment was to handle the “junk leads” — which, in the 1990s, was the Internet leads, a new business channel at the time that none of our agents understood or wanted to learn. It gave me an opportunity to learn technology and customers’ buying patterns online. In two years, I made these leads a steady source of business for The Nellis Group, and every agent wanted to learn how to work them. 

I realized that technology is where I could make my mark on our team — the area of expertise that The Nellis Group needed and that would set me apart as my own professional. I searched for mentors in the technology field who could further help me develop my ideas, and I brought their suggestions back to our team to figure out how to incorporate them into our business model. Part of what I learned inspired me to equip our agents with cutting-edge technology, eventually moving them all to work on the iPad 2, which is our process today.

My innovative expertise helped me lead the expansion of The Nellis Group from Virginia into Maryland and Washington, D.C., and today, I run the family business along with my sister, brother-in-law, father, and stepmother. My mother died years ago, but we have taught all our agents and staff to embrace the core values she originally formed.

I’ve found that being in a family business is sometimes a balancing act between using what you’ve been given and paving your own path forward. If your family has an honored name in the real estate space, there’s nothing wrong with leveraging it to get ahead. Just remember that your goal isn’t simply to work for the family business but to carry it to greater heights. You do that by creating a niche for yourself and taking logical steps to make it a source of business your family will come to rely on. Then, you will have made a name for yourself.