Big Brokerage vs. Boutique Agency:

by Chicago Agent

Which is the Right Choice?

Choosing between a big brokerage and a boutique agency is a personal and professional choice that can change as your career advances or your clients’ needs grow and alter, especially during the constant fluctuations in our current market. Whether you’re in the midst of a career change or just curious to see if the grass really is greener on the other side, it never hurts to do your research.

By Morgan Phelps

What’s in a Brand Name?
No matter what level of business you’re doing, you’re certainly aware of names like RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker and Century 21 and can identify their signs from a mile away. However, depending on the focus and area of your business, names like City Point Realty or Jean Wright Real Estate may be less familiar or complete unknowns. Though boutique agencies might not be as recognizable, this does not mean you will find less clients or make less money.

“Coldwell Banker captures the buyer and I create a boutique atmosphere,” says Carol Lee Cikanek, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Hinsdale. Cikanek likes that when dealing with clients interested in locations outside of her specialty, it’s reassuring to know “you’re handing off a client to the best of the best” in terms of surrendering her clients to other Coldwell Banker agents around the nation.

“It’s always good to have a large name because it indicates stability and also shows a proven track record,” says Keith Giles, owner and managing broker of Weichert Realtors – Frankel & Giles. “But it’s not just the name, it’s about the people.” Frankel & Giles merged with Weichert Realtors in January of this year. Their 20-person team is now amongst the 18,000-plus Weichert agents across the country. “We offer a boutique aspect as well as the large end of the spectrum with Weichert,” says Giles.

A well-known, national brand name can certainly be a helpful tool to hook clients in, but it can also intimidate those who fear they won’t be receiving personalized service. On the whole, being a successful agent isn’t all in a company name.

Stephanie Wesson, an agent who has been with several large brokerages and now works with The Real Estate Group, believes in the importance of building a personal brand as a Realtor. Agents at big brokerages “lack the autonomy to brand themselves because the brokerage is branding one thing, and that’s the company,” says Wesson. “A boutique agency offers more opportunity for an agent to brand themselves. You have complete autonomy, you’re running your own business.” She says occasionally not having a national name has been a client concern, but it is “always overcome because in the end property is sold by the agent, not the brokerage.”

Believing in the power of her own name and her presence as a successful agent on the North Shore from her time at Continental Real Estate, Jean Wright opened Jean Wright Real Estate in 1981. Her “very active boutique” is based in Winnetka and consists of 16 agents specializing in luxury properties.

Mentorship Matters
Networking with other agents and building successful business relationships often begins within your office, but can extend throughout the Chicagoland area and the country, which eventually helps with referrals and relocation assistance. While large, national companies often are limited to refering to agents within their company’s national network, smaller agencies have the freedom to interact with any agent they please without stepping on any toes.

“When you’re networking with 4,200 other agents, you’re going to find many people, especially top agents, who will help you,” says Cikanek, a member of Coldwell’s President’s Club. “But it’s also important to have chemistry. In an office of 20, you may not have chemistry with one of those people.” On the flip side, in an office with hundreds, there is more of a chance that multiple personalities will not mesh with others, especially when boutique offices are choosy about who they bring on board.

Giles says it has always been important for his company to foster a positive mentoring relationship with agents, even when they were the boutique agency of Frankel & Giles. “All business depends on who you’re working with,” says Giles. “If you don’t have a nurturing, mentoring environment, it doesn’t matter who you’re with – large, small or medium.”

Boutique agencies like City Point Realty and Jean Wright Real Estate believe in the importance of a strong owner-to-agent mentor relationship because “we are paying a high price if an agent doesn’t succeed,” says Dan Merrion, co-owner of City Point Realty, who feels that more pressure is put on owners of boutique agencies. Both Wright and Merrion stress their 24/7 availability to agents via cell phone and by being in the office for a majority of the workweek.

A strong relationship and accessibility to management and ownership can also be stressed in national companies. “We’re not so large that you’re not going to get the attention of management or ownership,” says Giles.

Although she admits it may be partly because of her standing in the company and presence in the President’s Club, Cikanek says she has no problem getting in touch with the president of her company and feels management is entirely approachable. “I’ve never been at a company where the executive suite did not allow me to interact with them,” she says. However, Wesson did find that in her experience at big brokerages, frequent changes in management made the company somewhat out of touch with the individual agents’ needs.

Beyond the office, big brokerages have built-in national and international networks at their agents’ disposal. Boutique agencies aren’t necessarily left out, as Wright’s boutique agency is also in the international game by belonging to the global network Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, which she says comes in handy when a client wants to relocate out of the area. Opportunities to network also exist outside your company through local and national industry associations like the Chicago Association of Realtors and National Association of Realtors.

Tools to Succeed
Whether you’re at a small or large agency, your business requires the right tools, technology and training to grow. “If you’re smart, you’ll choose an office with an absolutely fail safe training program that continues with need,” says Cikanek. Coldwell Banker requires new agents to attend a training program called Fast Start, but she says agents transferring from other brokerages often choose to attend as well. “They give us the tools that keep us from doing mundane things,” says Cikanek, which includes continuous education courses and technology training and tools for all agents.

Wesson says that as a rookie the initial training and opportunity to learn from experienced agents was a strong plus for big brokerages, but she found that it sometimes came at a cost to agents in the form of commission sharing and corporate charges.

Ongoing training can be just as important as the initial sessions, especially as technology and the industry rapidly change. City Point Realty, a boutique agency of 13 agents, offers its team weekly sessions with experts from all areas of the industry – from attorneys to lenders to home inspectors. Co-owners and brothers Dan and Brian Merrion also make sure their agents can respond within minutes to client requests on the Web by having the latest technology and making sure everyone knows how to use it.

Giles says his company didn’t have an established training program before Weichert, but all of his agents went through Weichert University. Agents also receive daily e-mails with tips and statistics from Weichert’s corporate offices. The merger also offered his agents Weichert’s established Web presence, with guaranteed three to five minute response times to Web requests.

It All Comes Down to the Client
To be a continuously successful agent, you have to be flexible not only with market’s ups and downs, but also with the changing needs of your clients. In terms of determining which type of brokerage will bring you more sales, that question can only be answered by what you need as an agent. If you can thrive in a boutique setting, then that is where the money will come for you. If a large, national company makes you feel more at ease, then that is the right choice.

Wright chose to open her own shop long ago, so “I could run it the way that would work best for the clients. We are small enough to really give personalized service to buyers and sellers. We can, so to speak, turn on a dime [for a client]. We don’t have to go to corporate.” Her agents are such a close team that Wright says when one agent was out of the office and her client came in with questions, another agent called the client by name and was able to jump right in and help.

“The climate is changing in the real estate industry and clients need more options,” says Wesson. “Bigger brokerages tend to offer a one-stop shop.” She moved to The Real Estate Group from a large, national agency in January because of a streamlined business model that not only cut costs for her clients, but also offered plenty of opportunity for personal growth and branding with the support of a strong satellite office and managing broker.

“City Point is agent service oriented as well as customer service oriented,” says Merrion. He also believes a boutique is “more adaptable and quicker to change to the marketplace” than a big brokerage.

Ultimately, “you have to be with a company that can support your clients,” says Cikanek. For her that means taking a boutique approach to her company’s national business. For you, picking a big brokerage or boutique agency is your own personal choice. With the vast array of business opportunities in the real estate industry, it can be difficult to decipher what will be the best fit. But with a bit of research and on-the-job experience, you’ll soon know what brokerage size is right for the business you want. C.A.


Keith Giles
Owner/Managing Broker
Weichert Realtors – Frankel & Giles

Carol Lee Cikanek
Coldwell Banker Hinsdale

Dan Merrion
City Point Realty

Jean Wright
Jean Wright Real Estate

Stephanie Wesson
The Real Estate Group

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