Tommy Choi, co-founder of Keller Williams Chicago-Lincoln Park, began his term as president of the Chicago Association of Realtors Oct. 1 after being officially installed at the association’s annual inaugural gala Sept. 12. His inaugural address to guests in attendance touched on his personal and professional background, including what he learned about the business of real estate from his family, and how he hopes to apply that knowledge in his term as president.
In his first interview as president of CAR, Choi spoke with Chicago Agent in greater detail about his upbringing, his ambitions and his love of Pearl Jam, among other things.
Chicago Agent: You started Weinberg Choi Realty in 2007. What was it like starting a real estate company right before the recession hit? What does the industry feel like now compared to around 10 years ago?
Tommy Choi: I’d say this: I am a very experience-based learner, so I’m very grateful to have gone through that period between 2008 and 2011. You can read in a textbook what went on and what the market felt like, but that doesn’t get you the experience of sitting down at the kitchen table with a seller and telling them that they are going to have to get out their checkbook to sell their home because they have no more equity left. It was definitely tough during those years, but I also gained a wealth of knowledge and experience from it.
One hundred percent, I would do it all over again. It built a foundation for Josh [Weinberg] and I to grow and establish our business. It also forced Josh and I to adapt and look more at rental deals. And years later, those renters turned into new homebuyers.
CA: You’re the first Korean American CAR president, and you talked about your family in your inaugural address as an inspiration. What did you learn from them that you apply to your career?
TC: Being first-generation, I always talk about this different mentality that I was brought up with. You can be first-generation American and have that immigrant mentality. At the end of the day, we are all immigrants in this country. My parents and grandparents just worked hard to create opportunity for their family. In doing so, that’s where my grit came in, and it really became part of my DNA.
The mentality I learned from my parents and grandparents is, if I take the shot and I miss, I need to hustle to get that rebound. With that mindset, you start to see more collaborative environments, you start to see everyone look out for each other’s community instead of themselves. We are all here to help each other. That’s my hope for our members, that we create that kind of environment for real estate agents with the work CAR does.
CA: What are some specific goals you want to achieve in your term as president, and how do you hope to achieve them?
TC: I am a true believer that you can only build as tall as your deepest foundation. For me, that means always looking to deepen the foundation, and create a strong and stable platform that next year’s leaders can continue to build upon. So my mindset’s never been that, at the end of my term, I would have this list of accomplishments that I made happen. I don’t really care about things like that. What’s more important to me is staying on the trajectory and positive foundation that our past president Rebecca Thomson put us on, and create a deeper foundation for our next incoming president, Maurice Hampton, and whoever comes in after that.
One of my big points of focus will be cultivating learning opportunities for agents who are Realtor members. We want to reach out to high-performing, top-producing agents nationally and bring high-level content to our members that will help them build better businesses. In addition, I want to work on presenting that content and data to agents in a way that helps them understand it, and allows them to use that data to help their clients. We could invite outside experts from sites like Zillow or Realtor.com to present to our members too. While we sometimes think of them as “the enemy,” we need to understand their business models, because they are really just online lead-generators. How can we work with them and ask them questions to better understand their model and the data that they have? They have a lot of analytics and insight that could make our members more knowledgeable.
CA: Did I hear you correctly that you’ve seen Pearl Jam 60 times? How do you manage that and keep track of all those shows?
TC: My very first Pearl Jam show was when I was a freshman in high school in 1995 at Soldier Field. When I was younger, in college, I would travel to several of their shows each year. Nowadays, I’ll go whenever they are in Chicago, or just a couple times a year. I collect all my ticket stubs, and I have since day one. That’s getting harder and harder now that it’s all digital. I’m probably the last person on Earth who requests the option on Ticketmaster to send a physical ticket in the mail. There’s also an awesome Pearl Jam app that lets me keep track of every show I’ve been to, and then upload that data, so I can see what songs or albums I’ve seen live. So I apply analytics to Pearl Jam a lot like I apply it to real estate.