By Mary T. Prenon
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world for all of us. Hundreds of local businesses shut down, thousands of people suddenly found themselves out of work, and the real estate industry was forced to operate in slow motion as agents learned new ways of listing and showing properties while staying safe.
Acknowledging the vast opportunities that real estate does offer, a former Los Angeles wedding planner, a Chicago Mercantile Exchange trader and a suburban Chicago millennial all launched their real estate careers just before the onslaught of the worldwide deadly virus. Despite the obvious setbacks, each has managed to attain success in a climate that no one could have predicted.
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Beverly Harris, a broker with @Properties in Chicago and Oak Park, began her real estate career just last year, after moving back to her hometown of Chicago from a 23-year hiatus in Los Angeles.
A former social media influencer and wedding planner, Harris knew a typical 9-to-5 job was not for her. “I love working with people, and friends kept telling me I’d be great at real estate, so here I am,” she said. While no one could have foreseen the pandemic, Harris didn’t treat it as a threat to her new career. “I just hit the ground running,” she remembered. “I started by calling everyone I knew, and while it didn’t take off right away, I’m the kind of person who just makes things happen.”
As a newbie, Harris surrounded herself with successful real estate agents, attending open houses and assisting with rentals. Her first listing actually went into contract in less than a week, and she has managed to sell several properties during COVID. Her motto for success is to constantly keep in touch with people, use social media, conduct virtual showings and continuously update her marketing. “I love being back in Chicago now — I guess I’ve always been a city girl,” she said.
In fact, it was the allure of the Los Angeles city lights that steered Harris westward shortly after graduating from Wilberforce University in Ohio. “I knew I was an L.A. type of person, so one day I just got in my car and drove there,” she recalled.
Harris stayed with a friend for six months while getting herself established. Armed with a degree in business management, she began working with a local property management company while starting her own business on the side.
Harris was naturally drawn to Beverly Hills, which may have had something to do with her name. “I definitely wanted to be in Beverly Hills, but I couldn’t afford to live there,” she said. So, she did the next best thing — she launched the Beverly Hills Insider , an online guide to everything about Beverly Hills, including shopping, restaurants, hotels, real estate and exclusive social events. “I’d go out every day and introduce myself to store owners and hotel managers. That helped me to meet a lot of people and make the right connections.”
Soon, more “Beverlys” became part of her intimate circle, including the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, famous for being featured in the movie “Pretty Woman,” with actors Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
In 2012, Harris sold the “Insider” and launched Beverly Harris Weddings, planning high-end, exclusive nuptials in and around Beverly Hills. “At that point I had a contact list full of hotels, restaurants and event venues,” she added. Somewhere along the way, she also found time to earn her master’s degree in marketing.
Seven years later, things changed for Harris. “My sister had been taking care of my mom, but I knew it was time for me to come home to help,” she said. “I loved L.A, but this was something I had to do.”
Today, Harris specializes in sales in the West Loop and Gold Coast and makes it a point to hold two open houses every weekend, with one in the city and the other in the suburbs. “Being new, I want to make sure I don’t mess it up, so I do ask for help,” she added. “There’s a lot of little things we didn’t learn in class.” She also insists on going to the office every day, because now potential homeowners are starting to walk back in.
Glenn Pankau, a broker with Baird & Warner in Winnetka, also began his real estate career last year, looking forward to less stressful days than the 15 years he spent as a trader with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).
Like others in the business, he had to rely on virtual meetings and social media once the pandemic struck. However, his knowledge of lake communities came in handy as many Chicago residents began moving north to escape the confined lifestyle of the city.
Growing up in suburban Park Ridge, Pankau vacationed at Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva every summer. “My dad was involved in real estate and bought property there in the 1960s,” he said. After his father sold his business, the family moved there, making their summer residence their year-round home. “It was the greatest move ever!”
Pankau eventually made his home in Winnetka, but not before spending 17 years in the city as a derivatives trader with the CME. Holding a B.A. in international business from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, he felt quite at home in this often-chaotic atmosphere. “Before that, I was a pit trader,” he said. “It takes a certain disposition to be able to do that. Some days I had it, and some days I didn’t.” Once he and his wife started a family, Winnetka seemed like the logical choice, given his love of lakeside living. He commuted to the city, then began trading electronically from home.
It was when trading seemed to become less profitable that Pankau made the switch to real estate, obtaining licenses in both Wisconsin and Illinois. With children in the local school system, he was able to make contacts at baseball games and parks. Since he grew up living on Lake Geneva, Pankau quickly gained a reputation for advising people on how to move to the suburbs and vacation spots. “I started to be known as ‘that Wisconsin guy’,” he quipped.
It was just as Pankau was solidifying his marketing plans that the pandemic struck. “I needed to reshape how I was doing things,” he explained. “Fortunately, a lot of people living in the city wanted to get out. They needed more room for working at home, and they also wanted some outdoor space.”
Now, he admits, lake homes are “flying off the shelves” as homeowners are postponing or canceling vacations for now. “People are looking for homes that will give them the sense that they’re already on vacation,” he added.
Pankau believes those years on the trading floor helped him to develop the thick skin he needed during COVID. “A lot of times friends don’t want to hire you right away, but they’ll recommend you to someone else,” he said. “One good thing to come out of this was that it pushed technology forward with Zoom meetings, virtual showings and a lot more videos.”
For Caitlin Smith, a broker with the Dawn McKenna Group at Coldwell Banker, real estate was just an obvious career choice, and even the pandemic wasn’t going to stand in her way. “We were actually very busy this summer with a lot of rentals,” she explained. “While COVID may have halted people from buying this year, we found that a lot of renters want to bump up their living space to two bedrooms to have extra space for working at home. They also tend to put a higher value on outdoor space like balconies or patios.”
As for sales listings, Smith said it was all about the sellers’ comfort levels. “Some of them are OK with allowing buyers in their home as long as everyone is wearing a mask and gloves,” she said. In some cases, buyers have put in offers sight unseen if they were not comfortable personally viewing properties.
At 25, Smith is one of the youngest brokers in her office, but she knew from an early age that real estate was what she wanted to do. Growing up in Chicago’s western suburbs, she loved watching HGTV and often spent weekends coaxing her mother to take her to local open houses. While attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, she completed an internship at a local Coldwell Banker Residential brokerage. Shortly afterward, she earned her broker’s license, moved back to Chicago and began working as an assistant with the Dawn McKenna Group at Coldwell Banker.
“I knew that I wouldn’t be happy sitting at a desk all day,” she recalled. A friend of McKenna’s daughter, Smith reached out to McKenna about joining her team, which was expanding to downtown Chicago. Putting her dual degrees in strategic communications and business law to work, she began by helping them with social media, developing a logo for the group and launching a digital ad campaign. She also had the opportunity to join McKenna on her listings and showings.
Being tech savvy also helped to pave the way to her success in real estate sales. “I was the youngest person in the office by about 20 years, but that was OK,” she said. “It was a great experience, and I learned from the best. Dawn is not only one of the top agents in Chicago, but in the state of Illinois.”
Recalling her very first sale — a condo in the trendy West Loop neighborhood — Smith described it as “a rush of emotions.” “I could see how excited the client was, and it just made me feel so happy,” she said. In addition to the West Loop, Smith specializes in sales and rentals in Lincoln Park, River North and Lakeview, where she recently purchased a condo herself.
Smith admits her young age and “rookie” status did bring some challenges to the table. “I jumped right in not knowing exactly what I was jumping into, but it did help to start out as an assistant and learn the business firsthand from experienced agents,” she said. “I would also recommend joining a team or group so that you have not only career support, but emotional support, as well.”
Today, about 60% of her clients are interested in rentals. As a millennial, Smith started a rental team to approach college students with presentations on how and where to rent in Chicago. Currently, the average rental for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,800 to $2,000 a month. “Many renters eventually turn into buyers,” she added, indicating the average one-bedroom condo sells for $450,000.
All three real estate rookies admit they wouldn’t have made any other choices — even if they had known that a pandemic was on the way. For anyone who may be considering a real estate career at this time, Harris offers some simple advice: “Get out and meet people, show up for work and be ready to go.”