First, there was Bennifer, then there was Brangelina and now there is BREL, as in, Brendan Powell and Melanie Piche — a super-couple in Toronto real estate.
As husband and wife, they lead The BREL Team — a nine-agent and 14-person real estate powerhouse representing SAGE Real Estate Brokerage Ltd. Established in 2009, the team says they have made well over $100 million in sales so far this year by being the agents they always wished they had when they were buying houses. Part of that means doing the heavy lifting required so their clients never have to.
“Our clients tend to be busy professionals, young families or people in a difficult situation,” says Piche. “We have a lot of divorces or estate sales and buying or selling is always very stressful, so we’re doing everything we can to take as much of that on, so they’re not worried about that,” says Piche.
The BREL Team also understand the consumer is likely coming to them having been immersed in social media and armed with information about the market just from looking it up on their phones, so they are committed to respecting that.
That’s why, in this revealing interview, they talk about their efforts to bring real estate marketing and communication up to the standards of the rest of the modern business world. They also touch on how they stay strong in their marriage while running a business together, weighing in on current “Is Toronto a world-class city?” debate in a way that will get readers talking.
How did you both begin in real estate?
Brendan Powell: We both bought houses before we got into real estate. Melanie had bought at least two homes and I had bought one. We were consumers before we were realtors. Melanie’s background was in marketing and advertising and I was working as a copywriter. We were both in that world and we both had the same reaction which was, “Why does real estate have different standards for business than the rest of the world?” The way that marketing, communications and service are approached in real estate all seem like people gave real estate agents a pass that they would never put up with in other parts of their lives. Lawyers, banks and insurance companies seem to be exempt from that too and I don’t know what that’s all about. A realtor’s approach to service and marketing seemed like it was stuck 20 years behind and we were like, there’s no way this can’t be done as well as any other business would be.
Melanie Piche: Yeah, it seemed like there was an opportunity to do it differently and meet the expectations consumers have for every other industry. Be quick to respond, quick to react and not BS them into something they didn’t want to buy. We’d use technology, use real marketing and use beautiful design. There was such an opportunity there that we thought we could grab it and run with it.
How did BREL get started?
Melanie: We are husband and wife and we’ve actually been working in real estate since before then. We met in a bar — so, very romantic — Brendan was a copywriter and I was the HR director at the biggest ad agency in Canada at the time. I’d spent the better part of my whole career in the ad world, so I was certainly used to seeing beautifully designed pieces of marketing and strategies. Much different from what the real estate industry was serving up and to be honest, 10 years later, not that much has really changed.
Brendan: I was a bit of a tech geek. I couldn’t believe people were still using fax machines and I remember doing my real estate license and they told us we had to have six or eight paper copies of every piece of paper, or whatever it was. I was always like, “You know we don’t have to do this, right?”
Melanie: Even when we started in real estate, brokerages were talking about door knocking and cold calling and we just had no interest in any of that. For us to do this and want to be happy and excited doing it, we had to bring our business online, which is what we did. Eighty per cent of our business today comes from our website and our social media.
Brendan: Yep, we’re digital people.
When we ask realtors what has had the greatest impact on the real estate industry, most say, “technology.” Since the BREL Team is so tech savvy, do you agree technology is the answer or does it go deeper than that?
Brendan: Technology is a good answer. Technology has certainly changed the industry. The funny thing is, the technology that came to the industry came to the rest of the world 20 years earlier, it’s just that the industry was slow to adopt it. Part of that is regulatory and part of that is agents are slow to change.
Melanie: Sure, there’s technology like Dropbox and things like that, but how we all interact with each other has changed drastically over the past 10 years because of things like social media and the fact that our mobile phones rule our world. People expect an answer right away and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. If your friend has a question and you don’t have the answer to it, out comes the phone and everybody Googles it and they get that answer right away. People have really changed in terms of what their expectations are and it’s no different when you’re looking to buy a house.
When they get that idea and they’re online searching, they want someone to respond to them right away. They don’t want to hear that their broker doesn’t work on Sunday because everything else in their world happens so quickly. It’s the relationships they have online. How many of us have more connections online than we do in real life? For us, we needed to build a brand that resonated with people online, so we were able to have “relationships” with people that didn’t depend on us being in a room, knocking on a door or making a phone call. This was really critical for the growth of our business.
Brendan: The flip-side of that is also true. We’re saying we’re here the same way everything else in your life is, which means we’re quick to respond and we’re digital. But we’re also defining ourselves as not the people who will show up on your freaking door just to bug you at home. I hate when people do that. We’re not going to send you your 15th flyer for that day and we’re not going to cold call you and we’re not going to knock on your door because I don’t want any of that either. We’re trying to define ourselves like you. A lot of people haven’t changed and still think it’s 1974, but we’re actually like you and we get it.
Melanie: When we first started working together and when we first started this brand, one of our first marketing lines was, “We strive to be the realtors we always wished we’d been able to work with,” which we don’t use anymore, but that really was what it was. It was a lot of frustration with the industry and we just wanted to be the people that we would want to work with.
A lot of realtors think Toronto is on the cusp of being a world-class market. What do you think will push it over the edge on par with New York, London or Tokyo?
Brendan: I think it is world class. I think the problem is Canadians stand in their own way when it comes to thinking of it as world class. I think it’s just a realization. I’ve lived in New York and Tokyo, so I have a good perspective. Those are bigger cities than Toronto for sure, but it’s more than just that. I like the Canadian perspective actually. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I love that we’re still wondering. We have a self-esteem problem. It’s very Canadian and I think that’s why a lot of Americans in particular who visit Toronto really love it because it is a big city. It is world class, but Canadians don’t act like a New Yorker does. They don’t have that bravado and that assholery. We don’t have that violence or a lot of the problems because we’re so bloody Canadian. Part of that Canadian-ness is going, “Oh, I wonder if we’re world class?” No, no, no … it’s all in our heads. I think we’re world class, other people think we’re world class and only Canadians would doubt it.
What is it like working with your spouse and how do you achieve balance between your personal and professional lives as a couple?
Melanie: I think working with your spouse is both as good and as bad as you expect it to be. There are a lot of benefits to understanding each other’s schedules. We work a lot of hours and we love what we do, so being able to share that passion with your spouse is amazing. At the same time, it’s hard to balance between the two. We’re lucky in that our skills are very complementary, so we are able to focus on different areas of the business. We each have the areas that we are in charge of and run with, so there is a fair amount of independent work that happens between us. But there’s no doubt it took several years of getting used to working together.
Brendan: I think the magic bullet is separating your duties as much as possible. I think I was told that a long time ago, but I didn’t really realize it or understand it. We fought tooth and nail about everything we were trying to do together for a long time and the more we teased those two apart and did independent things, the less that we’ve butted heads. Now, I think the more we stay out of each other’s face and do our own job, things work well. Strife comes when we’re trying to get into each other’s part of the business.
Melanie: It’s about having clear roles, responsibilities and areas of accountability. We work with a coach when the need arises. You asked about work-life balance? I don’t know that we have work-life balance. We are all in on this business and we have a fabulous life. It is a ton of work, but we have built an incredible group of people to work with and an incredible culture. They are the best agents in the city. We don’t have kids, so we’re all in on the business, we have a lot of time to travel. We have a house in Prince Edward County, so is there work-life balance? No. We’re at our house in Prince Edward County and we’ve been working all day, but we love what we do. It’s not like it’s work and non-work. It’s all awesome.
Brendan: I dig that. I love the fact that I can be in Mexico beside the pool and be continuing to do my work because that’s the cool thing about my work. Most people can’t do that and I can take my work with me thanks to technology.