Real estate, nonessential? Realcomp CEO Karen Kage disagrees

Realcomp II Limited: After 42 years in real estate, Karen Kage, the CEO of Realcomp II Limited, still doesn’t like to make predictions. Who would have guessed what happened following the Great Recession? And how could she have anticipated the effect of a pandemic on the housing market? Kage, who has been with the Farmington Hills-based multiple listing service since its 1993 inception, has been the CEO since 1997. Although the coronavirus-related economic shutdown presented a number of challenges — including a large decline in the number of real estate agents — she said Realcomp’s 18,000 customers are now the most the service has ever had.

Can you talk me through what the coronavirus did to the industry?

March of 2020 is when we had to close our doors here. … Later that month, the whole state was shut down and real estate was deemed not to be essential. So there was no real estate taking place. That left our customers completely out of business.

How long did that last?

I believe it was May 6 that we were allowed to open back up. But there were a lot of restrictions. … We had to keep our subscribers very informed of what those restrictions were. And eventually, those one by one started getting removed. And it was like there was this pent-up desire to buy homes. And when everything was, OK, you can now show and you can now sell real estate, it took off like crazy. … And it stayed crazy. … We’re finally seeing things — I’m not gonna say really slow down. Maybe just a tad. We’re getting more listings in — not a lot, but more new listings in. The days on market are just crazy low. This is normally a time of year when things slow down for us. Last year, not so much. This year, I think it’ll go back to a more normal year and we may see things leveling off a little bit.

Was it ever a struggle?

It was always a struggle. … People are emotional. It’s hard. You’d have to be a robot not to care. It was hard, it was very hard.

What did you think when you were told real estate was nonessential?

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Well, I disagreed, of course. Because I do think it is essential. You’re talking about people’s homes. I knew that we had to follow the rules. So we did everything we could to toe the line and I think that helped us a lot. We had a lot of people that would go to our state government and say, ‘Here’s why we think it’s essential. And we followed all your rules and we’ve done everything and we’ll continue to follow them, we’ll carry the sanitizer around, whatever you need us to do.’ And I think that helped. No one wants to be referred to as nonessential, I mean geez.

Can you talk to me a little bit about the values of Realcomp?

I have participated for 15 years in a leadership group called C12, which is all different kinds of business owners and CEOs, all kinds of industries. We get together once a month and we talk about how to run our corporations, our businesses with Christian foundations, Christian integrity and ethics, and that’s really important to me. … You work really hard to build this culture of the way you treat people is the way you want to be treated.

Are there other ways C12 underpins the business?

I think it’s just everything we do. I just try to live those values every day. Being kind and being honest and being here for people. I hope that it’s my whole life.

Can you tell me a little bit about your family and how that fits in?

My daughter refers to Realcomp as her little brother. My family’s always first and foremost. I try to keep business and family separate, only because I don’t want business to interfere with my family, because my family comes first. Well, God first, then family, then work, that’s the rules. … I want them to see you have to be dedicated and your job is important, but it’s not your life. Your job is not your life. And you have to keep that perspective, or your family suffers.

How easy is it to keep that perspective?

It’s not easy at all. When you are the breadwinner and you know you have to do what you have to do to support your family, there are some hard choices you have to make, some hard decisions you have to make. … It can be hard. It was a constant struggle.

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When you’re not working, I understand you’re a big reader.

I’m a big Michael Connelly fan. My favorite books are the CIA, spy, detective books.

What do you like about them?

I like the intrigue, I like trying to figure it out. And I just enjoy the mystery of it, the stories of it. And Fredrik Backman. I love his books. I read to be entertained. I like it as an escape from the day.

I understand you write a little bit, too.

I have the motto of there’s a song for everything, and if there’s not one, I’ll make one up. … When we would have our annual gatherings at work, I would write a poem about the year. Or sometimes, I would write the poem about each employee. Like, each stanza would be something specific to that employee. And it was always a lot of fun to read them. … At the end of the year, I write each employee their own note to say this is what I appreciated about you this year. Here’s where you really went above and beyond and I’m so thankful for you. … Everybody needs to know they’re appreciated. We all want to know that.

You mentioned before you’re frustrated by the perception of Detroit’s housing market.

If there’s that one negative thing that somebody hears, they just stick with it. I don’t even want to say it out loud because I don’t want people to think about it again. But we went through a very difficult time when that recession was going on, and Detroit had an even worse reputation then. … I would be at national conventions and I would have people bringing it up and chuckling about it, and I used to think, why would you think that’s funny? That’s not funny. You know, I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and I’m proud to live here. And we’ve made tremendous strides in making a comeback. And it can be very hurtful.

Do you feel like the perception has changed?

I think a little. But it’s been there for so long that it’ll be difficult to get rid of it completely.

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