Bob Hale: 50 years at HAR, and the pursuit of greatness
During his five decades as a member of HAR and 35 years as president and CEO, Hale has driven innovation in his organization and the industry at large.
- Hale, who has led the Houston Association of Realtors since 1988, brought a new management style to the organization.
- HAR has been on the cutting edge of technology in real estate and continues to focus on innovation.
- Hale's mantra has long been "we can do anything," and he plans to keep at it for a while.
In 1996, eight years into his tenure as the president and CEO of the Houston Association of Realtors, Bob Hale attended a speech that changed his life.
It was this line that stood out: "In the future, your web presence will be more important than your physical presence."
"And I went, 'What does that mean?'" Hale remembered. "We didn't even have a website."
Afterward, he and some HAR staffers went to their favorite Mexican restaurant where, over a round of margaritas, they sketched out a website on a napkin. They brought it back to their small IT staff and, in 1997, HAR.com was launched.
In the time since, both HAR.com — and Hale — have become industry powerhouses.
Last year, listings on HAR.com were viewed 547 million times, and it's the only local site that regularly ranks among the 25 most frequently visited real estate websites in the country, according to comScore Media Metrix. The HAR.com app ranks number one within the Apple App Store for Houston.
And Hale, 78, has built a reputation as an industry innovator — someone who knows the value of old-school relationships, but who also embraces the technological innovations that keep HAR on the cutting edge.
Success through innovation and getting 'the right people on the bus'
"My main goal has been to make HAR the most innovative and member-valued association," he said. "I want the members to see HAR as the greatest thing that ever happened to them. The best value, the best price and the best services. In my opinion, that's what makes us stand out."
So does Hale's approach to management, which he credits to the 2001 Jim Collins book, "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't."
"I realized I wanted HAR to be great," he said. "We were big, but we weren't known."
He had the senior staff read the book, and he brought in a consultant to facilitate change with a focus on the book's recommendation that companies "get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats once they're on the bus," he said.
He also embraced the need to innovate — "We're not going to be the IRS anymore. We're going to be Apple." And he adopted the idea that employees be rewarded for meeting their goals. In other words, be accountable.
Half the staff resigned, he said, but that gave him the chance to hire new people for new roles, many of them focused on bringing HAR into the technological age.
Weekly meetings ensure everyone knows what the others are doing — and Hale gets out of the way.
"I don't look over their shoulder, I don't micromanage at all," he said. "There's nobody I want to lose. Nobody. They're paid well and they have total freedom."
Most of the senior staff has been with him for more than 20 years.
Together, they keep a close eye on what others in the industry — namely Zillow and Realtor.com — are doing.
"When they innovate, we need to do it," Hale said. "Competition creates innovation."
Hale's path to real estate, and real estate's path to the present
Hale's early passion wasn't real estate, but politics. While attending the University of Texas Law School, he was a clerk for an attorney who was also a lobbyist.
"I loved the political piece of it," he said.
After graduating in 1969, he was hired as the governmental affairs director for the Texas Association of Realtors and tasked with forming a political action committee. That meant driving all over the state, connecting with Realtors and meeting with every local Realtor association.
Three years later, he was hired as the outside attorney and lobbyist for HAR. When the president's role opened up in 1988, it was his.
Hale has never sold a house professionally. ("Bought and sold, but I always used a Realtor," he said. "I would never do it without a Realtor.")
But he remembered wanting to buy one in 1970, and paging through a giant book of listings, eight per page, each bearing a tiny photo of the house.
"If I wanted to find the house, the agent had to access the data. The consumer had zero access and then the agent had to figure out which houses Bob likes," Hale remembered.
Now, he said, consumers can go to HAR.com or another website, use filters to find the house they want, and get financing online. Gone are the days of newspaper marketing — agents use social media to build their brands.
"That's a major shift," he said.
There have also been cultural shifts. In 2020, for example, HAR stopped using the term "master bedroom" for the room where the head of the household sleeps. The change turned up as a question on "Jeopardy!" last fall.
Technology driving the future of the industry
Hale is excited about what the future holds, especially in the area of technology. It has already changed the industry, and his life.
"I've loved that," he said. "The fact that I can jump on a Zoom call with someone in New York and Seattle, when we would never ever get together in person. That I can make a presentation to a group of agents in another part of the world, just sitting in my office. That I can buy a home without ever seeing it, because the agents have the tools to show me."
And the tools keep coming.
Zillow, for one, is launching an interactive, color floor plan he calls "a work of art." And HAR has created a product for its subscribers called Showing Smart which makes it easier for agents to schedule and manage showings.
"Instead of three days, it takes 10 minutes," Hale said. "You cut out the nonsense and use technology to make it faster and better and you have a record of everything."
'We can do anything'
HAR has also launched audio narratives of online listing — in 12 different languages.
"It took them two days to do it!" Hale said of the IT team. "Years ago, someone on our board of directors asked the technology team, 'Can you do this?' and we said, 'We can do anything.'"
"That's become our mantra."
There's a little bit of Texas in that point of view — Hale has lived his entire life in the state. "Texas is can-do, and especially Houston is a can-do city," Hale said. "Here, the new kid on the block can be successful if they work hard."
That's HAR, he said.
"I get credit for all this stuff, but without a visionary leadership team, if they didn't believe in what we're doing, it wouldn't happen," he said. "I am a big part of it. Let's say that."
At 78, Hale — who lives with his wife, Susie, in a high-rise 20 minutes from downtown — still feels 35. But that doesn't mean he doesn't see an end in sight.
"I've got a few more years and then I have to hang it up," he said. "Seinfeld retired on a high and I think that's what everyone should do.
"But I love it and I'm going to keep at it for a while."