50-year industry veteran knows how to weather tough times
Jim Fite, president of the brokerage his father founded in 1937, has led his company through 7 recessions and shares advice on how to make it to the other side.
Jim Fite's 51 years in real estate have taught him a thing or two about business, specifically when it comes to succeeding during tough times.
Fite is president and chief operating officer of Century 21 Judge Fite Company, based in Dallas-Fort Worth. His father, Judge B. Fite, started the business in 1937. Jim Fite and his sister, Jan Fite Miller, took over operation of the business in 1977, growing the company from one office with eight associates to 20-plus offices with more than 1,000 associates.
After high school graduation, Jim Fite went off to college, where he spent most of his time playing Spades. "I wasn't college material," he says. His parents were supportive of his move to leave school and start working, as long as he was committed to spending one hour, five days each week, "reading, studying and thinking" and another 12 hours per year in a formal classroom setting.
Fite agreed, and he's kept it up, noting that his ongoing willingness to learn and grow has helped him lead the company through seven national or regional recessions. He's sharing some of what he's learned in a book he released this spring, "Success Through a Recession: Lessons Learned to Help You!"
Learn how to work through good times and tough times
Throughout his book, Fite refers to the "Good Times" when interest rates are low, inventory is high, and "everybody can make money. He also discusses the "Tough Times" — both economic recessions, marked by two successive quarters of falling GDP, and business recessions, when expenses are greater than income for any period of time greater than a quarter.
He recalls July 1981 as a pivotal time in his company's history. "Interest rates were 17.5%. Our bills were paid, but we didn't have any money for the future. Our leadership team was all gathered together — at that time, we were small enough to meet around my sister's dining room table — and I said, 'If we don't turn things around by January, we're going to have to shut this company down.'"
That's when Jan Fite Miller took action. She slammed her hand down on the table and pronounced: "I will not be part of a negative goal! We will have $10,000 in the bank, and all our bills will be paid by January 1."
Focus on success and have a clear plan
Fite says that shift in attitude — choosing to focus on success rather than possible failure — has made a huge difference in how the company conducts business.
In preparation for The Great Recession of 2008-2009, Fite recalls gathering company leadership to make three "Recession Mode" charts.
Chart One identified the first steps that needed to be taken during any financial belt-tightening. What cuts could be made that agents and the public wouldn't see?
Chart Two asked "What's Next?" How else could expenses be cut? Were there office or equipment leases that could be terminated or renegotiated?
Chart Three asked the toughest question: If the actions taken in Charts One and Two weren't enough, what else could be cut?
"At the time we were making these plans, we were coming off the best year in real estate history, and there were members of the team who thought we were overreacting," says Fite. "By the end of that recession, we'd worked our way through all the budget cuts on charts one through three, and we were onto chart seven. But it was what we had to do to stay in business. In the end, it made us stronger than we were before."
How to make it through a recession
For agents and brokers looking to weather future recessions, Fite offers some advice:
Know the difference between a national recession and a company recession.
Learn from past economic recessions.
Save money from the "Good Times" to survive and thrive during the "Tough Times."
Don't be afraid to hire a consultant to help you identify potential cost savings.
Outline step-by-step action plans for both the short term and long term.
Communicate the plan to all your agents and employees.