Brokerage on a mission gives millions back to military families
In a Navy town, McKenzie Better Homes and Gardens Realty supports military families and veterans with more than the typical real estate services.
Craig McKenzie set a lofty goal when his father, a U.S. Army veteran, was diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
"I wanted to do something my father never could do," he recalls. "Which is to give a million dollars back to the community."
With the help of Homes for Heroes, McKenzie, himself a Navy veteran, has done that and more. To date, McKenzie Better Homes and Gardens Realty in Oak Harbor, Washington, has given almost $2.5 million locally to help more than 700 veterans, active duty military families, first responders, healthcare workers and teachers buy and sell homes.
When Homes for Heroes contacted him and asked if he'd like to be part of the network, he instantly saw a path to fulfilling his goal of giving back. "With us being next to NAS (Naval Air Station) Whidbey Island, it was a no-brainer," McKenzie said.
At that point, McKenzie's office consisted of himself, an assistant, and a brand new agent, Jim Woessner. Today, Woessner is a managing broker, and McKenzie is the owner of a brokerage with 11 agents across two offices.
'Homes for Heroes' a perfect fit
Even as the brokerage grew, veterans and military families have remained a focus for the brokerage's business and charitable efforts.
While not a vet himself, Woessner grew up as a self-described "Navy brat," he says. His dad was frequently at sea and his mother was a full-time volunteer and eventually director of the local USO. "That's how we grew up," he says. "I was raised at the USO. I play a mean game of ping pong and pinball."
The pair immediately realized Homes for Heroes was a fit for them. Agents working with the program give 25% of their commissions on transactions with qualified "heroes" to Homes for Heroes. Most of that goes directly back to the buyer or seller in the form of a credit or a check at closing.
"The cool part is, instead of going to our 401(k)'s and getting cobwebs on it, it's going to buy appliances locally, to get kids braces locally."
Their brokerage company at the time was not sold on the idea — and asked them not to participate. Though McKenzie had been with that company for 20 years, he knew it was time to move on. Woessner instantly agreed. "We both felt strongly enough about it," McKenzie said.
Expanding their efforts
About that time, Woessner started talking about hydroplane powerboat races that used to be a big part of the local culture. "He said, 'We can do this and put the money back to charity,'" McKenzie recalls.
They worked to set up the Craig McKenzie Foundation — and bring the hydros back to Oak Harbor.
"We had just about two months to put the whole race on," McKenzie said of the event that attracts 10,000 people. "We just about killed ourselves."
Now dubbed Hydros for Heroes, the race is an annual community event that raises thousands of dollars each year to help provide scholarships for children of local military and other "heroes."
The brokerage doesn't just stop with giving back a piece of their commissions. The Whidbey Island NAS commander seems to have them on speed dial. He once called to ask for help for a family whose child was receiving treatment at Seattle Children's Hospital. "They were struggling to get money to get gas to go back and forth," McKenzie said. The brokerage came through with multiple prepaid gas cards.
Sometimes they don't even wait to be asked. "We showed up at the Navy base once, impromptu — which we now know we weren't supposed to do — and just started pumping gas," Woessner said. "We just had a bunch of credit cards and went pump to pump. We planned on spending $1,000 but we ended up doing a couple thousand before we stopped."
"It's not just a gimmick for us," Woessner says of their outreach to military families. "Ninety-five percent of my hero clients didn't come to me because of the program," he said. "I typically don't even tell them about the program until halfway through the transaction."
Helping clients with unique needs
Besides refunding thousands of dollars on transactions for military families, the brokerage takes care to understand their unique needs.
That can mean working with families who need to make a purchase from thousands of miles away. "We're often dealing with two spouses separately," Woessner said. "One on a boat, one at home."
And those families might also need to complete a purchase months before they arrive on Whidbey Island. In those cases, "We become a caretaker for the property until they get here," he said.
It also requires understanding military financing programs. "To some people, VA is like speaking Greek," Woessner says.
"We're dealing with folks that have an awful lot on their plate and are counting on us to have their backs," McKenzie said. "We've got their backs."