Real Estate Real Talk: Justin Havre on Winning in a Down Market and the Unsexy Side of Leading a Team

Mindset & Motivation
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Back in the day before 5G, AI and all things digital, Justin Havre was climbing snow-covered rooftops installing TV and high-speed internet satellites.

Today, he leads the #1 RE/MAX team in Canada.

"Well you know, here in Canada we get a little bit of snow and frost and when you go up on rooftops to install satellite dishes, you get a little weak in the knees," says Justin with a smile.

Justin decided to get his real estate license and try something a little safer safer than climbing up snow-covered roofs. 

Now, he leads a team of 30+ rockstar agents. Together, they closed 156 sales in April and 161 transactions in May—in a market where the average agent sold just 7.72 homes in 2018. 

So, yeah. You could say he's come a long way.

But it hasn't been easy and to be honest, it still isn't. We sat down with Justin for what turned out to be one of our most candid interviews yet. Check it out.

Table of contents

  1. A lucky start in online lead gen
  2. From brokerage 'poster boy' to reluctant team leader
  3. The dark side of success
  4. How to win in a down market

A lucky start in online lead gen

Justin is well-known in Calgary for his near-celebrity status.

Having done commercials with real estate superstars like Barbara Corcoran and Scott McGillivray, he knows a thing or two about marketing.

But the initial lightning-strike moment that led him here was a lot less glamorous than most people would think.

"I remember there was one elderly couple that was getting their internet installed and I asked them why they decided to get high-speed internet. They told me they wanted to cancel their newspaper subscription because they only used it to read the obituaries, and now they could find those online," remembers Justin with a chuckle.

A pretty sobering insight, but one that left Justin feeling inspired.

In 2005, he launched his first website:

"That was back in the early 2000s. Nowadays, 95% of buyers start their search online and if you look at the NAR statistics, less than 1% of home buyers find their home in print or newspapers," he says.

Like many of today's mega agents, Justin is reaping the rewards of a risk he took more than a decade ago.

 "Believe it or not, back in the day, I used to advertise '' in the back of the newspaper. I had a pretty big obsession with online rankings and I kept reinvesting into search engine optimization. In 2007, I built my second website and really got an addiction to the online lead generation world."

Justin's very first listing site published in 2005, courtesy of Wayback Machine.

Turns out, some addictions are good for you.

Fast forward to 2010, and Justin officially launched his own team, Justin Havre and Associates.

But killing it as a solo agent is one thing. Leading a team is a whole other ball game.

Justin attended an internet lead gen conference in the fall of 2012 to brush up on his rain-making skills—and that's where he met Gary Ashton (who, by the way, is one of the leaders behind the world's #1 RE/MAX team). 

The two of them got to talking and Justin mentioned he had roughly 150 leads coming in each day.

Stunned, Gary asked how many agents he had.

When Justin told him he had just 5 agents to work the nearly 5,000 leads coming in each month, Gary's jaw nearly hit the floor.

"He was like, 'Dude, you need a hundred!' I thought, maybe he's onto something. We went from six agents in December 2012 to 28 agents in January 2013."

That's right. Justin nearly 5X'ed his team in one month.

He doesn't recommend it.

"I'm not going to lie. It was quite the gong show because we had multiple websites. We generated 4,200 leads that month all organically. No auto-assignment or anything like that, they were all manually assigned to agents. I would drop 55 leads on an agent Saturday morning before a full day booked of appointments and open houses and that kind of stuff. I was good at giving agents anxiety by overloading them with leads," he laughs. “Not ideal at all, less is more." 

Justin was lead rich, but systems poor.

He needed to get his business in order, fast.

From brokerage 'poster boy' to reluctant team leader

Before launching his team, Justin was the unofficial "poster boy" at his brokerage.

So, when he needed to get his hands on 20+ agents asap, he knew exactly where to look.

"I was very fortunate to be in a brokerage where we had 700 agents. In 2009, they announced that I was the number one agent in the brokerage. And they actually forced me to start a team. They said I could no longer operate as an individual agent, although I was an individual agent collecting referrals from a set group of people," Justin explains.

Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Justin leveraged his reputation to recruit a rockstar team. But with an insane deadline and zero leadership experience, it wasn't going to be easy.

"Did we hire people the right way? No. Was it a learning experience? Hell yes!"

Justin with his current army of rockstar Realtors (and new and improved website).

These days, he's able to look back and laugh. But at the time, trying to onboard more than 20 agents in one fell swoop was, in Justin's words, "pretty wild and crazy".

Thankfully, Justin's business has evolved quite a bit since those early days.

"We invest a lot in online lead generation here in the Calgary market. We have about 16 different lead sources. One of the challenges we used to have before we came to Follow Up Boss was that we had a CRM in the backend of every single website that we were operating."

Yes, you heard that right.

At one time Justin and his agents were running their business from sixteen CRMs.

"Agents would be on multiple websites and there would be some battling internally because when a lead would register on one website, chances are they would register on another one of our websites as well, and then they would land with another agent on the team and that would create a little bit of animosity and conflict."

Conflict, animosity and way too many CRMs… it's a wonder he didn't go back to installing cable.

But after investing a ton of sweat equity into building and leading a team, Justin is all about getting the right people to work the right systems. And he's big on understanding how each individual agent is wired—starting with a no-holds-barred interview process.

The secret to hiring a rockstar team? Set expectations early.

One of the biggest lessons from Justin's hiring adventures (or more specifically, the misfires) was that people aren't always who you perceive them to be.

"We used to have one person on our team who had played baseball at a pretty high level, I believe he was drafted by a major league baseball team. So, you would think that he would be a good team player. But when it came down to it, he would offer to help people out but then he would try to take other agents' clients and not hand them back. And we kind of figured that mindset may have come from playing in the minor leagues where the people sitting beside you on the bench are people that are trying to take your job. So, of course you're not going to help them succeed. You're looking out for yourself," says Justin.

Years after his athletic career, this particular agent was still programmed to compete—not collaborate. And that's fine. He was a great person, just not a fit for the team.

"In hiring people, what I've learned over the years is that you set all the expectations at the hiring table."

These days, Justin's interview questions are much more specific.

Here are some examples of interview questions he asks:

●     What kind of leadership have you worked under?

●     What has your experience been?

●     What worked for you during that time? What didn't?

●     What are your expectations of me as a leader?

●     How do you respond to accountability?

"That is the magic right there, because some people don't like accountability," Justin emphasizes.

"Running a system like Follow Up Boss, we get to see at a pretty high level what people are doing and what people aren't doing. Just like the agents get to see what the leads are doing in the system, we get to see what they are doing. And what it really comes down to is being there to support them to achieve success," he explains. 

Holding agents accountable is one of the biggest—and least enviable—tasks for any team leader, but after more than a decade in the game, Justin's made his peace with it.

"You've got to be very careful with how much pressure you apply. It's very common in human behavior for people to crumble when you apply too much pressure. It's a pretty fine line with encouragement and a little bit of tension to get high productivity," he explains. 

That's why Justin is such a big believer in setting clear expectations as early as possible. 

"When you're hiring, you've got to make sure you lay out everything in your team agreements. And I mean everything. Cross all your t's, dot your i's. Include every scenario you can think of." 

Justin's team agreements have evolved dramatically over the past decade. Every time they face a new challenge or customer scenario, they account for it in the team agreement. According to Justin, if it's all in there, there's no room for confusion. 

"Essentially, your integrity is in your team agreement," he advises.

But no matter how rock-solid your agreement or how perceptive your interview questions—you will lose agents.

"You have to get used to people leaving. It's just the reality of business. I mean, I guess it's the reality of life. Everyone's going to leave at one point or another. But as a team leader you invest a lot of time and resources into developing people and their skills and you know there will come a time when people are going to leave. They may leave because they're not happy within the organization or they may leave for family reasons or whatever. But yeah, I mean I've shed tears over people leaving the team many times." 

And he's not kidding. 

In 2017, Justin lost roughly 80% of his team in a matter of days. 

But the team leader is nothing if not emotionally aware. 

He understands human behavior better than most, and has worked hard to coach himself through tough times. 

"If abandonment is one of your deep-rooted issues from your childhood, you get to revisit that quite often when you're running a team," says Justin half-jokingly, while pointing at himself. 

Today, he's incredibly selective about who he brings on board.

"We probably turn down about 80% of people who apply because we are very protective of what we have. We want to ensure that we have people who can create a high level of service and customer experience, and at the same time be a great fit within our culture. You don't want to disrupt that."

The dark side of success 

These days, Justin constantly gets asked for advice on leading a rockstar team. 

"You know, sometimes it baffles me. The industry has kind of made teams this big, sexy thing or conditioned us to view being a team leader as being successful. But you've got to look at the reality of it." 

"If you are an individual agent, fairly new to the business, and you're not doing a ton of business yourself—starting a team should be the furthest thing from what you do. Bringing more people on is not going to make you more money. It's going to cost you more money and you better ensure that you have enough business to support yourself and business to support additional families," he explains.

Justin feels fortunate to be in a position where he gets to provide for forty families, but he's not willing to hide the fact that leadership comes with its own share of stress.

Back in 2009, when Justin's brokerage announced that he was the #1 agent that year, the moment was anything but celebratory. 

"At that time, I was going through a divorce as well. I sat there on the couch in this big, empty house and I cried. I was like, 'Wow. Is this what success is supposed to be? It's pretty lonely.'" 

Justin speaks openly about life's struggles and the unique pressures of the real estate industry. It's a refreshing sense of authenticity not often seen at his level of the game. 

"I'm still human. I still have emotions. I still carry stress and fear and all that stuff. It's not as glamorous as people think it is. But at the same time, it's pretty awesome to be able to impact so many people." 

Every job comes with its share of occupational hazards. But because of the fast-paced, high-pressure culture of real estate, leaders like Justin believe it's time to speak up about what it really takes to win in this business.

We'll let you hear it from the man himself…

More than real estate: Build a business that makes life better 

Today, Justin sees his business as a vehicle to create memorable life experiences for himself, his team and his clients. 

"We're in the business of creating human experiences, right? If it's a first time homebuyer, we get to ride alongside them on that journey. And I think because we are working with other people, and not just technology, we've got to be very aware of the emotions that are there and the experiences that our team members have as well." 

He encourages every agent on his team to use the business as a way to make life better. 

"Take those vacations with your family. Take your mom to whatever resort she wants. Create those moments, because we can buy stuff all day long but that doesn't really give us any joy." 

It's a practical philosophy that keeps morale high amongst the team—a group of 30 that Justin describes as close-knit, "like a work family".

Agents on Justin's team have been known to drive across the city to help each other out. 

"That in itself is pretty neat. To be able to sit there and observe how this group supports each other, helps each other when somebody falls down and at the same time, also celebrates in each other's victories," he says. It's definitely a big part of what keeps him going.


The team kicks back rodeo style at the local RE/MAX Stampede Party.

How to win in a down market

Calgary has been in a recession since the start of 2015—as soon as the price of oil crashed, the economy went with it.

"In 2015, we lost the equivalent of $5 billion in salaries in one year in the downtown business core. Right now, downtown Calgary has just under 30% vacancy for office space. It's been a challenging market," says Justin.

And with a bad economy comes job losses, divorces, and droves of emotional clients.

"We're here to serve them, to try to help them get out of whatever sticky situation they're in. And part of that is supporting agents to be able to deal with it all because you know, who's the first person someone blames when their house doesn't sell?"

For Justin, it's important to let his agents be heard and take time off when they need it.

"In this business it can be very tough to take time off. We're pretty much stuck to our phones from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed at night. We tend to jump and run. So making sure our agents schedule time off is something that we've been very big on. We say the number one appointment in your calendar should be yourself and your family."

And he's walking the walk on this one.

In January, Justin broke his leg during a ski trip and was put on bed rest for two months.

"And you know, it was really neat in many ways. I mean, it's not something I want to experience again, but it forced me to take time off. I also got to see how everyone stepped up to help and support me. The business was doing better than ever without me there. And I think that's again a testament to having all the right people around you," says Justin, smiling.

"I could not imagine having had that accident as an individual agent. My business would have crumbled."

Supported by a solid system, Justin's agents can easily hand each other their business while they take time off to recharge. All they have to do is share the contact inside Follow Up Boss and agents can see the entire communication history of each and every lead on their roster.

Now, you're probably wondering where the leads are coming from in a market like Calgary.

According to Justin:

"This wasn't built overnight." 

"This started way back when I had my very first website and I was investing 25% of my commissions back into online lead generation. I continued to do that year over year, adding new pieces to the business. Last year, we added My goal and job as a leader is to create a brand that is so strong in the marketplace that there's minimal sales language required by agents to get the business. And at the same time, have proven systems that get the right exposure for sellers and give them the results they desire." 

"Is the market great? No. But you know what? People are still buying and selling.

The recession has lasted longer than anyone anticipated. And Justin's definitely lost some sleep over it. But overall, he looks at the downturn as an opportunity to distance himself from the competition. 

"It is very natural for people to retreat their marketing spend when the market changes. We did the opposite. We doubled down," he explains. 

And watching his agents consistently close up to 10 to 12 sales per month, while everyone else struggles to sell half that, definitely helps him stay committed.

A system that works for everyone 

From billboards and radio ads to TV commercials and of course, online marketing—Justin generates leads from a ton of different sources. 

"Now that we have one centralized CRM that all the agents use, it's been a game changer. We just should have done it way sooner," he laughs. 

And having one (not sixteen!) central system has proven all the more crucial in a down market. 

"Having one central system where you can see all appointments, emails and text messages is crucial, especially if something goes sideways. Being in a marketplace where, you know, emotions kind of get in there sometimes, it's important that we can go back in and say, 'OK, well here is all the communication and here's what you said before.' We've solved a lot of issues simply because we tracked every single thing." 

For Justin, it's no coincidence that the most successful agents on the team are always the ones who follow the system. 

"We live in a world where there are so many distractions. So many. I honestly think that if an agent can actually turn off their phone and work their Follow Up Boss for two to three hours a day consistently, they'll achieve massive success. Massive. But it's the consistency part that we all lack in many areas of our lives. So where else are we inconsistent? Because it shows up in your personal life too," he warns. 

He knows, because he's been there.

"That's the thing in this business. There are always people that try to hack it—they don't want to follow the steps. But there is no shortcut. It's the consistency that will always win."

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