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How One Commercial Real Estate Professional Used a Niche Marketing Focus and Personal Branding Approach to Quintuple His Market Share in Just One Year

Tom Smith is no stranger to success in the business world. When he was younger, he started working at Wal-Mart as an Assistant Manager Trainee and worked his way up the ladder at record pace, ultimately becoming Vice President of Operations for the entire organization. He actually became one of Sam Walton’s most trusted executives (and a truly great friend), in the process learning a lot about how to run a successful business. Tom went on to hold other very high-level executive positions within corporations like Home Depot, Fry’s Electronics, Bradlees and W.H. Smith, putting his business skills to the test every step of the way.

So, when Tom retired from the corporate world and shifted his focus to real estate some six years ago, he had a plan. “When I got into the real estate industry, I took a different approach than most folks do because of my business background,” he says. Tom knew a more focused marketing approach would be the right way to go, so he looked to his own interests to determine his ideal niche market. An avid hunter, fisherman and all-around outdoorsman, Tom had purchased plenty of raw land over the years—both for recreational use and timber investment. He had a passion for land and it was a natural choice for him to specialize in land sales. Tom earned his Accredited Land Consultant (ALC) designation, which is held by only five other agents in Mississippi and about 250 nationwide, in order to establish himself as a premier land specialist.

Developing His Brand

Tom quickly adopted the moniker of “The Land Man” and promoted himself with that brand throughout Madison County, his primary market where he lived, and to varying degrees throughout the state of Mississippi. He did some targeted mailings, opened his brokerage (Royal Realty) with his wife and business partner, Ellen, and built a website to promote his business. In his first five years in real estate, Tom was successful by most anyone’s standards. “Business was good. I had probably 5-7 percent market share within a three county region,” he recalls.

But Tom wasn’t satisfied with those returns. He knew there was more business out there, especially as the residential market began to cool off and the land market was growing hotter and hotter. He watched as more savvy investors began putting money into raw land as opposed to less-stable bank and stock investments. Tom saw the opportunity clear as day and he realized he had to take his real estate marketing to the next level. He attended the Hobbs/Herder Gateway seminar in Orlando, Florida in February 2008. There, according to Tom, everything just “clicked.”

A Powerful Partnership
“The personal branding approach is the main reason I chose to work with Hobbs/Herder. From a businessman’s perspective, it was common sense. I saw the infrastructure, the tools and the benefits of the marketing program,” Tom says. “Most agents think that branding is having your name printed on a rider, sticking it on top of a real estate company sign and saying ‘Hey, I’m in business.’ People fail to understand that when they get into the real estate business they are a business, which is why they make the mistake of promoting the company over themselves.”

With Hobbs/Herder, Tom developed a personal brochure, website, direct mail pieces, custom print ads and other branding materials. The story of Tom’s brochure highlights his passion for outdoors lifestyle and strong corporate background as the cornerstones of his land focus. The design of his campaign uses beautiful Mississippi scenery and “lifestyle” imagery such as hunting, fishing and ATV riding. The materials capture the attention of recreational land enthusiasts and connect with readers on a personal, emotional level. Most commercial real estate professionals and luxury market agents tend to have the misconception that personal branding won’t work for these target markets. But even before the seminar, Tom knew he was best served by taking a highly personal approach to his marketing.

“Whether you’re in the real estate business or any business, you’re in the people business. The personal approach is the only way to go,” he remarks. “If you’ve got a guy whose net worth is $40 million and he gets a generic piece in the mail, he’s tossing it without a second thought. My materials have a personal focus on me as a person and as a businessman. I also try to tailor the letters to my clients and hand-write notes inviting them to go hunting or fishing with me. It has helped me develop strong relationships with these people.”

Even Better Than Expected

Tom’s brochure highlights his passion for outdoors lifestyle and strong corporate background as the cornerstones of his land focus.

Tom’s brochure highlights his passion for outdoors lifestyle and strong corporate background as the cornerstones of his land focus.

With wife Ellen’s unwavering support, Tom launched his personal branding campaign in August of 2008. He followed the Hobbs/Herder direct mail plan with 2-3 mailings a month to his farm of about 1,200 land owners. He developed a list of 900 Madison County land owners with more than 25 acres. The other few hundred were past clients and other contacts he had made in first five years in real estate. He also developed an e-mail database and sent out a custom real estate market update called “Tom’s Land List” once or twice a month, along with a monthly newsletter featuring the latest news and trends in the Mississippi land market.

Within 90 days of launching his direct mail campaign, Tom panicked. Even though he and Ellen had set all their systems in place prior to sending the marketing materials out, it was still more response than they were expecting. Put simply, they were getting TOO MUCH business to handle. In fact, they stopped sending out the mailings for a few months because they didn’t know what to do with all the business. But it was a good problem to have, because it enabled them to hire more help and streamline their systems. They now have two full-time assistants and three land buyer specialists on the team. “Now, instead of a tractor clearing the roads, I have a bulldozer.”

These days, the business comes to Tom, which is exactly how he likes it. “Since the time I mailed my first Hobbs/Herder piece, I have not picked up the phone and made a cold call. I have not solicited a single listing,” Tom says.

Putting the Web to Work
Tom also attributes a large portion of his leads to his website. He researched sites that land owners and investors frequently visit and began advertising his real estate website on several of them. Between various online lead-generators and all of his print marketing that drives traffic to the site, Tom has turned his website into one of his best business-building tools.

Keeping the Machine Running Smoothly
In the past year, Tom’s production has grown from $6 million in sales to over $20 million. With his team of buyer’s consultants in place, Tom now focuses his energy on the listings. To him, it’s very important to keep some level of personal involvement with every client and every plot of land he represents. Not only does it enable him to make sure his clients are taken care of, it ensures that people never forget why he’s known as “The Land Man” throughout Mississippi.

“It’s like a doctor’s office,” Tom explains. “I have a team of specialists working for me and I’m like the physician who makes it a point to meet with every patient. In my case, the patient is often the land itself. I go to every tract of land personally, so if someone calls me I know what I’m talking about. I can offer the expert guidance they hired me for.”

More Business = More Fun for Tom
As Tom looks forward to the future, he only sees “The Land Man” brand growing even larger. Not only does he see potential for expanding his own market share even further, he’s developed a sellable business model, whether it’s franchising the Tom Smith Land name or selling off his book of business altogether. That is, if Tom ever decides to retire. Anyone who knows Tom will tell you that’s probably a long way off.

“I’m busier than ever right now, but I love it. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in any career because I answer only to myself. I don’t mind working hard because I love the land and it feels great to make other people successful.”

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