Bess Freedman, Brown Harris Stevens' CEO: The Leader We All Need
By Ty Wenzel for James Lane Post. Republished with permission.
A CEO is someone who represents an entire corporation in terms of tenor and vision. There is no passing the buck because there’s nary a more concrete emblem of a company than the CEO. That is why when controversy happens, we listen to what they have to say, because it is representative of what the company stands for — full stop. Bess Freedman is the guardian of the Brown Harris Stevens core mission.
When the Supreme Court of the United State overturned a woman’s right to choose this month, we saw CEOs of several brokerages come out in protest. Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, was one of the first who declared that it is an “egregious reversal of justice” and vowed financial assistance to employees seeking abortions in states that restrict access to the procedure.
She was also just honored by the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation for her tireless work in women’s healthcare. But before joining the real estate sector, Freedman was an Assistant State’s Attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland, and worked at Legal Aid as an attorney fighting for the rights of underserved youth in New York City. We caught up with the mother of two on how she has managed her extraordinary life — and we believe she’s only just getting started.
Ms. Freedman, you were just honored by the Waxman Foundation. How have you been involved in women’s healthcare and how does it feel to be honored by one of our favorite foundations?
I think the notion of healthcare for women is relatively new and it’s important for women to advocate for each other. Women have a host of medical ailments and issues specific to them – reproductive healthcare included. The reversal of Roe V. Wade after 50 years really upset me because I feel it is a direct threat to the health and safety of women in this country. My company, Brown Harris Stevens, joined dozens of other companies around the country offering travel reimbursements for firm members who can no longer access safe and legal comprehensive reproductive healthcare in certain regions. Access to the best possible healthcare is important to me, and that’s why this recognition from the Samuel Waxman Foundation is so meaningful. The way to eradicate terrible diseases like cancer is through collaborative research and advocacy.
You are such an inspirational leader in real estate! Your background was in law. Can you explain the pivot from law to real estate?
I was a lawyer for Legal Aid in the juvenile division – and that included a lot of advocacy work. I viewed my position as one of service, and the same can be said for real estate. I originally came into real estate after the birth of my children and realized I needed to find a career with more flexibility – and I quickly found that real estate was a great match. It required a lot of hustle and grit – but you get out of it what you put in. I have worked with people from all walks of life throughout my career journey, and it has served me well when dealing with real estate clients and negotiating, dissecting details and research. There are a lot of parallels between law and brokerage.
You became the CEO in 2018. In a few short years, you had to pivot 50+ offices and 2300+ agents during a global pandemic. It must have been so catastrophic in the beginning. How did you get through this – what was your methodology for pivoting such an enormous amount of people?
The beginning of the pandemic was tough because of the uncertainty and people were literally just trying to stay alive. Brown Harris Stevens quickly went remote and conducted business virtually through countless Zooms and Facetimes with clients.
In June of 2020, Brown Harris Stevens’ parent company Terra Holdings restructured and Halstead became part of Brown Harris Stevens. This allowed us to double down on resources and invest in technologies and marketing initiatives we never could before. We more than doubled our agent count and became one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the country. In fact, a third party data firm recently named BHS the fastest growing brokerage in the country – and we achieved this during the pandemic. I realize how fortunate we are because many companies had to close up or sell out. We grew.
How did Brown Harris Stevens do through all of that, numbers-wise?
2020 was tough on everyone in New York City. But our offices in the Hamptons, Palm Beach, and Connecticut did very well. Once people started getting vaccinated, the market roared and 2021 was a complete explosion that exceeded expectations. No one anticipated the pace and prices we would achieve in all of our markets. 2021 was the best year in the nearly 150-year history of Brown Harris Stevens.
How do you see the post-pandemic real estate world going now? Is it very region specific? Are you optimistic despite all the doom and gloom of recession talk?
There is already a market slowdown because the frenzy of 2021 was unsustainable. We are coming back to a more normal place, but there are challenges such as higher interest rates and low inventory. Real estate is always region-specific. All of these national indicators don’t really scratch the surface of what’s happening on the ground. The market in Palm Beach is not the market in Hoboken, NJ. There are differences in supply type, price, lifestyle, inventory – the list goes on. That’s why it’s important to work with a knowledgeable broker with local connections. I am optimistic that we will get through this time because we have weathered down cycles before.
You named Juneteenth a company-wide holiday long before the federal government did. You also made election day a paid day off. You have also fought for LGBTQ+ rights. Where do you get your fighting spirit from?
I have fought for social justice my entire life. My Legal Aid career was eye-opening. There are so many people who fall victim to a system that wasn’t designed to protect them in the first place. I will always be vocal when it comes to common sense gun laws and children, reproductive rights, and social justice. We all deserve to feel valued and heard.
What is the difference between a public and privately held massive company in terms of leadership?
Public companies answer to investors with diverse interests. Private companies answer to their immediate stakeholders and in the case of Brown Harris Stevens this means our agents. BHS is not under the pressure to grow for the sake of showing scale. Everything we do is with purpose and when we make mistakes – which we do – we own them and pivot. BHS is not a pit stop for agents; we are a company that fosters long term growth and the best executive management team in the business. We are a real estate company and we do it better than anyone else.
What do you hope for BHS to accomplish in the coming years, are there any initiatives or activations that you’re working towards?
We just launched our Mastery of the Craft campaign which is Brown Harris Stevens’ first major advertising and branding initiative in quite some time. BHS has a longstanding reputation as being this old school firm but that could not be further from the truth. We are incredibly forward-thinking in terms of our culture and our values and we wanted to communicate that in our marketing. We recently opened a new office space in Rhinebeck and we launched a TikTok channel in May which has seen incredible growth. We even borrowed some tips from Duke University and USC and are now offering TikTok workshops for our agents. It’s a lot of fun – but also crucial to any agent’s personal branding.
What does a powerhouse like yourself do for fun when they’re not working?
I play mahjong with my girlfriends – we call ourselves the Mahjong Mavens. In fact we are going to Vegas in October for a tournament.
I also always make time to be with my family. To me that is the heart of life… family. I go to Rhinebeck as much as possible and hang out with my Mom… the Queen of my life and my brothers. And I am becoming much better at being in the moment and enjoying the absolute simplest things in life. I also travel to southern Spain in the summer and visit my huge extended family. We eat, sing, and act looney. It is freedom from everything. I would describe bliss as being at the Chiniguito (little beach bar/restaurant) with everyone, drinking cold Cruz Campo (best beer in the world) and eating fresh fish. It is a recharge like no other.
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