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Saskatchewan Realtors Association’s amalgamation journey

“Amalgamation seems like a huge hill to climb, but once you get there, it’s worth it,” says Sheri Willick, the Saskatchewan Realtors Association’s 2021 board chair. “This made us realize we’re not the little guy from Saskatchewan. We’re capable of so much more and we’re done being complacent.”

Thanks to a tenacious and professional group of directors, the SRA board has steered the association in the right direction through its first two years as a newly amalgamated organization. That wasn’t always a straight-forward or comfortable process.

2020 was the inaugural year for the newly amalgamated SRA. Processes, legacy events, rules and bylaws had all been redefined to fit within the single new entity. There was a board of directors, a new governance model and a transition plan, vetted by the transition committee and supported through a national accounting firm.

Administration and leadership were in place, and the vision, mission and values were all laid out. The “turnkey” operation had just gotten underway when absolute pandemonium, now known as the pandemic and COVID-19, threw not just the association but the entire world off course.

“The pandemic definitely highlighted our strengths and our weaknesses,” says Tim Otitoju, inaugural chair of the SRA Board of Directors. “Issues and opportunities that may have taken years to come to light in normal times rapidly became apparent as we worked to pivot and adjust to new realities.”

To capture the journey of recent years and to reflect on the direction the association is now headed, we have tapped into some key players from the SRA Board of Directors for their take on what they lived and how they now define their amalgamation experience and leadership. Let’s be honest – many looked at the transition from the outside, wondering how things would shake out. Consider this an amalgamation case study that pulls back the curtain to share what the process has been like; a test of good governance and governing with courage.

What went right

The new association determined that requiring directors from across the province was imperative. Members from all corners of the province needed to know their views and voices were represented on the board and not drowned out by the two big cities, Saskatoon and Regina.

The board implemented a bylaw that cemented its composition – four directors for all three regions – Saskatoon, Regina and Saskatchewan. Beyond that, several members of the transition committee (the group who steered the amalgamation process) were included in that regional mix. The result was a good blend of seasoned veterans, members with intimate knowledge of the transition plan and some completely green directors.

“The green directors make all the experienced governance directors take a step back when they ask why we do things a certain way,” says Willick.

Balancing the views, needs, challenges and opportunities of a provincial association can be challenging, but 2022 board chair Avril Reifferscheid says, “With so many different levels of business, needs and expectations, it has been encouraging to see the effort among everyone to level the playing field.”

All of the directors interviewed spoke highly of their colleagues. They expressed that a common and vital key to their success was a strong mutual respect. Despite most of the board having never met in person due to pandemic restrictions, they were able to build a sense of team and camaraderie as they worked together to navigate the challenges of not just of being a brand-new association, but also while dealing with the pandemic.

All businesses and organizations will know that at the beginning of the pandemic, a significant shift of priorities, projections and plans needed to take place. The association initially projected the potential for a 70-per-cent drop in sales at the beginning of the pandemic. Hard decisions had to be made and the professionalism of the board, the strong sense of team spirit and collective “in this together” attitude allowed the association to pivot and make hard choices.

“At the end of every meeting, after some very hard discussions, everyone was always able to feel good about the process and that allowed us to stick with our decisions,” says Otitoju. “We were able to show strong leadership during very uncertain times, and that included being the first provincial association to put a pause on open houses for the safety of our members and the public.”

Respect, decisiveness and a team of directors with varying industry engagement and board experience, as well as strong leadership from the board chairs, allowed the SRA to successfully navigate the pandemic and first two years as a new association. “You want to have a plan, but you also need to be able to pivot because things will come up, and they did,” says Otitoju.

The unexpected lessons learned

While Realtors share a lot in common, no one was naïve to the fact that there were always going to be some differences of practice and opinion between the various regions of the province. Housing and real estate are very local issues. Practices that worked well in one city or region may not have been common practice in other regions. In a way, every region has their own unique culture and market, and the goal of amalgamation was not to remove those cultures but to bring them together to create efficiencies and opportunities.

The transition committee and inaugural SRA board had been so focused on the membership voting in favour of amalgamation that they hadn’t considered the ripple effects post-amalgamation. It’s a bit like a political party winning the election and now having to think about governing after being in the opposition for so long.

Those ripples included moving to a unified MLS audit model, rectifying MLS system differences as well as moving the whole province towards 100-per-cent member load. It proved a challenge, since our two largest centres operated on quite different models and had come to expect those services from its association.

Since amalgamation, SRA has continued to evolve its audit model to find a balance that all regions can support. It is currently in the process of moving from a 100-per-cent audit towards a five-per-cent audit. The process will require a complete audit of listing data including requesting contract and data input forms for a statistically relevant sample size to identify gaps in education and technology.

The association will narrow these gaps through education to build capacity and strengthen the quality of the data coming in. The model would require the association to lean on automated data checkers and processes but is moving ahead with the notion that improvements are continual and ongoing. There is no final, desired state in the end, only that excellence in our basic services will come from trial and evolution, not by referring to how we have always done things.

Enhanced member engagement and communication could have avoided several bumps in the road and softened others; something the association now prioritizes above most other goals – a silver lining if you will. While a lot of steps were taken to merge business practices to ensure a turnkey transition, it was sometimes difficult to understand the effect on the human side of such a tremendous transition.

Fortunately, the members, board and administration were able to maintain open communication and dialogue, make some hard choices and move the association forward.

A brand new governance model (Carver) was implemented at the outset of 2020, but it was soon evident that where flexibility and engagement was required in times of great change, the model was not the best framework to allow for relationships to breathe and build trust through those changes.

Trying to govern a new association, develop new policies and procedures, manage risks while also navigating a rigid new governance model was overly ambitious. In hindsight, efforts should have been made to determine what was working and what wasn’t, before throwing the original governance model away.

In 2020, more board meetings were held than anyone could have anticipated, in part because of the challenges presented by the pandemic and in part because of the challenges presented by the new governance model. 2021 was slightly less chaotic, and 2022 is expected to move to quarterly board meetings. That demonstrates excellent progress in a relatively short period of time.

“Don’t try to do too much in the first year. You need time to focus on mastering the basics, not bringing in new systems or services,” says Otitoju.

The association reviewed the governance model late last year and has decided to take what works and morph what doesn’t. This is happening with support of a professional governance coach, and the result is a hybridized version of Carver, one that focuses of good governance, good people and a sharp focus on what is most important: ensuring that association members have the tools, infrastructure and leadership required to achieve the greatest opportunity for success as Realtors, at a cost that is supported by results.

“I truly believe that everything needs to be morphed a bit to suit the people using it,” says Willick.

Action items

The best silver lining from this journey has been the association’s renewed focus on the member experience. From training, culture, implementation and evaluation, the cycle of continual improvement is applied to red carpet service. The administration is committed to ensuring members feel at home, no matter when they reach out.

Most importantly, the entire administration (no exceptions) called all 1,550 members in Saskatchewan in one single business week. This produced an action saying, “We know you didn’t feel heard before, and we know you’ve been through a lot, but we hear you now. Tell us what we can do to make your life easier.”  This simple gesture turned heads in the industry and was the action that allowed the start of a new commitment and stronger relationship with the membership.

The association is also tapping into its influencers more, especially brokers, to ensure any development hits the right mark as we master our basics. 2022 has a strong focus on mastering our basics. We cannot consider growing until we do our basics well with what we have. And our influencers remind us of what it takes to get there.

The board is also embarking on a risk mitigation journey, owning the process of identifying and defining challenges on the horizon that have the potential to hit our province and our association and impact the real estate sector. A new structure requires new analysis.

And this feeds into our government relations – proactively moving the dial on identified priorities while also having the capability to respond quickly to unexpected actions and decisions. And to be successful in this, collaborations are key. We have spent so much of the amalgamation journey looking in, now is the time to look out, build relationships and own the real estate narrative in Saskatchewan.

Looking ahead

To use a team building metaphor, the association’s focus and work has moved from a “storming phase” into a “norming phase.” And the first step of that norming phase is mastering the basics – to excel in understanding and delivering the essential services and supports members need, and to be responsive to their needs over time.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” That’s how the association’s 2022 board chair elect Jeff Stewart describes what the focus is now and into the future for the SRA. “We have finally figured out what we’re doing, and we’re striving to do it really, really well. Like Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great, we’re going to be the best in class, like the hedgehog, and I feel like that’s where we are headed.”

The association has its first strategic plan in place, which focuses on five key pillars that includes Realtor engagement, education and professional standards, innovation and technology, governance and government and external relations.

The administration is working to improve how data is captured, which will in turn improve the association’s key performance indicators and support the board’s monitoring work.

A fee holiday for members was also recently announced, set to happen in June, a sign that the amalgamation, in combination with the pandemic, created significant efficiencies and savings in 2021.

The results of those lessons learned, merging culture, systems and practices, listening and engaging more with the membership are showing results and the membership is now seeing those benefits. Now, with a revamped governance model, a reorganized and engaged team and a strong Board of Directors that places high value on constant education and learning, SRA is well-positioned to be the influential leader and trusted resource providing powerful support to its Realtors.

“I see the things that need to happen in the industry now becoming a priority,” says Willick. “I am so encouraged by our potential. It took courage to get us here, a lot of it, but our potential is now immense. I’m pretty proud of the journey that got us here.”