Raising The Roof

When executive Roosevelt Barnes launched his real estate business three years ago, Cincinnati residents were reeling from race riots that plagued the city several months earlier. After the questionable police shooting of an African American man, racial tension polarized Barnes’ hometown, and the economic recovery was lagging. Despite the tenuous times, Barnes left his corporate job as an asset manager for Western & Southern Financial Group in July 1998 to follow another career path. He launched Barnes Real Estate Group in August 2001, using about $10,000 from his personal savings.

His marketing strategy was simple. He planned to approach larger and more established realtors with joint project proposals and to use his network of business contacts developed during his stint in corporate America. “Initially, I approached some well-established realtors about working together on various projects and bidding proposals,” Barnes says. “The deals rarely got past proposed fee arrangements that were usually unequal and unfair.” After obtaining small pilot projects, Barnes was able to rent office space and set up shop as a full-service real estate brokerage firm.

The move from corporate bean counter to real estate mogul has been a profitable one. The company brokered about $8.3 million worth of sales and leases in its first year of operation. Barnes Real Estate Group now has close to 300 area apartment units under management. The bulk of the 31-year-old entrepreneur’s business transactions include real estate owned dispositions — bank foreclosures — and many African American churches in the Cincinnati area. He also focuses on obtaining properties of an acre or more and then persuades developers to bring in retailers to lease or purchase the sites. Revenues for the five-employee firm are expected to top $320,000 this year.

Pending government legislation may cause a glitch in maintaining complete independence and long-term business solvency for Barnes and other realtors. A proposed initiative of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999/Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act would allow banks to expand their services to include entering the real estate brokerage and property management market. Advocates of the proposal — mostly federally chartered banks — contend the move would simplify the disjointed and confusing home-buying process. Opponents — mostly small and independent real estate firm — argue that the move will put them out of business.

There are about 375,000 small, women, and minority-owned real estate firms in the U.S., according to figures from the National Association of Realtors. Another drawback of the proposal is that real estate agents would become salaried employees of banks and the competition, thus diminishing the entrepreneurial spirit and eliminating the personal aspects of purchasing a home.

“A realtor’s expertise and skill can’t be replaced by a bank or financial institution. Home buyers will always want to work with a knowledgeable individual for the personal attention,”Barnes says.

For Barnes, being able to compete with larger brokerage firms that are able to offer additional services is a challenge. Some brokers and realtors are able to offer lending and title services as well. “It’s an avenue that I am pursuing and have already initiated the groundwork to