Fort Worth Business CEO • Winter 2015
Freeman Heads West / Robert Earley: JPS Health Systems Farmer / Keeping God’s Books
ROBBIE OF BRIGGS BRIGGS FREEMAN
KEEPING GOD’S BOOKS MINISTERS OFTEN LEARN BUSINESS ON THE JOB
THE GENTLEMAN FARMER
ROBERT EARLEY CULTIVATES CULTURE AT JPS HEALTH SYSTEMS
COMMITTED TO SERVE
GORDON ENGLAND’S RECORD RANGES FROM BOY SCOUTS TO THE PENTAGON
Volume 1 No. 3
STAYING HEALTHY IN STRESSFUL JOBS
FORT WORTH BUSINESS CEO • Winter 2015
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PHOTO G R A PH Y G L E N E L L M A N
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While Robbie Briggs was fighting to avoid layoffs at his upscale boutique Dallas real estate company during the economic meltdown in 1988, he had an epiphany. His agency mostly sold real estate in the Park Cities and around Preston Hollow, but not much was selling, particularly to local residents. “I looked at what our market was doing and I realized that the only people buying expensive homes in Dallas mostly were wealthy Mexicans coming up for safe haven, some Chinese, some Europeans, but very few locals,” Briggs said. The locals, like turtles, had just withdrawn into their shells on the sidelines. “So it occurred to me that nobody – even though we’re the oldest firm in Dallas and one of the most respected – in Monterrey, Mexico, would know who I was,” Briggs said. That’s when he realized that in Dallas and Fort Worth, the market is national and international as well as local. What he needed was a national and international presence, and the route to that was affiliation with an organization that already had that identity. What better organization than perhaps one of the best-known and oldest high-end names in the modern world – Sotheby’s? Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates was founded in 1976 as a subsidiary of Realogy Holdings Corp., which entered into a long-term strategic alliance in 2004 with the venerable British Sotheby’s auction house, established in 1744. So Briggs struck a deal with Sotheby’s International, opening the potential for collaboration and marketing with other affiliates around the United States and the world. He announced the affiliation in December 2010. But it also set up a future confrontation that would be among the most miserable experiences of Briggs’ life.
JOINING THE BUSINESS
Briggs’ father, opened Ben R. Briggs Real Estate, in 1960, but Robbie Briggs wasn’t really interested in following him. He wanted to be an architect, and he went to Tulane University to earn a master’s degree in the field. Tulane is where he met his wife of 39 years, Nancy. He graduated in 1977 and married that same year. Briggs went to work with a firm that did a lot of work for Dallas developer Trammel Crow. “But I had a wife and a baby, and I was making $10,000 a year. I was looking around the office and the guys who had been there for 10 years were making $30,000 a year. They didn’t
FORT WORTH BUSINESS CEO • Winter 2015
tell me that in architecture school,” Briggs said. “If I had been as passionate as a passionate artist, I would have stuck with it. I love architecture, but I didn’t eat, drink and sleep it, so I couldn’t justify being a starving architect.” He already had a real estate license, so he joined his father’s agency in 1979, thinking he’d do that while he figured out what else to do. “I had no intention of being in residential real estate,” he says. “I kind of kid that in those days they were nice ladies, a few men, and they sat there and waited for the phone to ring. That was just sort of the MO.” He brought in new ideas that weren’t particularly welcomed by the other agents. “Unlike the ones who were sitting there, I had a wife and a kid to support, so I’m making phone calls, and I’m going out, and I get a pager. And then, of course, the cell phone came along and I was one of the first to get that. I talked my dad into buying a fax machine,” Briggs said.
“By the time I was in my early 30s, I really wanted to see the company grow, and I knew that even if I got a listing on my own, everybody in the office thought my daddy had given it to me. He never gave me anything,” Briggs said. But that led to what would be a significant decision. “I chose not to list myself. I chose to build the agents up, market the company – I loved marketing – and just be a rainmaker. And I would refer the business to our agents,” Briggs said. “I could end up with the best agents working for me because they knew they were going to be taken care of.” He says he spends his days, all day long, thinking about how to grow the business and how to grow the agents instead of how to get listings. “That’s their job. My job is to provide them the tools and the marketing and the rainmaking on a bigger scale,” he said. He took over operation of the agency in 1983 around the time of what the Federal Reserve now says was then the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Recessions move across the United States in waves, hitting some areas earlier than others. Recovery was already
Nancy and Robbie Briggs at the Great Wall of China.
under way elsewhere when it hit Texas about 1985. Downturns in the market are part of life, but that doesn’t mean they are pleasant. Still, Briggs believes that they always signal an opportunity to make money in the future – if you can survive them. “Every downturn that I’ve ever gone through – I hate ’em, hate ’em – but I’ve always come out on the other side better. So I don’t like ’em, but I know that they’re a positive thing, they’re a correction in the market, and we’ll get through it,” he said. “And five to 10 years later, the values are skyrocketing.” In 1993, Briggs merged with a firm owned by Charles Freeman. “At the time I had probably 40 agents and he had 20 and we grew it to about 130 agents. We were certainly one of the three top luxury brokers in Dallas,” Briggs said.
Photo Briggs Freeman
HEARING A CALL
In 2005, Briggs Freeman was doing well with Freeman managing the day-to-day operations and Briggs playing rainmaker. Life was about as good as it could be. It was then that Briggs did something unusual – some might say crazy. “I really felt a calling to move to China and do ministry for three years,” Briggs said. China? It started with his son, Ben, who had gone to China while he was at Wake Forest University and loved it. “He’s very good with languages. He already had a kind of a mission heart,” Briggs said. Ben was working for EDS in London with no opportunity to move back to China. So Ben Briggs called David Gowdey, one of the owners at Barrington Gifts, which makes leather products for the corporate trade, saying that he knew Barrington made the products in China, wondering whether there was an opportunity for him there. Barrington’s management had been to a conference staged by Business as Missions, a faith-
based organization that promotes making a difference in the world through business. They told Ben that they didn’t feel very good I really felt about the China operation. “ ‘We feel like we should have a calling our own factory so that we can treat our people fairly, make a to move to difference in the community, and China and do if you want to go over and open up a factory for us, we’ll hire you,’” ministry for Briggs said they told his son. “So at age 25, with a computer science three years. degree, knowing nothing about factories, he agreed to go over there and open up a factory. They didn’t even know where.” Doug Birdsall, then head of Asian Access, an organization that trained pastors to work in China and Japan, took Ben with him to China and introduced him to Bill Job, owner of Meixia Handicraft Co., who started a glass factory in Xiamen, China, in 1987 to make collectibles. Xiamen (pronounced shah-muhn) is a port city on China’s southeast coast, across the strait from Taiwan. That was in 2004. Job took Ben Briggs in and mentored him. Job and his wife, Kitty, had spare space in their own factory. They had started an orphanage in Xiamen, and the woman running it had formerly run a 500-person leather factory. They offered to let her manage the new factory. “Well, she’s married to him now,” Briggs said. “That’s my son’s wife and she’s the mother of his three kids.” Her name is Jenny.
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Birdsall met with Robbie Briggs for lunch in Dallas the same year Ben went to China and offered to take him to Asia to see what Asian Access was doing. They went first to Mongolia and then on to China. “I’m not a crier, but I cried a bunch, because we were meeting people who had spent 25 years in prison because of their faith,” Briggs said. One man walked away from the Communist Party and his worldwide advertising firm to become a Christian pastor after the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “I immediately came home and said, ‘Nancy, that was the most life-changing trip I’ve ever taken. I’d like to take our family and maybe another family and our current Sunday School teacher and go back and do the same thing.’ And we did that summer,” Briggs said. That’s when Ben, now living in China, told him he wanted to get married. “I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a Sunday School teacher who is a pastor, your family’s here, why don’t we go ahead and do it?’ He said, ‘Believe it or not, I asked her, and she said she wants to pray about it for six months.’ So we had to go back a third time.” Just before that third trip, Briggs began to feel that he was being called to sell his house in Dallas and move to Beijing. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do, but … I had to come to that decision that maybe I’m walking away from Briggs Freeman.” When he discussed it with his wife, Nancy asked whether they could pray about it. “And she goes, ‘You know, Abraham and Sarah were called to a different country, but they took their business with them. They took their sheep and their cattle with them.’ At that point, I really was sure that I wasn’t leaving the business. I didn’t know how it was going to work. I thought it was very, very risky, me leaving.” He offered to buy out partner Charles Freeman “because I’m putting this company at risk and you shouldn’t have to bear the risk.” But Freeman declined although he would take the buyout later. “So he ran it, and ran it well for the three years I was gone.” Religious laws are complicated in China, so Briggs did not go as a missionary. “My visa was that I was researching business, looking for opportunities, which gave you multiple-entry visas,” he said.
So, by 2005, Briggs had pursued his calling and was in China. They were busy years. Briggs had been chairman of the board for a small Christian school in Dallas, and he was elected to the same position at the International School in Beijing. He became involved with a program for street kids and helped with the teenage boys and with the start of a vocational program. Another effort was working with the children of migrant workers in Beijing that started as an after-school program and morphed into a program for the whole family and another startup vocational school. And he was involved in church, teaching Sunday School. “You have government-approved churches, you have underground churches that are illegal and you have foreign passport churches, so if you have a passport, you can go to one of these foreign passport churches,” Briggs said. “The beauty of that was that meant that there were no denominations. They were just all there together. I loved it.” That played a role in church membership when he returned. He and his wife had been members of a mainstream Protestant church before they left. But when he returned he found it hard to attend a church made up of primarily one socioeconomic and ethnic group. “We began attending a downtown Dallas nondenominational church that is very mixed ethnically and economically, Reunion Church of Dallas,” he said. Volunteerism is a particularly American trait, and the international church Briggs attended in China opened the door to recruiting volunteers from different nations for his projects. A Sunday School class about how to be a good husband and father was not particularly popular with the men. “The Europeans were like, ‘No. That’s too touchy feely. We’re not doing that.’ And the Chinese were like, ‘No. Father rules. You don’t have to be nice. You don’t have to be caring.’ Well, the next year, the wives of the foreigners were watching the husbands of the Americans change and the marriages were getting better, and the wives of all these Chinese and all these Europeans were going, ‘You are taking that class,’ ” he said. “I didn’t do anything big. But there were lots of little things,” Briggs said. For Briggs, his time in China
Photo Briggs Freeman
In September 2013, the Briggs family hosted the wedding of Avery Briggs to Derek Reed in Martinsville, Maine.
FORT WORTH BUSINESS CEO • Winter 2015
was a blessing. “I’d come back [to Dallas] four times a year, and I felt like I was the luckiest man in the whole world,” Briggs said. “I would lead this very meaningful life and come home and be in meetings with Lucy Billingsley, Trammel Crow’s daughter, about high-rise buildings and I was just like, ‘Who gets to do this?’”
But as strong as the call to go to China was, it was followed three years later by a call to return home. “I felt so blessed, but I felt just as called to come home and I knew it by July of 2008. I was literally kicking and screaming. I was like, ‘Lord, I really don’t want to. I like what I’m doing here. Every day I wake up and I feel like I’m doing something meaningful and I’ve never been this energized.’ But I knew it was time to go home. For me, it [the decision to leave] was way bigger than going.” In September, he called the office in Dallas and said he’d be home in December. “In October 2008, everything crashed and Lehman Brothers went in the tank [Lehman filed for bankruptcy Sept. 15, 2008] and I started getting phone calls from Charles about, well, this just happened and that just happened and we need to lay these people off and duh, duh, duh. And I was like, ‘OK, Charles. Calm down.’ And I came home,” Briggs said. “I get back, and it was really just hanging on. The first day I was going to work, I was telling the Lord, ‘How am I to go encourage these people? I don’t want to be here.’ I just sense Him saying, ‘Well, can you encourage them today?’ ” Briggs said. “I pull my pants on and I go to work and I don’t see the end of this forest. This is worse than 1985, but we’ll put our pants on and we’ll make it through one day at a time. And that’s what we did. We didn’t fire anybody. I did ask people to take a 5 percent pay cut, and we got through it. And like I said, every time I’ve gone through one of these downturns, we’ve come out better,” Briggs said.
Photo Briggs Freeman
Briggs announced the affiliation with Sotheby’s and that he had become the sole owner of the firm in December 2010. Sotheby’s opened opportunities that he had foreseen, such as the ability to be involved in the farm and ranch real estate business from Dallas-Fort Worth south to Houston, with ties to similar operations in California and Colorado. Briggs had discussed the possibility of a Fort Worth franchise with Sotheby’s early in their relationship but didn’t feel that the time was right. He says he believes that the two markets are markedly different, although perhaps not as different as he thinks. Under his agreement with Sotheby’s, he opened additional offices in Dallas and offices in Southlake and Arlington. Jamie Adams came aboard early in Arlington, and John Zimmerman joined technically under the Southlake office. Briggs opened a Dallas Uptown office across from the Crescent Hotel, down from the Mansion and around the corner from the Ritz so “all the people coming to Dallas would see the Sotheby’s sign and, sure enough, that worked. They might come to Dallas and look at my two competitors’ names and not know who they are, but
they knew who Sotheby’s was.” At the time, Briggs Freeman was increasing its presence in the ranching land division. “Within a couple of months, we had about $75 million worth of ranches west of Fort Worth [listed],” Briggs said. Briggs decided it was time to revisit the Fort Worth franchise, but says that Sotheby’s was coy in those discussions.
Robbie Briggs and agents from Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty’s Ranch and Land division traveled to Dubai for business development opportunities.
ON THE BEACH
Nancy Briggs’ family owns property in Maine and it was while on a trip there that Robbie Briggs got a phone call he can’t forget. “I get to Maine, Aug. 1 of 2012, and I get a phone call from one of my agents saying, ‘Did you know that you have a federal lawsuit from Sotheby’s?’ I said, ‘What?’ That began that little journey. I’ve never sued anybody in my entire life. I’ve hardly been sued,” Briggs said. His agents in Dallas were wondering why they were paying a 6 percent commission to a company that was suing their broker. The suit was complicated, but in essence it revolved around the definition of the word office. Was Zimmerman’s working out of his home a violation of Briggs’ franchise? Sotheby’s thought it was. While he was dealing with that suit, Williams Trew and Sotheby’s announced a franchise agreement, shutting the door to Briggs’ desire to expand into the Fort Worth market. Later, Williams Trew would also sue Briggs Freeman. While he was in Maine, he started talking to another man who owned doc-in-a-box franchises along the Washington state coast but was getting out of the business because the franchiser was suing him. The man referred Briggs to a leading franchise attorney in Milwaukee. “So on my beach, in Port Clyde, Maine, I get the name of this powerful attorney,” Briggs said. Ultimately, he would buy the Fort Worth franchise from Williams Trew, and Williams Trew would sell to Dallas Realtor Ebby Halliday. But two years of stress took its toll, and not only in legal fees. “Look at me,” Briggs said. “I gained about 50 pounds. Other people starve themselves under stress; I eat under stress.” But that’s in the past as far as he’s concerned, and it’s time to move on.
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Agent Jamie Adams gave Robbie Briggs a pair of customized boots to welcome him to the Arlington and Southlake offices.
BRIGGS FREEMAN SOTHEBY’S INTERNATIONAL REALTY By The Numbers 1960:
Established as Ben R. Briggs Real Estate 1993: Merger with Charles Freeman Realtors 2010: Joined Sotheby’s International Realty network 2012: Launched Southlake office and achieved 220 percent increase in sales in one year 2014: Opened Lakewood office and grew sales volume by 300 percent in the first year 2015: Joined with Brants Realtors, Mira Vista Realtors and Bloom Real Estate Group to open three Fort Worth offices 400: Real Estate agents 5: Ranking by sales volume in 700-member Sotheby’s International Realty network $735M Price of largest listing, the W.T. Waggoner Ranch 10: Offices Cultural District, Mira Vista, Ranch and Land West, Southlake, The Ballpark, Uptown, Lakewood, Lovers Lane, Ranch and Land East, Plano Source: Briggs Freeman
FORT WORTH BUSINESS CEO • Winter 2015
Briggs is active in Sotheby’s network. “When Beijing Sotheby’s opened, I went to the opening,” he said. “When Dubai Sotheby’s opened, I went to the opening. We hosted the New Delhi office in Dallas. … I take 40 or 50 brokers to the conference. I meet three times a year with the top 10 brokers of Sotheby’s to talk about best practices and how we can improve our company. I meet three times a year with the top 40 worldwide about deals, the construction of deals, and how we’re going to market this building to your clients.” He’s also formed relationships with major Sotheby’s ranch brokers such as Bill Fandel from Telluride Sotheby’s and Suzanne Perkins from Sotheby’s International Realty in Santa Barbara. It’s fair to say that Briggs’ latest move in Fort Worth shocked the real estate market when three local agencies jointed Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty – Brants Realtors, Mira Vista Realtors and Bloom Real Estate Group. Briggs is well aware that Fort Worth and Dallas are different kinds of cities. He says that Fort Worth has a unique identity in the same way
Robbie and Ben Briggs in Dubai. Ben still lives in China but is now executive vice president of the China Initiative for Briggs Freeman.
that New Orleans and Miami have identities. “I like that authentic identity of who Fort Worth is,” Briggs said. “And yet, it’s much more complex than you immediately think of. These are some of the most sophisticated people in the world, and the ones that I’ve met have been some of the most entrepreneurial in the world and yet you can just sense that they have roots in hard-working American cowboy culture, and that’s a good thing.” And he gets the community involvement thing. “I am philanthropic, and I am Chamber-centric,” Briggs said. He’s visible in Fort Worth, is a member of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, and recently traveled with Mayor Betsy Price, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlins and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport CEO Sean Donohue to Germany and England promoting the area. “I know the two areas are very different, but I know that outside of our area we are known as DFW, and when a corporation moves here, they’re looking at the whole Metroplex. They’re not just looking at one or the other,” Briggs said. He’s banking on it.
WAS ZIMMERMAN’S WORKING OUT OF HIS HOME A VIOLATION OF BRIGGS’ FRANCHISE?
SOTHEBY’S THOUGHT IT WAS.
Robert Francis is editor of Fort Worth Business. firstname.lastname@example.org Paul K. Harral is editor of Fort Worth Business CEO. email@example.com
Photos - Left: Photo Glen Ellman, center and right Briggs Freeman
John Zimmerman (left) and Robbie Briggs. Zimmerman was the first agent to introduce the brand to Fort Worth.
Published on Dec 1, 2015
Published on Dec 1, 2015
Robbie Briggs shakes off law suits and shakes up the Fort Worth Residential Real Estate scene! From Fort Worth Business CEO - Winter 2015