(L to R) Tim Proschold, Vice President of Group Strategy and Success; Ryan Iwanaga, Executive Vice President; Barbara Cole, Chief Operating Officer; Chris Trapani, Chief Executive Officer
Chris Trapani and Ryan Iwanaga grew up together in the quiet, rolling suburbs of Northern California that would grow into the Silicon Valley—and the Sereno Group story starts in the summer of 1976, when the Iwanaga family moved next door to the Trapanis on Sobey Road in Saratoga. What began as two kids playing together has grown into the lifelong friendship that, to this day, has the two feeling more like brothers than friends.
They shared the experience of having tight-knit family households with an immigrant history that values and feels an obligation toward community. At the same time, bright and inquisitive, they found a deep and meaningful kinship in their rebellious natures both inside and outside the home.
After what both describe as academically underwhelming high school experiences, they found themselves studying at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo though with different career expectations—Trapani as a pre-law student destined to follow in the entrepreneurial footsteps of his father, Marko Trapani, and Iwanaga to study English and Fine Arts and begin coaching high school football.
But despite their differing academic journeys and early career paths, the two eventually found themselves working side by side, much as in their days back on Sobey Road—only this time as real estate professionals, first as sales associates, then as leaders; locally for Iwanaga and on a much larger, national scale for Trapani.
So, it should come as no surprise that when Trapani, with the backing of his father, was ready to launch an upscale, boutique real estate agency, he would call on the friends and creative thinkers who shared his unique vision.
Sereno Group opened its doors in 2006 with 27 top-producing agents, 115 listings in Los Gatos and surrounding areas, and a goal that ran against tradition: to break from the large-scale agency model in favor of offering every client the expert and personalized service that would make a positive difference in their real estate experience.
Trapani sharing the progress of the company at Sereno Group’s Mid-Year Meeting
Today, under the leadership of Trapani as chief executive officer and Iwanaga as executive vice president, with Barbara Cole as chief operating officer and Tim Proschold as vice president of group strategy and success, the firm has 365 agents in eight locations doing $3.5 billion in annual sales.
“That’s an average of more than $10 million in sales per agent,” Trapani points out—a rare accomplishment even in a region where, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic, the median home price for a single-family home hit a record of $935,000 last May.
Part of the reason for that, Trapani is quick to note, is that the company has taken an intentional and careful approach to growth. “We did not focus on hiring brand-new licensees during our first nine years in business,” he says. “We set a very high bar for character, quality and professionalism. We seek to align with the most experienced and thoughtful sales staff representing the best interest of our group and clients.”
While Sereno Group takes pride in the quality and experience of its sales staff, efforts to ensure they stay ahead of the curve include access to the best trainers and coaches in the industry, including Brian Buffini, Tom Ferry and Lorna Hines. The firm also schedules bimonthly meetings wholly devoted to awareness, inspiration, thoughtfulness and business applications.
They also provide a host of the latest cutting-edge tools and resources to their agents at little or no cost.
“We are invested in relationships, not profitability,” says Proschold, who, in his role as group strategist, is charged with scoping out the best in new business tools and technology.
Trapani and Iwanaga are committed to breaking from the tradition of the large-scale agency.
Iwanaga supports that view. “We have no interest in charging fees for the things our agents need to be at their best,” he says. “We came from a pervasive multiple profit-center culture, and we want no part of it now. Our aim is simply to provide our people with the best possible resources.”
For this leadership, the best includes a self-contained, in-house marketing studio with four designers and two project coordinators on staff to assist the company’s agents in producing upscale collateral ranging from postcards, property brochures and other custom-printed marketing materials, to the most sophisticated video home tours. Neither the marketing studio, the company’s transaction coordination service nor their busy relocation division are intended to be profit centers, Proschold says.
Keeping a sharp eye on staffing, operations and facilities, Cole joined the company as a first hire in 2006, before the firm’s first office was launched. Currently overseeing the opening of Sereno Group’s new Los Altos office, Cole sees herself as a company ambassador.
Proschold sees her as, “Master of the Big Picture;” an invaluable resource for the company. But Cole is quick to credit her “high-caliber support team” of roughly 30 hard-working administrators, receptionists, transaction coordinators and IT support people—even an Ambassador of First Impressions—with going above and beyond to keep the firm’s offices running smoothly.
“The company is close to my heart,” Cole says. “I believe so strongly in what we stand for, and in our commitment to being the best. Chris and Ryan genuinely listen—to everyone—and they make the most thoughtful decisions.”
That’s because everyone at Sereno Group is a voice that counts, Iwanaga explains. “There’s no ego here. We are proud of our family-like culture, our multigenerational roots in this community, and our commitment to nurture, mentor and support one another.”
But if Sereno Group’s reputation for quality service, and its standing as one of the top four most productive residential real estate sales firms in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties (in terms of annual sales volume) can be attributed to an outstanding sales team, then the buck stops at the non-traditional growth philosophy of its leadership.
“We don’t need more agents in order to be successful,” Trapani says. “The goal of our intentional growth and recruiting plan is to organically attract or develop like-minded agents of the future for the long term.”
As a result, most referrals come from existing sales staff, and most agents who want to join Sereno Group go through a recruiting process. “Industry-wide, more than 80 percent of new agents fail in the first five years,” says Trapani. “That’s why we hire only the best and the brightest, and we work collaboratively. We are their biggest boosters, and we love hearing ideas from our people that we can experiment with.”
Trapani’s passion for excellence, and his long-standing commitment to community, have deep and meaningful roots.
“Just a few months after we launched Sereno Group, I had a life-changing experience,” he says. “I was scanning the bookstore business section and spotted a book—”Let My People Go Surfing,”—by renowned mountain climber, businessman and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard. The book, and the company Chouinard founded, Patagonia, Inc., are all about how business can and should do good—that you can make a profit without losing your soul.”
It was a lightning rod moment for him, Trapani says, helping to shape and reinforce his own thinking, and it set in motion his commitment to creating a socially responsible business. The experience resulted in the birth and development of Sereno Group’s “1 Percent for Good” program, committing 1 percent of the firm’s gross revenues to environmental causes and to charitable or community-minded groups committed to making a difference in the areas the company serves.
Last year, Sereno Group gave $516,000 to 28 separate causes, making it one of the top 35 corporate givers, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. “We are determined to eclipse $1 million a year in charitable giving,” Trapani says.
Sereno Group is also committed to shrinking its footprint on Earth through efforts toward greener living, pledging to conserve natural resources, prevent pollution and waste, and be environmentally responsible. Every office recycles paper, plastic, batteries and toner cartridges, turns off lights when not in use, works toward a more paperless environment and patronizes other Green-certified businesses whenever possible.
In their offices and at home, Sereno Group associates are encouraged to use environmentally-friendly cleaning products, to keep vehicles well-maintained and to carpool when possible. They remove themselves, and assist clients to be removed from, as many junk mail lists as possible by going to stopjunkmail.org.
What does social responsibility mean for the company’s clients?
“It means patient, meticulous service that goes above and beyond the norm,” says Iwanaga. “Our goal is to exceed the standards for professionalism, market knowledge and approach. In addition to being trusted advisors, we like to be the kind of people others like to hang out with. In many cases, the people we meet as clients become our friends.”
Proschold agrees. “We want our agents to know three things: We care about you. We will be open and transparent. We will do everything in our power to help you increase your business. We like to think that’s the best way to ensure their happiness and confidence and, as a consequence, a better home-buying or home-selling experience for our clients.”
According to reports in The Silicon Valley Business Journal, the technology hub has the strongest momentum of any other major metro in the country in terms of economy and real estate—a position it has retained for three years straight and is expected to continue in as the industry expands from traditional hardware and software into sectors like artificial intelligence and automotive technology.
That would indicate rosy business prospects for the future of Sereno Group, which deals almost exclusively in the high-end housing market. But the firm’s leadership team fully intends to maintain its boutique approach.
“We remain committed to pushing the edges in finding ways a for-profit business can leave a positive and eternal impact on society, and hopefully in influencing future business leaders to consider following suit,” Trapani says. “We never set out to be the biggest brand. We simply desire to be a brand that agents, clients and the community consider purposeful, creative and of the most exceptional quality.”
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