Five decades ago, Century 21 was an innovative force in real estate. Now, in an era of new technology and consumer demands, its fresh CEO is attempting to rebrand and overhaul the global franchise. But at a company this size, change doesn’t come easy.
Walk into Century 21’s headquarters in Madison, N.J., and it’s clear the company is in transition.
A few things seem off and slightly out of place. The walls. The furniture. And most notably, the Ping-Pong table—that clichéd symbol of a Silicon Valley startup, which sits awkwardly abandoned in a corner.
The table arrived in 2017, a corporate gift to welcome Century 21’s then-new CEO, Nick Bailey, who took over that summer. He’d arrived from Zillow, one of the very tech companies putting pressure on Century 21, and carried with him no allegiance to his new employer’s past—including its office design. His mission, in fact, was to largely tear the place up: to overhaul what many have come to see as a tired brand, a former real estate giant that lost its way as technology turned the industry on its head.
“Before I was hired, the place looked like a morgue,” he says. “An awful place to work.”
To start, he did what’s become common among tech leaders. He opted out of the corner office, moved into a cubicle a few rows away, and turned his predecessor’s work space into a company war room of sorts. Desks were cleared out to make way for the Ping-Pong table. “We wanted to create a shock factor,” he says. “Leadership has to prove that things are different.”
But this is a 47-year-old company, and, as Bailey is learning, even shock waves tend not to ripple outward very fast. It only takes a quick trip down the hall to see that. Cubicles still rise from carpet-lined floors, and the noise level can best be described as “appropriate.” A party held one summer afternoon for a recently wed employee featured a sheet cake and ice cream, like on an episode of The Office.
Bailey says the renovation is not yet finished. But he has bigger things on his plate—like turning Century 21 into the most sought-after, beloved brand in real estate. That’s a big task, especially considering that most consumers loathe the home buying and selling process, no matter who is helping them do it. The fix will be external (new logo, messaging, essentially a full rebrand) as well as internal and emotional—changing processes, changing culture, changing customer expectations. It won’t be easy, Bailey knows, and success isn’t a guarantee. Nor is the blind support of staff, let alone a global network of 8,800 offices and 122,000 agents.
Still, Bailey is setting high goals. He says the company can double transactions in the next five years and become the most desirable brand in the industry. He also believes history is on his side. Five decades ago, Century 21 re-created the real estate business in America. What’s to say it can’t happen again?
CENTURY 21 was founded in California in 1971 by two real estate agents who wanted to build “the McDonald’s of real estate.” It was the first company to take the very local business of real estate and operate it on a national platform—running a franchise system, with local franchisees who hire their own agents. In a few years, Century 21 was opening 100 offices a month. From 1988 to 1990, it ranked in the top 10 of Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500® listing.
But the internet fundamentally altered the real estate industry over the past 15 years. “Once the listing information became publicly available, the agent went from being a guardian of information to being a professional services provider,” says Clelia Peters, president of New York’s Warburg Realty and cofounder of MetaProp, a venture fund focused on real estate technology.
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