Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 21, 2020

‘Every year, I insist on doing better’

Competitive spirit drives Robinson team to record $100M year


A burning need to compete has smoldered inside Realtor Jay Robinson for as long as he can remember. As a young man, it drove him to play competitive sports. As an adult, it compels him to excel at real estate.

In Chattanooga, which has several high-performing agents, this could be a source of stress. But not for Robinson because he’s competing with himself, not other Realtors.

“There are a lot of great agents in this market, but I’ve never considered them to be my competitors,” he says. “They don’t affect what my team and I do. We’re responsible for our own business and for the numbers we put up. No one else can affect that.”

If Robinson is competing against only himself, then he just hit his best pitch out of the ballpark.

Robinson and his team of buyer’s agents and administrators sold roughly $90 million worth of real estate in 2018, his career-best.

Then, last year, Robinson did something Chattanooga’s multiple listing service confirms no other individual or team leader has done by topping $100 million in sales.

To be precise, Robinson and his agents sold 230 sides for $110,686,963. In dollar volume, this placed him ahead of five other Keller Williams agents, including Mark Hite, Jim Lea, Wendy Dixon, Lori Montieth and Jake Kellerhals.

Robinson says the biggest factor in his annual achievements is simply expecting to do better every year.

“Usually, the dividend of my expectations is higher production,” he explains. “Doing better means selling more listings and helping more buyers, and as a result, production goes up. So, every year, I insist on doing better.”

Robinson places this same expectation on his five buyer’s agents. But he has confidence in the group, which he says is good at listening, eager to connect with others and powered by resolve.

“Sales is not about talking; it’s about listening and solving problems,” Robinson says. “If an agent isn’t willing to do the difficult things in this business, then he’s not going to succeed.”

Stability is another factor that defines Robinson’s team. In an industry in which Realtors often swap brokerages, most of Robinson’s buyer’s agents have been with him for 10 or more years.

His three full-time support staffers have been with him even longer.

“Our stability in this market is unprecedented, particularly my administrative stability,” he notes. “My listing coordinator and listing assistant have been with me for more than 15 years.”

Robinson says this stability helps to prevent the atrophy of his client base.

“Turnover is confusing to your customers. That happy, familiar face is gone,” he says. “If it keeps happening, the customer is gone, too.”

To maintain a steady flow of clients, Robinson stays connected to homebuyers by listing every house his team sells. He also attends open houses.   

“We do about 30 open houses a year,” he says. “A lot of people are surprised to see me there. They think I’m a figurehead, like Ronald McDonald. But I work Sundays. I need to hear people’s feedback, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. It keeps me on my toes.”

This level of hands-on activity also tells Robinson which things are important to his clients. He says that’s vital if he hopes to sell houses.

“Buyers have shifted seismically in the last few years. They want a different product. Buyers who are 25 to 40 years old don’t want a living room or a dining room, they want a big, open space.

“They also want a plug-and-play home. People don’t want a construction project anymore.”

In addition to maintaining high expectations and being connected to the market, Robinson embraces rather than despises problems.

“A younger agent recently said this business would be great if there weren’t so many problems. That floored me. She’s 27 years old and made $12,000 on a single sale. If our work was easy, we wouldn’t be paid $12,000.”

When Robinson is speaking with a new agent or teaching a real estate class at Keller Williams, he tells people to be grateful for the problems.

“You don’t want your clients to have problems, but issues happen, and when they do you get to be busy, you get to help and you get to justify being paid,” he adds.

Over the years, Robinson’s philosophy has opened new avenues of business to him and his team, such as transactions involving complex estates. This has presented them with some of the knottiest situations they have encountered.

“We often have multiple heirs and members of a family that don’t know each other, and it’s our job is to make sure everybody is on the same page and happy with the outcome,” he says.

“We’re in the midst of one of those transactions now. We have multiple heirs on two different wings of a family, and there are some fractured relationships and not a lot of communication. Our job is to focus on the primary purpose and not let the peripheral issues distract us.”

To stay on course in situations like this, Robinson views all problems from a first-world perspective. Yes, he and his team are dealing with their client’s money, and that’s a massive responsibility, but it’s not a life or death situation.

“I’ll occasionally have a client who lets something ruin them,” he says. “But it’s just a real estate sale. Are you happy? Are you healthy? Are you well-fed? How are your kids? How is your spouse?

“Those are real issues. I’ve seen people let a real estate transaction crush them – and that should never happen.”

Robinson maintains this mindset even when he looks to the horizon and sees storm clouds gathering over the housing market.

“I see a generation of homebuyers who have never seen rates above 5% needing more square footage, but since they’re unable to take their 3.5% fixed mortgage rate with them, they’re going to have to assume more mortgage debt at 6%. I think people will enter that market cautiously.”

Robinson says he and his team will adapt.

“I started off in a market in which rates were 10, 11 and 12%, and I did fine,” he says. “And when rates were 7, 8 and 9% in the 2000s, we did fine.”

Robinson saw only bright days ahead when he earned his broker’s license in Arkansas in his early 20s. Although born and raised in Chattanooga, he was ambitious and saw little to no opportunity for him in the city, so he left to make his mark elsewhere.

“I was drawn to the unlimited potential to succeed on my own and accomplish as much as I wanted,” he recalls. “There was no ceiling; the possibilities were endless.”

Chattanooga’s downtown renaissance and an opportunity to work with legendary Realtor Hugh Huffaker drew Robinson back to his hometown in the mid-1990s.

“Hugh was one of the good guys of real estate and somebody I admired tremendously,” Robinson remembers. “He and Fletcher Bright were a different breed. They achieved a level of success probably none of us are ever going to be able to match. They probably had a greater share of this market than we could ever even hope to have.”

Robinson worked with Huffaker and then Crye-Leike before striking out on his own with Robinson Real Estate in Chattanooga’s Fort Wood neighborhood. He then seized the opportunity to work with Keller Williams in 2014. “That simplified my administrative life tremendously,” he says.

Through his 30 years in real estate, Robinson says his business has only grown – even during the notorious downturn in 2010. “We actually did quite well because there was a huge contraction in the agent count in Chattanooga and we had more listings than we could handle,” he says. “The biggest thing for issue at that point was adapting to the price reductions.

“I haven’t had a lot of downs in this business, just ups.”

At 56, Robinson is as attentive as ever to his business. But he’s also filling the hours between work with the things he says are even more important to him, including his family and his volunteer work with the homeless.

Robinson’s days begin at 5 a.m. with prayer, meditation and reading. After work, Robinson scratches his sports itch by playing tennis or, as he puts it, “learning to play tennis better.”

He and his wife, Ali Robinson, play doubles together, which gives them a regular excuse for a date. They also like to travel with his four sons, with the Gulf serving as an annual destination.

With one son playing football for Sewanee: The University of the South and another involved in activities at Baylor School, Robinson can easily fill his off hours. But it’s also his desire to work on behalf of Chattanooga’s homeless population, so he’s volunteered with a number of local organizations, including the Chattanooga Region Homeless Coalition, Community Kitchen and St. Matthew’s Emergency Shelter.

While Robinson says these organizations provide vital services, he’s passionate about finding permanent solutions for the homeless. To that end, he’s joined the executive committee of FUSE (Frequent Users Systems Engagement), a two-year effort at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office to help the chronically homeless and mentally ill avoid incarceration and attain stability.

“I help people make their dreams come true, and the ultimate dream for anyone living on the streets is to have a roof over their head,” he says. “This fits my mission, which is to help people live in the best place they possibly can.”

As a member of FUSE’s executive committee, Robinson has participated in PIT counts, or point-in-time counts, which are tied to HUD money. This has taken him to dark places in the city, including underpasses. But it’s his desire to be there.

“Everybody deserves a safe place to live,” he explains.

With more than $1 billion in home sales during his career, Robinson has helped many people find a place they can call home. It’s all he’s ever done, and it’s all he ever intends to do, so he continues to strive to do better.

Robinson’s success is an invitation to others to follow in his steps, much as he is following in the steps of his mentors. But if anyone hopes to succeed, they will have to take the profession as seriously as he does.

“In several of the classes I’ve taught, agents have told me they’re ‘doing real estate,’” he says. “I want to kick them out of the room because you ‘do lunch,’ you ‘do a trip to Mexico,’ you ‘do a family gathering,’ but you don’t ‘do the legal profession’ and you don’t ‘do accounting,’ you become a lawyer or an accountant.

“In the same way, you become a Realtor. Agents need to take that seriously.”