Real Estate Agents of the Month Matt Barker & Brandon Hedges

Matt Barker and Brandon Hedges

Calling Winning Plays

By Susan Cushin

When we first met Matt Barker and Brandon Hedges they were just launching their real estate careers. It was some 15 years ago, and both men were under 30 years old. Building on a strong friendship that had carried them through high school and college, they were two young men sharing one big dream.

Even at that early point in establishing their RE/MAX Results team, clients were not an issue. They actually were more concerned about how the two of them could effectively and efficiently handle the surprising volume of business streaming their way. They had in fact, just hired their first team member, Dena Hodnett, whom they described as “intelligent, organized and customer service focused.”

Hodnett jumped in where she was needed most, handling the day-to-day details of closings, communications with clients, maintaining a client database, and essentially keeping the office running smoothly.

With each member of this small team assuming his or her share of the many duties, Barker and Hedges could move forward, confident that the most important aspect of their new business – elite customer service – was sustained. Together, they dubbed this group strategy, “The Team Approach,” building on the motto at the heart of their new business, “Service with Integrity.”

Obviously, it was a solid foundation for what has now grown into a 20-plus member team known as the Barker Hedges Group. Hodnett has long since turned over her administrative duties and is now one of the group’s most successful agents.

“Dena is still very instrumental in helping us from a strategic standpoint and managing our organization,” says Hedges.

Team Spirit

Friends since they were teenagers, Barker and Hedges developed a strong bond as teammates on their high school football team.

“I think that had a lot of impact on where we went from there,” says Hedges. “Being part of that high school team was significant. Both of us have been part of various teams before and since, whether sports or real estate, but that particular group was a very unique experience. We had a great group of people and spent a lot of time together; we knew each other very well and really understood how each piece fit together. That’s what we’ve tried to bring to our real estate group.

“We don’t necessarily talk about football,” he continues, “it’s more in the way we think about centralizing what we want our team to be, and how we want to put people in the right position, then let them do what they do best. It’s just sort of an over-reaching philosophy that started back in the early ’90s with football.”

After graduating from Eagan High School, the two friends continued their education together at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse. Each man was drawn to majors that reflected their interests and passions. Barker, who has always been very creative, and already thinking about real estate as a career, studied marketing. Hedges, preferring a more regimented course of study, reflecting his highly logical and very methodical approach to life, studied pre-law and history with an eye on attending law school.

After college, they both returned to the Twin Cities. Hedges continued his studies at the Hamline University School of Law, while Barker, who had a degree in marketing, began working on Wisconsin real estate courses and figuring out his next step.

“Even in college I was pretty determined to get into real estate and even took real estate courses to get my license,” says Barker. “I had someone who was kind of a mentor to me, telling me it probably wasn’t a good time to get into real estate, primarily because of my age. He explained that because I was so young with very little life experience, it was going to be hard for me to really gain any traction.”

Taking the advice to heart, Barker put his real estate ambitions on hold. He tried to make good use of this time, seeking jobs that would serve him well when he was ready to begin his real estate career. Working at Nordstrom’s for instance, a high-end department store renowned for their superior customer service, offered Barker an opportunity to work with the public, while picking up tips on how to provide the highest level of customer care.

Barker’s interest in real estate was born from childhood experiences. Because his family moved a lot due to his father’s career, he met many REALTORS who piqued his interest in the industry. “I had a lot of interaction with different agents every time we moved,” he says. “The more I talked with them, the more passionate I became about having a career in real estate.”

Though he sincerely wanted to follow the advice of a mentor whom he admired, it wasn’t long before Barker realized his drive was too great; he couldn’t wait any longer before starting his “real life.”

Finally deciding to take the plunge, Barker became licensed in Minnesota and started building his business. Hedges, who was still in law school at the time, wasn’t surprised. “Real estate was all Matt ever talked about,” he says.

“Brandon knew that I was serious about real estate,” Barker agrees. “He was in law school, but he was looking at what I was doing and thought it sounded like a very interesting career. He was going to finish law school, but meanwhile began working with me to build the business. We really helped each other out, bouncing ideas off one another.

“We each have a very distinctive way of looking at things,” he continues. “I’m very creative, with a marketing background and Brandon is extremely strategic and able to implement the processes and systems to make it a smooth transaction for the agents on our team, our support staff and our clients. We found that teaming up we could offer a unique package, but with skills that complement one another.”

Upon receiving his Juris Doctor, Hedges initially went to work for a law firm with a niche client base handling a lot of real estate work. While he enjoyed the work, Hedges said the culture was not one that suited his temperament.

“Being in a law firm just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I like to be out and about. I enjoy the interaction with people and I prefer being more hands on. I realized I’m wired more that way and needed to make a change. There were a few options – opening my own firm, looking for another job in the traditional legal field that might be a better fit, or put all my focus and energies into this real estate business that we had been developing over the last three or four years.”

Hedges maintains his license as an attorney, but says his main focus is real estate. Naturally, having this legal expertise serves both the group and their clients very well.

Going for the Blitz

From early on, Barker’s marketing magic together with Hedges legal prowess and methodical strategizing, proved to be a winning combo. With both partners fully invested, their real estate business grew exponentially and Barker Hedges Group began to take shape. Fueled by their shared passion for real estate, the men explored the seemingly endless possibilities.

“What keeps life interesting, is how we each look at things so differently,” says Hedges. “It’s that constant push for us to find better ways. Matt has a thousand great ideas, but you can’t realistically implement so many different things at once. I balance him out and find practical ways to implement his best ideas and those that will best serve our company. We’re like the yin and yang – each other’s checks and balances. Everything we do is very precise and systematic and yet, our ideas are typically way outside the box.”

As they began adding agents to their team it was critical that everyone share their same dedication and commitment to making sure each client had an exceptional experience. Another important element of their growth was embracing new technology.

“Matt has always been very interested in web technology, especially from a marketing standpoint,” says Hedges. “He has always seen that as the next big thing for real estate because at that time real estate really wasn’t online. I didn’t see it, but he did. I’m glad that he did.”

The response to their online presence was overwhelming, and accelerated the growth of the team with additional members to handle the new business.

“We never add team members just for the sake of adding,” says Hedges. “It’s always been to fill the need and stay ahead of the demand. We want to make certain that we have the qualified manpower to consistently provide our clients with the level of service they’ve come to expect.”

“We look for people with a positive attitude who are enthusiastic about life,” says Barker. “The best agents are people who are excited to wake up in the morning to see what the day brings. Real estate is a people business so you need to have that kind of outlook on life if you hope to be successful.”

“Obviously, there are other skills that you need to be successful in real estate,” adds Hedges, “but those skills can be taught. You can’t teach a philosophy of enjoying life and the desire to do better for yourself and your family.”

Team Huddle

Just as they found success on the football field, these partners find that ongoing training and planning leads to success for everyone on their team.

“We have expectations,” says Hedges. “We have daily, weekly, monthly goals. We would like to have agents on our team that want to be part of something, but they also have to look at real estate as a full-time career, not a hobby. Having that combination of things makes it all work.

“Just as you can’t say, ‘We want to be state champions,’ and expect it to happen,” he continues, “you have to break it down into effective plays that win the game and take you to the next level. It’s the same with real estate. You don’t look at the entire year and say, ‘I want to sell 30 homes,’ you have to look at what you can do today. Because what Matt and I do today, shows results 30 or 40 days from now. So, if you’re not always looking at what you can do today, you’re missing the boat.”

A key element to their success, perhaps one of the most important according to both Barker and Hedges, is making sure they are there for every need their clients might have. From the beginning, they found a special connection with first-time homebuyers. From there, they have expanded their business with referrals and return business.

Similarly, they welcome agents new to real estate because they find they have a lot to offer newcomers given their combined years of experience, and given that they both entered the business at such young ages. “Less than 10 percent of agents make it past their second year in real estate and the odds are even lower that someone will make a decent living selling real estate,” says Barker. “Within a year or two, newer agents that join our team are often at where seasoned, higher producing agents end their career. If someone has passion for real estate, we can provide them all the tools necessary to succeed.”

“It’s exciting because we’re always breathing new life into our business,” says Hedges. “New team members mean fresh ideas and new beginnings, but we value those who have been with us for the long haul. We have team members who have been with us virtually since the beginning, many for a decade plus. We’ve grown the business together. If we keep doing the right thing, whether it’s for our agents, support staff or clients, people appreciate that and they stay loyal.”

“Brandon and I also are very interested in what people are passionate about,” adds Barker. “You know, we try to match their role on our team with that passion. Skilled sales people aren’t usually that interested in paperwork, so we try to keep them in positions to have success in what they do enjoy and our awesome office staff makes sure that all the ‘t’s’ are crossed and ‘i’s’ dotted.”

To this end, Barker Hedges has a customer service team solely dedicated to implementing and following through with services for the client. This team will follow up with phone calls and other communications to make sure every client is satisfied, and where there might be concerns, they immediately address these and put corrective policies in place.

By matching team members with what they most enjoy and are good at, everyone wins, particularly the clients.

Adjusting the Game Plan

Anyone who has achieved any level of success in business will tell you that the ability to be flexible and respond, or better yet anticipate changes in the market are the ones who will survive and thrive. This was true with Barker and Hedges as the country dipped into the recession of the early 2000s.

“We didn’t think the downturn was going to last forever,” says Hedges, “which it didn’t. It lasted longer than any of us wanted it to, but it was not forever. While it appeared that the only agents still thriving were those specializing in foreclosures and short sales, we chose to focus our attention on the buyers. That small percentage of people who were in a position to purchase homes at that time, which happened to be, for the most part, first-time buyers.

“That still remains a huge part of our business,” he adds. “When you realize that Matt and I were only 22 years old when we started out, it makes sense that the only people who would talk to us were first-time buyers. We loved them then and we love them today.”

“And, there are a lot of first-time homebuyers we worked with that are now fifth-time homebuyers,” adds Barker. “We focused on providing them excellent service and it’s been rewarded many times over.”

The Science of the Game

Hedges points out that while many agents are reluctant to share online analytics with their sellers, he and Barker choose to do the exact opposite. Basing their marketing and sales strategy on this information, they make the approach almost scientific.

“We’re always trying to push the envelope with real estate marketing to that next level. We’re never complacent with where we’re at,” says Barker. “We create single-property websites for most of our listings. Since the websites are dedicated just to that home, the seller can see down to the hour, how many people are looking at their home, and how long.

“When you open yourself up to a seller in that way it creates a bond because there’s nothing to hide,” he adds. “There’s no smoke and mirrors, it’s all up front. What we tell people we are going to do for them, is exactly what we do. We’re focused on getting buyers to look at their home online because a vast majority of buyers start their search online. Even the strategy of choosing exactly which photos to post is almost a science.”

Both agree that this is a source of pride, taking the time to carefully and scientifically determine the best course of action and which marketing strategy is going to be successful for each home. Their numbers bear out the success of this approach with their listings selling almost twice as fast as the competition.

An area that Barker and Hedges have become fascinated with, are the many older homes in the area with interesting histories. These homes, whether widely recognized or not, have stories that are both compelling and of historical value.

Taking a personal interest in these particular homes often includes days, weeks or even months of carefully planning the marketing strategy. There’s ample research involved, and not surprisingly both Barker and Hedges become somewhat emotionally involved.

Many of these homes have been featured in both local and national publications. It’s just another example of how these men, who are essentially life-long friends, have successfully built a unique and very successful business despite the cautionary warnings from others. Eagerness and enthusiasm drive them, and they use their energy and passion to prove if you do what you love, it’s not work.

Team Support

Both men are now married with children, and even this aspect of their lives is one that they share.

“My wife, Katie, went to the same high school as we did,” says Hedges, “but we didn’t really know each other. We met again after college, dated and ended up getting engaged. Katie and her friend Sara held a Pampered Chef party, and there happened to be food left over, so I called up Matt and asked him if he wanted to come over. Long story short, that’s when Matt met Sara who is now his wife.”

Hedges and Katie have three children, Kyle, 10, Marina, 8, and Grant, 6. Barker and Sara also have a son, Ryan, 10. Not surprisingly, Kyle and Ryan are best friends.

As they look to the future, both men agree that they will continue to call plays that have generated so much success so far. By anticipating their client’s needs, supporting and encouraging their agents and support staff, and continuing to turn to one another to play off each other’s strengths, it’s safe to predict another winning season for the Barker Hedges Group.

A Home Discussion

REAM: You seem to specialize in homes with historical value. What would you say is the most historical home you’ve sold?

Barker: Too close to call. Let’s call it a tie between – the E.S. Hoyt House and the Historic Vasa Children’s Home. Both were fascinating properties and we always enjoy the adventure of learning the stories behind the property. We feel privileged to get to know the families or previous owners who are always happy to share their own stories and are typically as enthusiastic as we are about the wonderful history of the home.

REAM: You have been in the business for a long time and undoubtedly sold homes of every size and price. What would you say, by square feet, is the smallest property you have sold?

Hedges: That would have to be an Uptown Condo. That was a very compact 610 square feet of living space.

REAM: How about the largest property you have sold?

Barker: That would have to be Lake Pepin Bluffs Estate. Located about 60 miles outside the metropolitan area, these 235 acres are renown for privacy, serene woodland surroundings and spectacular views overlooking Lake Pepin.

REAM: What would you say was the most unique home you have ever sold?

Hedges: I would say, Mendota Heights’ Ivy Falls Contemporary. It isn’t a “named home” like some of the historic homes we have sold, but is one of the most spectacular single-family homes ever built in the eastern metro. It is a very rare contemporary/ modern home for our area and its architecture has been featured in a national publication.

REAM: What is the craziest thing you have seen in a home?

**Barker:**Unfortunately, someone that had been deceased in the home for a week!

Hedges: I hope I never get to top that one.

REAM: What would you say are some of the greatest milestones achieved by your team so far?

Barker: Helping our 2,000th family move a few years ago was quite an honor.

Hedges: Passing $500 million in sales was a fun one!