Where are they now? The house that Ken built

Where are they now? The house that Ken built

Ken LeBlanc marks a new era for PropertyGuys.com by taking his franchise opportunities stateside

PEER OUT ANY CAR WINDOW as you drive down the residential streets of Anytown, Atlantic Canada, and you will likely see a dozen signs bearing the word, “PropertyGuys.com”. You can’t miss them. Boldly emblazoned in blue on iconic, circular placards, they are nearly as common as those of the real estate company’s more muscular, corporate competitors.

It’s hard to believe, but 20 years ago the little firm born in the shadows of a Moncton, N.B. basement as the brain child of university student Ken LeBlanc and two school chums was little more than a wink and a prayer. Within a decade, though, it was well on its way to becoming what is now the largest of its kind in the Canadian FSBO (For Sale By Owner) franchise marketplace. Today, it employs well over 300 people (35, alone, at the “Hub City” head office) in more than 100 franchises in 600 communities from coast to coast.

That sort of moxie has been enough to earn LeBlanc a bevvy of awards, including a Top 50 CEO Hall of Fame award from Atlantic Business Magazine in 2007. In fact, the number of professional honours his nimble outfit has nabbed since then would crowd the walls of one of the roomier properties it lists for sale in one of the nation’s many urban jungles where its business is very good, indeed.

But it isn’t the brass and glass that LeBlanc is after. It’s opportunity. And the bigger, the better. That certainly explains last year’s excellent adventure: A bold move into the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

“In November 2018, we completed a deal to sell a master franchise for the entire state of Florida,” the 40-something entrepreneur enthuses over the phone while waiting for his name to be called at an industry event near Niagara, Ontario. The way it works, he explains, is a master franchisee purchases a large sales territory from him and then retails individual operations to as many as, in this case, 230 Florida real estate professionals who operate under the name, PropertyGuys.com. LeBlanc adds: “The plan for the U.S. is we’re going to keep everything focussed on the east coast for now—the Carolinas, Alabama—and then work our way west.”

Initiative or no, that’s a tall order in a tough business for a relatively young man. Still, LeBlanc has made his bones by hurdling obstacles. Or, more likely, by ignoring them altogether.

“I was a full-time business student at a local university in Moncton and I had a bit of a tech background—meaning I was creating websites in 1998, back when that was a cool thing for a person to do,” he told the trade magazine, Torontostoreys.com last year.

“I had zero experience in real estate at the time. However, on my way to school every day, I kept seeing these private-sale (FSBO) orange and black signs and got curious as to why they would sell privately versus trying to use a traditional model. Once I dove into that, I found out the local, private-sale market was very disorganized.”

He also determined that the so-called “traditional model” (which applies a blanket commission rate on sales of all properties, regardless of their market values) was patently unfair and, so, ripe for some creative disruption. Or, as he said in the Torontostoreys.com interview, “It (was) like getting an oil change and paying based on the value of the car versus (the cost of) the oil.”

Job one for LeBlanc was providing a way for sellers to get organized with a website they could easily access through customized online portals and use to manage their own property sales. Job two was undermining the middlemen. For all intents and purposes, that meant just about every other residential realtor in the industry. PropertyGuys.com would make its money by charging flat fees and payments for direct services, such as connecting buyers and sellers, tracking offers, generating online advertising and producing point-of-sale materials (such as the familiar signs).

Overall, customers seemed to love the approach. As for traditional real estate agents? Well… not so much.

In 2012, Toronto-based columnist, blogger, financial columnist, and former member of parliament Garth Turner echoed the broader industry’s concerns when he critiqued the FSBO movement in general, if not PropertyGuys.com by name: “What if a cunning buyer gave you an offer filled with conditions? What protection do you have at the last moment if the buyer fails to close? Are you compliant with provincial laws?”

LeBlanc has heard it all before, and he counters today as he has in the past: People aren’t stupid. They will seek the advice they need. For its part, his firm is always around the corner, or a mouse click away, to help.

Naturally, PropertyGuys.com is also helping itself to a diversifying and increasingly hungry marketplace. In this sense, the U.S. expansion is merely LeBlanc’s latest platform for growth. “We’re definitely widening our offerings,” he says. “We’re not just about the private-sale residential business. We’re into vacation properties and rentals. We’re building a new tech platform to make all of this a one-stop shop.”

No, these days you really can’t miss those iconic, circular placards even if you tried. They are, after all, a true sign of the times.

Five Fun Facts

  1. THE READ DEMON There’s something about the McDonald’s franchise that resonates with LeBlanc. “I love Behind the Golden Arches by John F. Love. In fact, I read it every year. I can relate.”
  2. THE QUIET MAN Contrary to appearances, LeBlanc is an introvert. “I get energy from being alone. I find going to conferences and speaking exhausting. I get through it, but I hide it well.”
  3. THE LEAFS FAN To unwind, LeBlanc watches his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. “That’s something my dad and I have done on Saturday Nights since I was a teenager. Maybe they’ll win (the Stanley Cup) some day.”
  4. JUST DO IT That’s LeBlanc’s advice for any aspiring entrepreneur. Quit navel gazing and get out there. “I find American entrepreneurs are way better at this than Canadians. We just fail to launch.”
  5. HIS SECRET SUCCESS LeBlanc counts the blessings his 25-year marriage to Monique, and their daughter Isabelle, have afforded. “My wife has always been there. She’s an amazing partner and an even better mother.”

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