'All-for-one' spirit lands VPR at top of large company list, again

The captains for each team took turns at the meeting announcing the scores compiled by their members. In this friendly competition among groups of agents at Virtual Properties Realty, points were awarded for various check-the-box achievements: showing a home, obtaining a new listing, securing pre-approval for a loan, selling a warranty, signing an exclusive buyer agreement or — ka-ching! — closing the deal.

As contest coordinator Steve Wagner learned that the real estate agent accruing the most points over the past month was Margarita Matar, he dialed up a testimonial.

“One of the hardest workers in the company,” Wagner, VPR’s co-owner and co-founder, began as an embarrassed Matar tried to shush him.

Spends full days in the office. Works the phones. Establishes a positive image with her choice of apparel and vehicle.

One more plug: “She takes performance-enhancing drugs.”

Mild laughter filled the conference room, offering a glimpse of how VPR has become the back-to-back winner of the large company sector for the AJC’s Top Workplaces.

Wagner’s levity sets the tone at the Duluth headquarters where 1,000-plus agents bring themselves and their business.

One aspect of the gathering — the competition — seemed out of place because a significant draw for agents is an absence of in-house rivalries that can pit one against another. A sense of trust and all-for-one spirit is embedded in the firm that Wagner launched with his mother, Karen Burks, in 1999, after they borrowed and bettered the nascent idea of providing digital virtual tours of properties.

“I don’t compete,” Matar said later from the desk she has staked out in a shared office. “It’s like family here.”

She did not realize when signing up for this course last year that it involved a head-to-head element. Still, thanks largely to Matar, her Dream Team triumphed, and it appeared poised to repeat, which mattered little to the effervescent native of Colombia.

Matar had squirmed uncomfortably as Wagner sang her praises. She does not consider herself an expert in the art of dealing homes and, in fact, struggles to explain her success.

“I don’t have any secrets,” she said. “It’s just me being me, [using] my personality.”

Having just relocated 11 years ago to the area from her homeland Matar was bunking at a sister’s residence when she dropped in a nearby house for sale. A quick tutorial on the process from the agent, also a Latina, prompted her to gush, “Oh, my god, I love your job.”

Eventually, real estate was Matar’s job. There were two employment stops before VPR, one of them ending after only four months when she found herself crying miserably in the office restroom.

A hunt for new environs led her to the company that, among other claims, beats its chest over being the top search result on Google for the Atlanta housing market.

With one visit, she decided, “That’s it. I’m done [looking].”

The reason? “Everything is the best here,” she said, rattling off several factors, though not one that is widely embraced by her peers.

With most of the compensation plans at VPR, agents keep 90 percent of earned commissions, well above the industry norm. Further sweetening the arrangement, the company caps its annual take at $5,900 per agent, low for the trade, according to Wagner.

“It’s almost impossible for our competition to keep up,” he said, explaining that volume sales enable VPR to accept its relatively small cut.

Agents allude to an array of other attractions. VPR is divided into three mini-companies, each shaped to fit an agent’s degree of time commitment to the job. For example, someone wishing to work part-time can sign up with the wing that assesses the lowest licensing fees.

Soirees break out at the drop of a party hat, many with a business purpose for networking. With other organized social events, the intent is merely to have fun or display appreciation for a collective job well done.

At the Halloween-themed costume party, prizes are dispensed, which is standard procedure for VPR. Wagner risks tearing a rotator cuff from all of the trophies, gift cards and cash awards he hands out.

Many spring from contests devised by Wagner during the classes he and others present — an estimated eight per week. Attendance is voluntary and free of charge.

Boasting a negligible turnover rate, VPR anticipates expanding its roll of agents by up to 30 percent this year, fueled in part by the inactives coming out of hibernation as the housing market thaws. It believes proper treatment begets loyalty.

More thumbs-up from agents is prompted by their access four full-time brokers on duty who minimize waiting. Even so, some agents are in no hurry to hustle away from the premises. Tucked into the new offices, which VPR first occupied last summer, is a cafe area that promotes socializing in a work context.

“You want to come in [just] to talk to the staff,” Matar said as she checked her daily call list filled with names and numbers. “I feel like home.”

Moving homes has become a passion, and Matar cannot contain enthusiasm over her career or her company.

She has carved out a niche with the Hispanic sector, sending cards and Christmas gifts to clients, discussing each other’s families, even translating for those new to the English language.

During Wagner’s class, he blended in advice and lessons with lighthearted fare. Agents were urged to become “professional photographers,” the better to vividly display their properties. A checklist on working with buyers was distributed. The assembly was told by its self-effacing instructor, “Most of the things I know is from making mistakes.”

Make no mistake, as the lone firm successfully defending its Top Workplaces title, VPR is doing something right.