Curtain falls on Tarbell after 93 years – Daily News

on Sep9
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Orange County had fewer than 700,000 residents when an ambitious 25-year-old Oregonian named Don Tarbell and his wife started going door to door, pulling a little wagon filled with handouts trying to drum up housing deals.

It was 1955, the year Disneyland opened, the Soviet Union signed the Warsaw Pact and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Elvis, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry were on the radio. Hula hoops hadn’t been invented yet.

“Do you want to sell your home?” Tarbell would ask. “Do you want to buy?”

From those humble beginnings, the business grew into a real estate empire spanning Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

By 1989, Tarbell, Realtors ranked fourth among U.S. independent brokerages, with 57 offices and nearly 4,000 agents.

It was an empire built on high volume, low-dollar home sales. The company was known for its ubiquitous newspaper ads, for recruiting new agents off the street, and for staging lavish Broadway shows at its awards banquets featuring the Rockettes and circus acts.

“Real estate was everything to them,” said Debbie Stine, Tarbell’s longtime marketing vice president. “The whole family. It was in their blood.”

In June, the Tarbell line came to an end when four Berkshire Hathaway franchises acquired the chain’s remaining 20 offices, 1,000 agents and an escrow company.

The Tarbell brand is all but gone, the victim of new technology and business innovation, say former agents and industry observers. The brokerage is one of at least three Southern California real estate chains to close or sell in the past year, and more shifts are likely as residential brokerages “go through a fundamental restructuring at its core,” one industry analyst said.

“It broke my heart,” Roula Fawaz, a top Tarbell producer until she left for a rival brokerage in 2012, said of Tarbell’s sale.

“This was an amazing company with an amazing legacy,” she said. “There was amazing camaraderie and bonding like you’ll never see again. It was like our home.”

Humble beginnings

Patriarch Frank Tarbell — “the Mr. Tarbell,” one former executive said — planted the seeds for the family business when he went into real estate in Portland in 1926.

The family enterprise took off when Frank’s son and daughter-in-law, Don and Betsy, moved to California in 1955 and started door knocking.

By the late ’60s, the Santa Ana-based Tarbell chain included 10 offices in such South Bay cities as Torrance, Westchester and Palos Verdes.

Tarbell later built profits by expanding into the escrow, title and mortgage business from 1964 through 1975, funneling clients into those ancillary services.

“For years, Tarbell was considered an industry standard for bundling services,” said Pat Veling, president of real estate consulting firm, Real Data Strategies.

The Tarbells’ three children also joined the business, their daughter turning around low-producing offices and their youngest son overseeing the company’s mortgage operation. Both later would have a role in running the overall operation.

From the start, Don Tarbell claimed his father’s experience as part of his legacy.

“41 YEARS OF SERVICE!” a 1967 South Bay newspaper advertisement proclaimed, referring to sales dating back to the mid-1920s. A new home could be bought with just $3,750 down, the ad said. A “charming” three-bedroom, two-bath GI home listed for $17,950 — no money down.

The full-page ad featured 70 blocks of type, each representing a home for sale, was a practice repeated for decades in papers like the Orange County Register, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Los Angeles Times.

Tarbell boasted it was number one in advertising, said Bill Plattos, a long-time rival at First Team Real Estate, which ultimately sued Tarbell over its claim to being first in total market share in Orange County and surrounding areas.

“Tarbell was a juggernaut in the Orange County marketplace,” said Rich Cosner, a former Tarbell rival and now a consultant to real estate brokers. “They had great offices, great agents, solid managers and a massive advertising presence.”

“They were able to remain an independent real estate company in the face of growing franchising, considering Century 21 was founded in Tarbell’s backyard,” Veling added. “(Don) Tarbell has done a truly exceptional job of maintaining its independence, its own brand awareness and consumer awareness in (one of) the most competitive markets in the country. … I imagine there’s some of that rogue mentality in Don.”

Quick Start

Many of the region’s top real estate agents got their start at Tarbell, which maintained a recruiting operation and a home-grown real estate school called “Quick Start.” Managers mentored new agents through their first transactions, helping them build success.

Fawaz was a young immigrant from Lebanon in 1993 when she went through the Tarbell school, later selling close to 1,100 homes for the company and becoming a trainer herself.

“Tarbell was known for creating talent. … They helped you stand on your feet and get going,” Fawaz said. “I joined Tarbell, and I never looked back. I loved every minute of it.”

The showman

Don Tarbell, now 89, loved one thing almost as much as the real estate business: show business.

Starting in 2001, Tarbell began renting venues like the Honda Center and Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom to stage elaborate performances, featuring excerpts from Broadway musicals like “Les Miserable” and “The Lion King,” performances by a 98-piece orchestra, and show biz luminaries like Bernadette Peters and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.

They included performances by Riverdance and 30 Rockettes performing the Radio City Music Hall holiday spectacular.

The shows were a staple of Tarbell’s annual awards banquet for over a decade. Tarbell continued the extravaganzas even during the housing downturn, said former Tarbell President Tina Jimov-Red.

“We’re not going to show them we’re going through tough times,” Jimov-Red quoted Don Tarbell as saying. “No matter what, we’re always going to recognize our agents because they’re the ones who keep us afloat.”

Behind the times

Coming out of the downturn, Fawaz started to worry Tarbell wasn’t keeping up with the times.

“Technology was changing so fast, and they were not changing,” she said. “Everybody’s working on their laptops in coffee shops and their cars. Our beautiful offices were not being used. It’s a whole new world.”

But not everyone was on board with the change, especially older, long-time agents.

“Seasoned agents are saying, ‘I don’t have to learn all these new programs. I’m a people person,’ ” she said.

During the 12 months ending in March, agent productivity was well below industry averages, numbers from Real Data Strategies show. For example, Tarbell agents averaged just under $1 million worth of business each in that year, less than half the industry average.

“Their whole premise was advertising, particularly in (newspapers),” said Cosner, the brokerage consultant. “But they did not make the shift to digital.”

Diane Wheatley, a broker hired in July 2017 to manage Tarbell’s Ontario office, said a majority of Tarbell’s offices were losing money by the time she came on board.

“My office, in particular, would lose $15,000 to $20,000 a month. … I know other offices were losing money like that as well,” Wheatley said. “Tarbell was struggling.”

Ron Tarbell, Don’s son and company CEO at the time of the sale, could not be reached for comment. But the head of the Berkshire Hathaway franchise that acquired half of the Tarbell offices questioned Wheatley’s conclusions.

“They were 100% profitable in the offices I took over,” said Mark Stark, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Arizona/California/Nevada Properties. “People have employees. I don’t know that ownership shows them everything.”

Whatever the case, real estate brokers everywhere are facing mounting pressures as new business models develop.

Last June, the Century21 and Coldwell Banker Beachside chain shut down. In May, Realty One Group sold its seven Southern California real estate offices to concentrate on creating a franchise operation.

“The change in our industry is fast and furious,” said Realty One CEO Kuba Jewgieniew. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to give our real estate professionals the advantage in a competitive marketplace.”

The past seven to 10 years, traditional real estate companies have seen stiff competition from iBuyers like Opendoor, well-financed brokerages like Compass and companies that let agents keep 100% of their commissions, said Stefan Swanepoel, a real estate industry analyst.

“Their growth in the last 24 months has hurt traditional brokerages hard,” Swanepoel said. “Companies that are poorly managed … are now being pressured because of this shift in the industry. … Some companies are moving from old to new (models). Others are struggling to make that transition. Tarbell was struggling to make that transition.”

Today, the Tarbell team is working under the Berkshire Hathaway brand, learning how to use their new company’s tools and procedures. Several Tarbell offices have been consolidated.

“We haven’t lost an agent. … Agents are happy,” said Stark, head of the Arizona/California/Nevada operation. “Their attitude is amazing.”

Many former Tarbell agents, though, are sad to see the Tarbell brand disappear, said Fawaz.

“It’s the end of a huge chapter in my life and many lives,” Fawaz said. “I would never be here without them. … Many people owe their success to Tarbell.”

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