Leadership is more than just a skill; it’s a value that becomes ingrained when acquired. This episode features another great leader, Sara Sutachan. She is the Senior Vice President of Member Information for the California Association of REALTORS®. As head of the department, she is highly involved in the association’s strategic planning. Sara has successfully created several programs and strategic initiatives for its members. In this episode, she talks to Bill Risser about what is happening in the CHR. Listen in to know more about the changes she’s seen in the industry and what she aims to improve moving forward.
Sara Sutachan – Senior Vice President Of Member Information, California Association Of REALTORS®
I’m going to be talking to Sara Sutachan, Senior Vice President of Member Information for the California Association of REALTORS. One of the largest associations in the country. We both grew up in Southern California. I have a few questions about that and then a lot of questions about what’s happening at CAR? What are some of the changes she’s seen? What are some of the things she sees moving forward? It’s going to be a very fun conversation and let’s get the thing started. Sara, welcome to the show.
It’s such a pleasure to have you here. I’ve we tried to connect a little while ago during the pandemic. It was right during the lockdown in California was very severe with the lockdown. Is that a pretty correct assumption there?
It was crazy.
I’m in Florida. We’ve been doing whatever we want for like a year. I did some research and I see that you’ve been with the California Association of REALTORS for many years. You went to school in California and I’m going to assume you’re a California native. How did I?
You did research.
Where did you grow up? What part of the start?
In Los Angeles and if any of your readers are old enough to know about the movie, Valley Girl, that was me. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which is a suburb of Los Angeles.
You’re telling me you’ve been to the Galleria.
I grew up at the Galleria.
I’m thinking about it, that movie came out right about the right time for you.
All of my cousins in the Midwest, on my mom’s side, were like, “Talk like a Valley girl.” I was like, “I don’t know how to do that. That’s normal me.”
I grew up in San Diego. I was there for almost 40 years. Earthquakes were a part of my life and your life growing up. They were a part of it. You talk to people back East who go through hurricanes and tornadoes, but earthquakes freak them out even more. You went to Cal State Northridge at one point in time. In Northridge, there was an earthquake in the early ’90s, ’91 or ’92. Was that a part of your life? Were you in town at that time? I know it was early in the morning.
It’s funny you ask. I remember vividly I graduated high school in 1993, but that earthquake was in ’94. I was still living at home and I had younger siblings. I remember trying to run in the house while it was moving and I swear to God, I felt like I was not moving anywhere. The floor was going under. It disappeared. I was running it and not moving. It was weird.
I went to take care of my younger siblings and I stuffed them under the bed. I did everything you shouldn’t do in an earthquake. I got them secured. I wasn’t smart about it, but we didn’t stand under a doorway. Growing up, we used to have these earthquake drills where you would go under your desk and hold on, so I didn’t do that. I stuffed them under a secure bed. They were little. We had a lot of earthquake damage and there were so many people.
There was that apartment that crushed people. It was scary. The whole neighborhood got together and helped each other turn their gas off. It was a community-building experience I have to say. It was funny. My parents are divorced and we ended up staying at my dad and stepmom’s house. My mom being at her ex-husband and new wife’s house. It was weird, but it was a community. We were all in it together.
It’s what people had to do. I’m old enough to remember 1971, another big one up in the LA area. I was sitting on the ground. I was ten years old at the time. All I remember is there’s a gopher coming up to bite me, but it wasn’t. It was the ground shaking.
It’s so weird. You can’t even explain it unless you’ve been through it. My grandmother was from Florida. She was from the New England area and she retired in Florida, and then when she couldn’t live by herself, she moved in with us. She couldn’t stand not knowing when an earthquake was coming. She didn’t stay very long in California.
Hurricanes are the opposite. For four days, you’re waiting for it to get there.
In her opinion, at least you knew it was coming. That’s the unknown with earthquakes.
I found something interesting in your background and I have to talk about this. This is my favorite part of the show. For a number of years, you worked at AutoZone. A great job for someone right out of high school or young. Working at an AutoZone can set you up for life because you know stuff about cars and you won’t be that person that didn’t know anything about an engine, cars, or whatever. Is that true?
My claim to fame now is how to change my wiper blades. When in those rare occasions that it would rain in Southern California, I would change wiper blades at AutoZone. My kids love to tease me about AutoZone. They’re like, “Get in the zone, AutoZone.” It was a good experience. I agree with you. It taught me about standing up for myself being strong and a lot of times, a woman working at an auto parts place gets underestimated. It set me up and it strengthened the future of my career.
That’s cool that crossover happened.
You’re the only one that has asked me about AutoZone in my many years in the career at CAR.It is so important to build up the women we see as future leaders, tap them on the shoulder, and talk about them behind their backs in a positive way. Click To Tweet
You graduate from Cal State Northridge. Not very long after graduation that you start with the California Association of REALTORS. What was that impetus? What drew you into them?
What’s not in my LinkedIn and I hid this for a long time because I thought it was shameful. I worked for a commercial real estate broker for a hot minute after college and I hated it. I hated the environment. I hated the people I worked with, no disrespect. It was not the right place for me. I didn’t put that on my LinkedIn. I didn’t put that on my resume. I didn’t even tell the people at CAR that I worked for a real commercial real estate broker because I didn’t last very long. It was an embarrassment on my resume, but I will say what it did for me was taught me what I didn’t want to do in the real estate side.
I did not want to be in the commercial. I very quickly met Leslie Appleton-Young. I was like, “I know what I don’t want, but she’s who I want to work for. I want to be like her. I want to be her. I want to know her. I want to learn from her.” That’s why I got started at CAR. I was very green right out of college. I was taken by this fabulous woman who was boss in her own right and getting stuffed on. That’s how I got started at CAR. That was several years ago. I started as an entry-level researcher. I was a data nerd. I call myself a recovering economist.
You say that, but you got your Master’s in Economics.
I did. For many years, I was a research economist for the trade association. I am rooted in the data. It is what every single one of my initiatives is based on. It’s looking at the data and spotting an opportunity in that data. That sounds geeky, but you can’t argue with statistics. WomanUP is one example of that. When we look at the percentage of women in this industry, it’s the majority by far 67% to 70% of realtors are women across the country, but when you look at the brokerage firms, the CEOs, the broker-owners, or principals, it was mainly men. Based on the data, we were able to create this initiative to help women take that next step in their careers. That is how I base everything. It’s all rooted in data and facts.
That’ll be a part of your life forever. I’m sure once a data nerd, always a data nerd.
I went the safer route in the industry and I have to give a huge shoutout to realtors who are pushing pavement every day and doing the work. I was so scared to go into that side of it and didn’t like the commercial side. I didn’t know if I wanted to sell and live on commission, so I took the safer route with the data.
Whenever I talk to anyone at a high level with associations, it’s an entirely different way of looking at work because it’s a nonprofit, and there’s a board that’s very much in control of the CEO position. If they decide that they want to make a change or move in a different direction, they can do that thing. You don’t see it very often.
It happens rarely, but it’s there that the CEO annually has to do the things that the board wants to accomplish. At the same time, especially with CAR, I can’t even imagine the size of the staff, and all those other things that are going on. The strat planning is every year. There’s all this stuff that’s so involved in a nonprofit, especially that size.
We’re very unique. Real estate associations are unique because our board is so large, but that also gives us such power in our policy initiatives. We have 800 people on our board of directors in California and that is profound. We are the largest business group in Sacramento. They call us the realtors and that gives us a lot of political goodwill and power.
We stay super focused on real estate. We stay in our lane when it comes to our legislative priorities and what that means for realtors. That does give you a lot of political goodwill and clout, but in terms of our board of directors, it’s not like a for-profit company where you have twelve people on the board, a CEO, and a chairman. It’s a little bit different dynamic, but it is a team.
We have a leadership team that’s elected and then we have our CEO and our executive staff. We have five department heads and I’m one of them. It’s a very close-knit relationship. We have a new CEO that came onboard in 2021. Joel Singer, who was our CEO for 30 plus years retired, a mentor and friend. He gave me a call. It was so nice to talk to him.
It is a different dynamic. It taught me the importance of collaboration and teamwork being in that environment for so long. We have a lot of voices and that’s a great thing when you’re looking at big broad issues that impact realtors, the real estate industry, and homeownership in communities across, I would say, California, but across the country.
You’re your primary customer are realtors in California, in your association. You talked about homeownership which directly affects and impacts, a ton of consumers as well. How do you handle those two different pieces of the puzzle? Is the majority of the focus going to be on realtors, taking care of their needs, and making sure that they’re moving in the right direction for them?
As a trade association for realtors, that is our mission. We stay focused on that mission. We do have a consumer ad campaign to bring to light what a realtor does for consumers, but we are not confused as to who we serve. We serve realtors. Our mission is to make sure that the realtors make money, that’s their bottom line, that is our whole mission, but also preserving private property rights through collective action, and that is our action in Sacramento in California.
Also, we do federal lobbying as well. We’re unique in that regard because we’re so big, we do have a federal lobbying arm. This colleague of mine, anytime I want to know about what’s going on in federal politics, I talked to him about it because he’s so well-versed. There are certain policy implications for California that happened at the federal level that are different and wouldn’t happen for other states or smaller states for that matter. It’s a very important piece of what we do.
How big is CAR at the moment? It’s massive, I know that but how many members?
CAR has 211,000 members. I think 212 is our forecast for this year. I will say Florida surpassed us by a couple of thousand realtors. I would like to encourage more Californian realtors to join us. We have 136 staff. We have 800 board members, as I mentioned. We have four leadership teams, we have our President, Otto Catrina, President-Elect Jennifer Branchini, Treasurer, Heather Ozur, and CEO, John Sebree.
1.6 million realtors in the country and you’re telling me 450,000 of those over a quarter or in two states between California and Florida.
That doesn’t even include licensees in California. We have doubled that. We have 450,000 licensees in California because everybody wants to say they have a California Real Estate License. Who wouldn’t want to have a California Real Estate License?
I always speak highly of California. I defend it regularly.
We have so many challenges in the state. I was talking to Bob McKinnon. He says, hi, by the way, but he said, “We’re taking all of your Californians in Texas.” We have our set of challenges, but people come for the weather and they stay because it’s beautiful.
No better weather in the world. In your role as the Senior Vice President of Member Information, what’s your role now, and what’s your biggest challenge?
I lead my award-winning team of 11. It includes our research division as I mentioned, I’m a research geek. Our long-term strategic planning for the association. We educate realtors on fair housing. We have the ultimate goal of equitable access to homeownership through research data. We have a financial literacy arm.The beautiful thing that came out from the acceleration of technology is the ability of industries to be flexible, embrace it, and use it on a day-to-day basis. Click To Tweet
I also oversee our charitable arm, Housing Affordability Fund, which I’m so proud to announce that we created our first-ever statewide closing cost assistance grant for underserved communities. That’s big. We have WomanUp. We have Latino Professionals Network. I worked directly with the CEO, the CFO, and our strategic planning committee to make sure that our budget and our strategic plan are on point, outward-facing, looking out long-term, and how that affects and will affect our members.
We have to talk a little bit more about WomanUP. I’m close friends with Molly McKinley, who’s been active there. Debra Trappen is somebody who I’ve known for many years through the Inman circles. Tami Bonnell is aligned and connected there as well. It’s got so much more reach. It’s something that started at CAR, but the reach has been nationwide. I’d love to chat about that.
It’s grown so vast and quickly across the industry and nation. We have to give kudos to our national partners, RateMyAgent is one. Thank you so much. Tami Bonnell is a huge proponent. We have Realogy and Engel & Völkers. We have huge real estate national and international real estate companies that are supportive and have latched onto the movement and have started their own. It’s a conversation that needed to be started, had, and continued.
You talked about what it was like in commercial real estate, and you found out quickly how that’s a good old boy network. How do you affect change there? What are some of the things you can do?
We started the conversation. Coming to our WomanUp, listening in to these conversations of powerful leaders that we have on our stage, that’s a start. I also think advocacy for women is so important. I am a big proponent of supporting, empowering, and building women up when they’re not in the room. That is the number one thing.
We can all be doing sisters, brothers, however, you want to call it, but it is so important to build up the women that we see as future leaders, to tap them on the shoulder, to talk about them behind their backs in a positive way. That’s the way to do it. It’s through this community, conversations that we have, the words that we use, the role models that we highlight, and the support that we give one another is so important.
The awareness that comes out of there is pretty special. I’m able to follow it and attended a couple of things. I would recommend to everybody if you’re at a conference somewhere, and you see on the agenda WomanUP, go check it out. It’s very cool.
Contrary to popular belief will tell you, men are welcomed. They’re not shunned or shamed away. That’s the whole point. Men are at the table and men can be the best advocates for women.
One of your responsibilities is connecting with broker-owners and following the emerging trends in the industry are. During the pandemic, I would ask every guest, were you expecting that result for the real estate industry in March of 2020? I’ll ask you that question too because I am waiting for the first person to go. “I had it nailed. I knew exactly what was going to happen.” Are there any trends as we come out that is something we should know or surprise you?
First of all, no, we didn’t have it nailed. However, we were well-positioned given that we have such a close tie to the industry. It’s such a close tie to brokers that we were able to respond right away. I started a Friday call with California brokers. We went down into lockdown on March 13th, 2020. We had our first broker call on March 20th, the following Friday.
It was like, “What do you need? How can we help you?” There were 800 people in the room saying, “We need you. Please tell us what we can do. Make us essential.” It was way back when we weren’t an essential service. It was an important piece of it. We didn’t see it coming. However, we were well-prepared to respond to our key stakeholders and our members. That was an important piece. I will tell my fellow teammates and colleagues that we all hunkered down, and got to servicing our members.
We created a COVID relief hotline. I was very much involved in providing that service to our members, not knowing what was going to happen in real estate a couple of months out. We wanted to make sure that every realtor knew that they had access to pandemic unemployment insurance, which was a first for realtors, especially in California, but as 1099, you don’t usually get that access. That was an important piece. The PPP loans for small businesses were so important to keep the doors open.
That was pretty much March, April, May of 2020. In May, everything opened up. There was never a more important exclamation point on the value of a home. It’s been such a boon for real estate. Home and what we do and what we have and the yard, and all of that was just, a great positive outcome for realtors in particular for the real estate industry. That will be everlasting. I don’t think it was a surprise. We all love our homes, but being able to be comfortable and being able to work from home, connected, having Zoom, and technology, those are the things that we didn’t appreciate.
I was using zoom before the pandemic. Thanks to Debra Trappen. She got me out of my comfort zone and into Zoom early on, a few years before the pandemic, so that helped me in my role, but what we saw and a trend that you’ve heard this from several of your guests. We saw the acceleration of technology in the industry.
What was beautiful that came out of that is the ability for the real estate industry to grab onto that and to embrace it, to be flexible, and to now use it day-to-day. That’s a positive outcome that has come out of the craziness of the last few years and it will also keep accelerating. You’re going to see technology, e-notary, and the digitization of real estate on transactions to get that much further and quicker.
The whole value of home took on a slightly different connotation. If this happens again, is this where I want to be? That facilitated a lot of possible movement in the country. Companies that realized, “I don’t have to bring these people into one space anymore.” We did well with the remote.
I don’t think that’s going to change all that much. That’s going to have a lasting impact. You’re going to have people that want to be in person and want to have collaboration days and all of that. In other words, the workforce has proven themselves that they can work from home. I posted this on my, companies should embrace that. They’re getting an extra hour of productivity from there. Each way, depending on where you are in the country of productivity from their employees.
It will continue to impact the real estate industry because it’s no longer a jobs-based center. When you have a workforce that can work from anywhere, that opens up opportunities in the real estate industry and honestly opportunities for referrals across the country. I encourage everyone to think about that and how they can position their business to be that flexible realtor or partner and have connections across the country, referral networks, and the ability to provide that service to your clients. It’s not going to be only in my area or location. It takes a different spin on location.
You don’t need any near something like you had to be near something before unless it’s your family.
I’m born and raised in LA. I’m the first person to tell you, “It’s hard to live in LA,” but my whole family’s here, so it’s hard for me to move.
I’m going to wrap this up with the same final question I’ve asked every guest for several years now and that’s what one piece of advice would you give a new agent starting in the business?
I always try to help realtors overall remember their why of what they do. If you can keep a hold on why you came into being a realtor, it’s about getting people into homeownership, there’s a commission check that comes with that, but there is nothing that will replace handing over those keys. That feeling of providing a homeownership opportunity to your clients, if you stick to that, why everything else is gravy.
If somebody wants to reach out to you, is there an easy way for them to do that?If you can just keep a hold on and stick to the whys of what you do, everything else is gravy. Click To Tweet
Sara, this has been great. Thank you so much. I’m glad we finally got together and found the time for this.
Me too, thank you for your patience.
No worries. As a fellow Southern Californian, we had a morning where my wife and I looked out, it was gloomy and overcast. We both, at the same time, thinking the same thing, “This is like a June morning in San Diego.” It felt so cool. Even when it’s not sunny and 72, which is pretty much normal, there are still those little pieces of California I love thinking back. Enjoy it. I’m jealous that you’re still there. It’s awesome. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, Bill. Happy to be here.
- California Association of REALTORS
- Housing Affordability Fund
- Latino Professionals Network
- Tami Bonnell
- Engel & Völkers
- LinkedIn – Sara Sutachan
- Facebook – Sara Sutachan
- Instagram – Sara Sutachan
About Sara Sutachan
Sara is the Senior Vice President of Member Information for the California Association of REALTORS®. As head of the department, she oversees the association’s research and economics, industry and broker relations, membership development, fair housing and DEI efforts, and its charitable arm the Housing Affordability Fund. Sara is highly involved in the association’s strategic planning and has created several programs and strategic initiatives for its members.
She is the co-creator of WomanUP!®, C.A.R.’s Women’s Initiative designed to close the gender gap in the leadership of real estate firms. In her passion to affect change in this arena, Sara is dedicated to the empowerment of women through research, professional development, events, mentoring, and creating a community of advocates and support.
Sara is also responsible for identifying, building, maintaining, and reaching out to California Brokers in order to gain insights and spot emerging trends in the industry. In this role, she helps the Association establish vision, identify new and emerging opportunities and relationships and is responsible for implementing key strategic initiatives.
With a background in real estate finance and consumer research, she continues to provide significant input, analysis, economic theory and interpretation to housing market trends with specific emphasis on real estate finance.
Specialties: Real Estate Analysis, Real Estate Finance Analysis, California Real Estate Brokerage, Industry Relations, Strategic Planning and Finance, Public speaking, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.