Women Leaders Of Real Estate: Merri Jo Cowen On The 5 Things You Need To Succeed In The Real Estate Industry

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An Interview With Jason Hartman

Be an authentic and true leader. Be human, be transparent and care about the team…and don’t lose sight that you’re running a business. There will be times when the company comes first.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Merri Jo Cowen.

Merri Jo Cowen is the CEO of Stellar MLS, the largest multiple listing service in the state of Florida and Puerto Rico and third-largest in the U.S. Stellar MLS represents more than 84,000 customers throughout Central and Southwest Florida, as well as Puerto Rico.

Cowen has worked in real estate for more than 30 years and just marked her 15th anniversary at the helm of Stellar. Under her leadership, Stellar is emerging on the global scene as “one to watch,” and, in fact, Cowen just returned from the International MLS Forum in Paris, France, where she took center stage to discuss the MLS evolution. Stellar also recently ventured into a partnership with Omni MLS, the largest MLS in Central and South America.

Cowen is a vocal advocate for the advancement of the real estate profession and has served on the Board of Directors for the Council of Multiple Listing Services and participates in the Realtor.com Association Executives Advisory Group and the NAR MLS Executive Advisory Board. She is a voting member of the NAR Board of Directors, the MLS Issues and Policy Committee, and the AE Council. She is a recipient of the Peter Shuttleworth MLS Executive Award of Excellence and has been recognized as one of the most powerful and innovative leaders in the real estate industry, having received both the Swanepoel Power 200 award and the RI Media’s Real Estate Newsmakers award.

Cowen is also passionate about giving back and has worked to establish a philanthropic initiative — Stellar Cares — to impact local communities and real estate organizations positively through charitable giving.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

When I first got into the real estate industry back in the 1970s, I didn’t know where I was going to end up. My husband at the time, who was recently out of the Navy, and I were property managers in San Diego. I joined the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM, an international trade organization of real estate managers), and became an accredited residential manager.

We stayed in property management for a few years, but decided it was just too much, with our family, working days and nights, and we had to paint, clean, do it all when somebody moved in or out. We moved back to Nevada, to Reno, where I’d lived before and we both set out to get different jobs.

I began working part-time for what was then the Reno Sparks Board of Realtors, doing data entry. Back in that day — early 1980s — agents didn’t put their own listings in, we did at the staff level. This may shock some people, but this was before computers. We had dumb terminals. Agents would fill out a big listings sheet and I would type it into the database, and it would be published in ‘the book.’ The book came out twice a month and, in-between, mini magazines came out with the newer listings for that two-week period.

Eventually, I became the MLS director at the Board of Realtors, which is now the Reno Sparks Association of Realtors. Then, in 2003, we formed a regional MLS for Reno and Carson City, with about 3,500 members, and I was the CEO. I got to build that organization from the ground up with our legal counsel — just the two of us and $10,000 and we created an entire corporation and set up a regional MLS, the Northern Nevada Regional MLS, which still exists today and is thriving. That was a really big accomplishment for me.

In 2008, I was approached by an industry professional about coming to Florida to head up the Mid-Florida Regional MLS, which is now Stellar MLS. I started as CEO in December 2008 and just celebrated my 15th anniversary in 2023!

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

When I started at the Reno Sparks Board of Realtors, I wasn’t all that good at data entry. I made a couple of major typos. It’s not like you could edit it — today, you see a typo on your website and just go in and fix it — once it was in, it was in. We had a Realtor, her name was Patty, a top producer and just a delightful person. When I typed her name in, I put her into the system as “Fatty.” Fortunately, she didn’t have an issue with it. Another time, I put “Virgil” in as “Virgin.”

Fortunately, people are forgiving and I got better as time went by. The biggest lesson for me was to slow down, pay attention and, especially in this industry, that accuracy really matters.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

This is an interesting question, because that is what we do all the time! We are constantly looking for new products and services to help our Realtor licensees succeed, and with technology as fast-paced as it is there’s a never-ending cycle. The most exciting things I see right now are some of the tools we’re utilizing.

One that we’ve been using is “Down Payment Resource,” a program that allows you to search to see if a home qualifies for down-payment assistance and offers tips and tools to help both buyers and agents. That’s a really big plus for potential homeowners, especially first-time buyers.

We’ve just launched “Finding Homes,” a voice-activated (Alexa) property search for people who are visually impaired to help them find homes.

We also have another product, “SkySlope Offers,” which is an offer platform. It does a lot of things, but the key feature for consumers is that it does not share the name of the buyer when an offer goes to the seller. This helps take away any potential bias on a seller’s part; for example, if they see a last name that implies a certain race, etc., that’s gone. That’s not to say everybody carries those biases, of course, but this allows for the consumer to have the best chance to get their offer considered.

Our mission has always been to serve our customers, which are the brokers and agents in the marketplace, and it is their job to serve consumers. Transparency to the consumer is paramount. We’re hearing a lot about that now, especially with all of the litigation over broker commissions and buyer representation. I’m excited about the opportunity to demonstrate the value of the MLS to the consumer, and how brokers and agents use the MLS to serve consumers in a really big way. Even though it’s coming as a result of the lawsuits, I’m gratified to see we do provide that open marketplace to consumers — whether it’s when they go to a broker’s website or can see all of the listings, and there’s no bias or anything like that. That’s a big deal.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our core values. We care about our customers. Not that others don’t, but customer service is a really big deal for us. We succeed when our brokers do. That is part of our “Always Principles,” a list of guiding fundamentals woven into every aspect of the Stellar way of doing business. We don’t just say it, we do it. And I think we show all that through our actions — from providing the highest level of customer service, responsiveness and support, to offering innovative tools and resources, to sharing intel and insight into trends and issues affecting the industry.

The other part, of course, is Stellar is the third-largest MLS in the U.S., so there’s a spotlight that comes on us naturally because of who we are, because of our size. But that’s not our secret sauce — it’s not about our size, it’s about who we are and what we believe. We truly walk the walk.

And, we’re never satisfied. To that point, we want to reach out and start helping in the global marketplace to bring the concept of the MLS to other countries. Stellar took part in the International MLS Forum: Global Real Estate Standards in December in Paris, which drew industry leaders from five continents and more than 35 countries. The forum was an opportunity for real estate professionals from across the globe to hear best practices from successful U.S.-based MLSs, and I moderated a discussion on the “Benefits of Standardized Data Sets to Public and Private Institutions.” In Europe, the difference in transacting real estate is startling — from the lack of consolidated and accurate databases to the way brokers conduct business. CEPI, the European Association of Real Estate Professions, is working to elevate industry professionalism and knowledge among its member countries and we’re excited with the opportunity to collaborate and help share the value of the MLS with our colleagues across the globe. We are already digging in and building on some of those relationships.

That goes back to the point that we’re never done. We don’t take the status quo — there’s always something more. It’s not that we don’t have enough to do taking care of our own customers, but as part of being leaders in the industry we need to share and help where it’s wanted.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

All along the way I’ve had the opportunity to work with really amazing leaders — volunteer leaders as well as industry leaders. As I became more involved in the industry, went to more conferences and met more people, I benefited from others who would mentor me.

I think back to when I was at the Reno Sparks Board of Realtors and our CEO Terry Shores. He showed us we had something really unique to offer. I don’t have a college degree. I took some courses at a community college while I was in property management but didn’t complete my degree. But, there was a college course I took in Reno, “Leadership and Human Relations,” that just sparked something in me. On the first night, I walked out of the class and it was like a light-bulb had gone off in my head: This is why I’m here. And I think Terry really inspired that in me — you have value, you have something to contribute. When he left, he gave me a note … I can’t remember it exactly, but it said “you have what it takes to ride the waves of change and be successful in this industry.” That meant a lot to me. Now, I just want to be the best leader I can be.

Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

I’ve never had the experience of being held back because I am a woman. I do see those numbers, but I have seen a change in the last few years, especially in the brokerages and the franchises pulling in more dynamic female leaders.

I don’t think there’s an evil intention — initially, brokers were probably all men. Think about how long this industry has been going and the power-brokers were likely all men. So, just like any other profession, there’s been that time for women to have to prove themselves, and sometimes not fairly, to bring themselves up. I think it’s just a matter of society progressing.

Our industry may be male-dominated but it’s not apparent because my peers all treat me with the same level of respect as they do each other. I don’t feel I’ve had to face any kind of discrimination because I’m a woman. So, while men may numerically dominate these positions, I think that’s just a factor of who was developed as a leader in that organization. When I’m gone from Stellar someday there’s no guarantee the CEO will be another woman.

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What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

Have an open mind, look for leaders and don’t focus on gender. Look for potential, for those that spark others on your team. For brokers, look for agents that others look up to, that they trust. It’s about all of those things — not just if you’re a man or a woman, but about who you are.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

It’s never stagnant. There’s always something changing, and always an opportunity to grow.

I just love what I do. I’m so passionate about the ability we have to help our agents and brokers succeed, and for them to help consumers.

Technology. The emergence of technology has brought us from dumb terminals and phone couplers for agents to search for listings, to the high-speed internet. It’s exciting because it’s never-ending. Artificial intelligence, or AI, is exciting and it has many uses to simplify tasks that Realtors and other professionals do. That is the good part. There is also a scary part, but we’ll talk about that later.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

My concerns have a lot to do with all the different lawsuits that are out there right now challenging buyer’s agents and compensation, following the Sitzer/Burnett class-action lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors over broker commissions.

While this is not a part of what we do, I’m concerned about the potential of the upheaval that could come from these lawsuits and the changes in how agents and brokers have to do business. I thrive on change — but change for good reasons. The real estate industry, brokers and agents are sometimes resistant to change because they’ve been doing work the same way for so many years and that’s what they know. My concern is not that they won’t adapt, but how we can be ready to help them through whatever it is. Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty — you don’t know what you don’t know. So, we’re trying to be ready for 100 different things that may or may not come down.

Another concern for me is ensuring consumers truly understand the value of the MLS: what a multiple listing service is, and the importance of the unbiased, accurate data that’s freely flowing to anybody who wants to see it. Getting that message out is a bit of a challenge right now because there’s so much negative press and misinformation out there.

Also, getting back to AI. It’s kind of a balancing act — there’s greatness to it and there’s also some concern. It’s not 100 percent there yet. I don’t think AI is going to replace agents, but I think agents want to use tools that simplify their world. Still, it’s too easy to get bad information through AI and then put that into the MLS, if you’re not verifying. Things could get published that have Fair Housing issues or are inaccurate. We pride ourselves on accuracy.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

You have to care. I truly, truly care about my team and the industry and our customers. We work to build a culture where everyone feels valued and everyone feels they’re contributing to the success of the organization. That’s what makes us successful. I look at it like the gears of a watch, where everything is interconnected.

It’s about taking good care of your people and showing they’re valued, not just through words but by actions. Paying people what they’re worth. Recognizing leaders as they emerge. Pulling from within to expand and grow our teams. When we do go outside, we’re very careful to find team members who care like we care. It’s just part of who we are, and it’s part of who I am.

Walk the walk. Show your team its value, give them opportunities to grow and be willing to listen and learn. Be humble. I’m Merri Jo. I’m here to help you. I’m not the CEO unless I have to be the CEO.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

Show tenacity. Never give up. Expect conflict and handle it with grace — quickly.

Be willing to take risks, calculated risks. If not, there is an equal risk of becoming stale.

Be an authentic and true leader. Be human, be transparent and care about the team…and don’t lose sight that you’re running a business. There will be times when the company comes first.

Embrace innovation, and not just because it’s the cool thing but because it will make a difference.

Know your market. Know your customers, know what they need, and show how to solve their pain points.

Never stop learning. I go to seminars and learn about leadership. I’ve got Realtor designations and MLS designations. Life is a continuous lesson.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Sharing information and best practices in the real estate industry. There’s so much at stake right now with the lawsuits and so much misinformation swirling around. We must collaborate to inform the public, the consumers, about the value of not only the real estate brokers and agents and what they provide, but also about what the MLS provides in the back end. I think that kind of a movement is necessary, to get the word out and show the true value of our industry, our professionals and the MLS.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

Karmen Joy M. Barrios

Marketing Coordinator