The finance field has undergone massive changes in recent years, from the emergence of new technologies – which pose both challenges and opportunities – to the growing demand that finance leaders speak about and act on social issues. This has mandated that finance professionals at all levels – but especially those in leadership roles – move from out of the back office and into the public spotlight, adapting to a new normal in which finance pros are analysts, communicators and decision-makers.
In the first installment of my two-part Q&A with Karri Callahan, CFO of global real estate company RE/MAX, Karri and I discussed the state of the real estate industry as well as the challenges of being the central finance chief for a franchise-based enterprise. In part two, I asked Karri about her own unique insights and tips for aspiring finance leaders, given the upheaval and evolution of the field. In addition, I asked her about two of the most important issues in the finance function today – technological disruption and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) – and how her company has addressed these issues in a proactive way.
Jeff Thomson: In addition to finance, accounting, FP&A, and tax issues, you also oversee investor relations, legal, compliance and risk management matters at RE/MAX. How did your academic background in Accounting and Business Administration prepare you for the value creation aspect of your role? How does your role differ from traditional controllership? As the role of the CFO becomes more multifaceted, how can aspiring finance leaders better prepare themselves for providing strategy and insight?
Karri Callahan: I came to RE/MAX from Ernst & Young with more than 12 years of accounting and auditing experience, joining the RE/MAX team as a Senior Manager of SEC reporting. Working in the audit practice, I spent a lot of my career working with public companies. When RE/MAX was pursuing its IPO, I saw it as a great opportunity to join the global brand. Real estate is a relationship business and that mindset is applicable to our work at Headquarters as much of the work for our franchisees involves collaboration across all departments.
My advice to aspiring finance leaders is to keep the following in mind:
1) Relationships are everything.
2) Never stop learning. It’s important to have confidence and take more risks because things tend to pan out in the aggregate. Following our IPO, I had the opportunity to support the leadership team with the launch of Motto Franchising, LLC (Motto Mortgage), an innovative mortgage brokerage franchise that we launched in late 2016. Motto Mortgage continues to innovate the mortgage industry and garner attention for its exceptional growth. It was a fantastic learning experience and I was able to apply what I learned to the 2018 acquisition of booj, an award-winning web development and software firm, the 2019 acquisition of data science startup First, and the 2020 acquisition of innovative fintech startup wemlo.
3) Don’t be afraid to do things differently. RE/MAX was the original disrupter in real estate because Dave and Gail Liniger deconstructed the format of a traditional brokerage, identified areas of unfairness and crafted a brand-new business model that prioritized the professional and financial well-being of the real estate agent – as well as the experience of homebuyers and sellers.
4) You are the company you keep. Surround yourself with a healthy mix of like-minded individuals and people who stretch you to think beyond your own constraints.
5) Don’t change who you are to be successful.
Thomson: Technology has changed the real estate market, with virtual home tours and apps helping consumers make informed decisions. Technology has also changed how finance and accounting operate, with many routine tasks now automated, freeing up professionals to focus on higher-level tasks. How well-acquainted should today’s accounting and finance professional be with technology like intelligent automation or RPA? What do you do to stay ahead on the technology curve?
Callahan: Our Chief Customer Officer, Nick Bailey, tells our agents this: “technology won’t put real estate agents out of business, but agents who don’t embrace technology will put themselves out of business.” I think that advice is applicable to so many other professions, including mine in Accounting and Finance. Our teams are constantly evaluating how to incorporate new technologies and software into routine Accounting and Finance processes in order to free up time to help analyze trends, evaluate business opportunities and contribute to strategic growth initiatives. We are “Customer Obsessed” at RE/MAX and over the past two years have entered a new era of RE/MAX technology with the launch of the end-to-end custom-built-for-RE/MAX booj Platform and First app.
Right now, RE/MAX Holdings has more in-house technology expertise and firepower than ever. Recently, we announced an organizational change to create one technology team comprised of over 200 members that maximizes collaboration, focuses on user experience and operates with purpose, passion and excellence. Over time, it will benefit the entire corporate team by enhancing the delivery and support of technology and data to all areas of the business.
More importantly, it will benefit our RE/MAX and Motto affiliates around the world by empowering them to deliver an even better agent-consumer experience, with a goal of being the absolute best in the industry. And that will pay dividends in growth, productivity and market share.
Professional development and continued education are extremely important at RE/MAX and the company routinely offers courses to refine skills in the Microsoft Office suite, public speaking and various other skillsets important to the workplace, of which I take advantage.
Thomson: In recent years – and especially over the past several months – business leaders have become more attuned to the need to actively promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), not just because of public pressure but because there are tangible business benefits. How has RE/MAX supported DE&I broadly and staff members who are women or people of color? And as a female CFO, have you experienced gender bias? What did you do to overcome these challenges?
Callahan: We are focusing our efforts around continuing the conversation and providing education to our Headquarters staff and vast network of affiliates. We do this in a number of ways, by 1) promoting training to educate and prepare our network, 2) continuing to drive ongoing conversations with our networks and employees, 3) working diversity and inclusion into our large-scale events by featuring sessions and speakers to educate our membership, and 4) utilizing our media channels to champion diversity, raise awareness and set an example for our network and industry as a whole. Some examples of the above initiatives include our stance and issuing of a statement in the wake of the George Floyd killing, closing corporate Headquarters on Juneteenth 2020, and implementing a 10-Week Racial Equity & Social Justice Challenge at Headquarters. As it directly relates to our mission of making the dream of homeownership available to everyone, we are actively taking an inventory of what we currently do around Social Governance (sustainability, diversity, philanthropy) and where we can do better.
Additionally, RE/MAX has a comprehensive inclusion and diversity campaign to support the mission of homeownership across all ethnic groups by supporting and partnering with:
· AREAA – Asian Real Estate Association of America
· NAHREP – National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals
· NAGLREP – National Association of Gay & Lesbian Real Estate Professionals
Fortunately, RE/MAX was co-founded by Gail Liniger and historically, gender bias is not something we’ve seen at this company. I think the gender diversity at RE/MAX makes us stand out even more so because it is ingrained in who we are. In 1973, Dave and Gail Liniger, two young, ambitious professionals, set out to build a new company that would operate differently than competitors and ultimately disrupt the real estate industry as a whole. The company was built on the backs of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, and it’s a culture that persists at the company today. Two of our four C-Suite executives are female, 40% of our board is female and even at the network level we’re close to 50/50 in terms of agents and franchise ownership. RE/MAX doesn’t talk about it being important; the company demonstrates that it’s important. Our proven track record of elevating women to leadership positions, combined with progressive maternity and parental leave benefits, is why Forbes magazine recently ranked RE/MAX at No. 11 on its list of America’s Best Employers for Women.
The biggest challenges faced by women executives that I don’t believe our male counterparts face as often is the balancing act and guilt associated with an advancing career. I think male counterparts face this at times, but not in the same way. I also think that at times, there is a stigma and lack of credibility associated with women leaders. I feel extremely fortunate that I haven’t experienced this in my current role, but I am always intentional about establishing myself and my credibility because I know it’s something other female leaders have had to overcome in their workplaces.
This article has been edited and condensed.