In 2007, the housing market imploded. The real estate industry went into a tailspin. And Radha Herring – the 2012 South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year – started Watermark Real Estate Group in Myrtle Beach.
Radha had wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since she was a child growing up in Myrtle Beach. “I always wanted to have a successful business,” she says. “I think the concept of building something from scratch is exciting.”
And Radha had wanted to run a real estate company ever since she bought her first house in 1999. “Real estate is the only investment you can enjoy with your family while waiting for it to appreciate,” she explains.
After a ten-year corporate career in telecommunications, Radha was ready to make her small business goal a reality in her hometown of Myrtle Beach, part of South Carolina’s famous Grand Strand. One of the first steps she took was reaching out to SCORE. SCORE–an SBA resource partner that provides free, confidential business counseling–connected her to a counselor in Greenville who was a retired real estate broker. Radha’s SCORE counselor advised her on agent commission rates and told her to keep her overhead very low. He also reminded her not to sell herself short when she was growing her business.
“It’s always nice to have someone coach you,” Radha says.
Radha planned her business to be totally web-based with no physical office. Its virtual structure would not only keep overhead costs low, but would also give the business the flexibility to help clients from across the country buy residential and vacation properties throughout the 60-mile Grand Strand.
When Radha opened Watermark Real Estate Group, the housing bubble had just burst and the real estate industry was struggling. Undeterred, she decided to approach the industry’s struggles as business opportunities.
“Once the bubble burst, the writing was on the wall. Foreclosures and distressed sales were going to be a big part of the market,” she says.
Many realtors tried to avoid any involvement with distress properties, like foreclosures. But where they saw only the stigma, Radha saw a unique opportunity for people to buy coastal properties at much lower prices. Watermark quickly began offering potential buyers free access to lists of bank-owned properties. The company’s marketing message centered on the new affordability of vacation properties and second homes in the area.
“I do what all other realtors could do,” Radha says. “I just market it differently.”
Radha and the Watermark agents also worked on strengthening relationships with area lenders in order to match clients with the banks best equipped to handle their mortgages.
Radha’s optimistic approach to the housing crisis obstacles paid off. In 2009, Watermark’s sales were 15 times higher than the previous year, and sales have continued to grow every year since. Watermark has also grown from two agents in 2008 to nine agents today.
“I think people think I’m making it up when they ask, ‘How’s the market?’ and I tell them it’s great,” Radha says. “But I really do think it’s great.”
Another secret to Watermark’s success has been its focus on customer service.
Discussing what sets her business apart, Radha says, “It’s good old fashioned business 101. We answer the phone when it rings. If we’re in the office, our goal is to answer a question within an hour. When we’re out, it’s four hours.”
“Lots of times, callers say Watermark is the first agency to answer the phone.”
And Watermark agents are always reachable during evenings and weekends to better serve clients who work during the day.
Radha and her company have shared their success by getting involved in the community. Watermark is a member of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, where Radha serves on the Legislative Policy Council. A Clemson University graduate, she also serves on the Clemson Extension advisory board and is a member of the university’s Alumni National Council. In addition, Radha is active in her local Association of Realtors, where she serves on the board of directors and as vice-chair of the Real Estate Leadership Program.
In 2012, SBA named Radha the South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year based on her growth in sales, financial performance, response to adversity and community involvement.