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  1. Business

Where sales are sunny


Every day, the music at Century 21 Beggins Enterprises blares promptly at 8:30 a.m., and the real estate agents filter into a bright yellow room below the mantra, "HAVE FUN! MAKE MONEY!"

Get Ready For This plays, agents grin and clap, and the brokerage's pep rally begins as it has nearly every morning for 11 years. Leading the pack is Craig Beggins, their broker and boss, a 44-year-old CEO who looks more like a self-help guru with his salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail.

Over the next hour one Monday, as agents shared recent sales and stumbles, Beggins doled out his signature nuggets of pithy optimism, coaching how they talked and thought. Recalling a debate with his father, a housing-market skeptic, Beggins said, "It finally occurred to me to say, 'Okay, the world is coming to an end. … You still need a place to live.' "

The morning meeting is, as you can imagine, relentlessly, aggressively cheesy, even among the standards of Realtors' infamous perkiness. It also seems to be working: Two dozen agents arrived, voluntarily and without pay, seeking their morning fix, while dozens of others watched the meeting's live stream over the Web, including one working with Chinese investors who tuned in from Shanghai.

Nominated four years in a row amid the worst housing market in decades, Beggins' brokerage climbed this year to No. 1 among midsized companies in the Tampa Bay Times' employee survey of Top Workplaces. Beggins himself was praised for his leadership, championed by some of his 250 agents as a "visionary" whose coaching helps keep agents "ahead of the curve."

Realtors are an unusual workforce, paid by commissions but dependent on brokers for basic support. But agents said Beggins' brokerage offers much more than just business cards: constant training, sharp sales techniques and a focus on life goals outside of selling homes.

"He's got me reading books. I don't ever read books," said Gunner Davis, a high-producing Realtor partnered with his wife, Melissa. Davis said he was hesitant at first about Beggins' coaching but now admits to "drinking the Kool-Aid." "He's got me on inspirational videos. It's a long-term thought process here, not just short-term sell, sell, sell."

But neither Beggins nor his sanctum of positive thinking was insulated from the housing bust. Between 2005 and 2010, revenues here dropped by two-thirds, a staggering plunge that caused many to flee the field. Agents making good money suddenly hit hard times, and even their fearless leader saw his pay drop by more than half. So how are we to see Beggins' cheerleading after years of a housing market rotting on the vine?

"The last seven years were very hard. I lost a lot of everything. … Every Monday I'd walk in and say, 'Can we make payroll this week?' " Beggins said. "But we have a saying: 'The speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack.' I can't be down. Not with a bunch of salespeople relying on me."

• • •

In 1973, when Beggins' father, Jim, bought Century 21's master franchise rights from Orlando to Key West, Craig Beggins put on his first Century 21 T-shirt at 5 years old.

At 16, when his father began developing a subdivision, Symphony Isles, on acres of Apollo Beach swampland, Beggins worked there as a construction grunt, hefting cement bags and sweeping floors.

At 18, the first year he could, he earned his real estate license and began driving back from the University of Florida every weekend to sell model homes.

After three years in Gainesville, he transferred to the University of South Florida to be closer to the family business. At 23, fresh out of college, he bought his first franchise, a small Century 21 firm where two of the five agents quit because of his age.

"My family's always worked," he said. "I don't know anything different."

Two decades later, Beggins runs five offices — in Apollo Beach, Sun City Center, South Tampa, Indian Rocks Beach and Madeira Beach — and one of the largest Century 21 franchises in the state.

Beggins calls his agents "a volunteer army of misfit toys," a scrappy band of independent contractors who didn't grow up dreaming of selling homes. But he is the exception to his own rule, a lifetime salesman in a family of sellers, including his brother and his mother, who work with him.

"I was built to do this," he said. "Most people aren't."

Beggins, as you might have guessed, can seem a bit intense about his work, but that passion is exactly what employees seem to like. The set-your-own-hours freedom of selling real estate can be a trap, and agents said they need the motivation to stay structured and productive. The firm's Apollo Beach office is papered with inspirational sayings, such as "Stimulate your own economy." There's even one on a picture of a bald eagle in the restroom.

The language in this office is a pidgin of Craig Beggins' philosophy and Realtor-ese: Agents "farm" for sales, cultivate "spheres of influence" and follow the "5 Pillars of Success." Beggins coaches agents to make collage-style "vision boards" of their goals, asking them, "What would you like your life to look like five years from now?"

Persuading new agents to adopt the Beggins brand is crucial for business, and the motivational vibes play big in recruiting. The firm hosts regular career nights at the office, and one recruitment video says, "There are dreams you haven't achieved yet. … There is more happiness for you. Simply put, a better life is out there."

But more than just a self-help seminar, these little pushes are focused on igniting competition as a means to bring in sales and commissions for the agent and the broker. Agents who sell more are rewarded with bigger desks, while those who struggle can find themselves fitting into shrinking cubicles.

"I tell my agents, 'No sleeping during harvest time,' " Beggins said. "This is a sales organization. Somebody has to be kicked out for somebody else to jump in."

• • •

On Saturday mornings, prospective buyers, many from out of state, are invited onto the firm's powerboat, named, for tours of the scenic coast. No deals are signed onboard, but Beggins said the expeditions sell something bigger: the lifestyle. Even hesitant buyers tend to melt into a trance when dolphins begin jumping in the wake.

"At that part, they're done," he said with a laugh, holding out an imaginary closing pen. "Sign here."

Begginsends each monthly newsletter wishing agents "fair weather and following seas," but recent years have been anything but. Workloads stayed the same while property values and sales prices crumbled. Competitors, he said, "raided" his workforce, enticing agents with bigger cuts of commissions.

Sales and prices have edged back up, and Beggins has expanded commission splits to keep agents onboard. But Beggins himself was hit by the recession on two fronts, when office buildings he bought for retirement income were sold at heavy losses.

"I believed in everything I sold," he said, "and I bought a lot of real estate."

Even now, though, Beggins said he lives the kind of platitudes he happily doles out for others. He responds to questions about how he's doing with remarks such as, "Enjoying the uptick in the real estate market," and his ringtone is a song from the morning meeting that says, "The money is coming to me."

In Beggins' office, he has a "brag wall" featuring his two college-aged daughters, his wife, Angelique, and his colorful home in the Bahamas, which he named "Living the Dream." On the table, a sign reads, "Every Day I Play Like a Champion!"

"You can spiral down or you can spiral up," Beggins said. "That's where the leadership comes in. You can't just let people flounder."

How's that working out? Surprisingly well, agents said. Instead of working for a broker always out for golf or behind closed doors, they said Beggins is responsive, communicative and experienced in the business' dark side. That helps agents feel more confident, not less, because they believe in what's at stake.

Maybe, in the end, the secret of Beggins' Kool-Aid is that he drinks it himself. At one Monday meeting, after a dry conversation about the differences between backup contracts and kick-out clauses, Beggins flashed a boyish smile.

"Exciting, isn't it?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or