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Agent Provacateur



Six stories above the intersection at Clark and Halsted looms a billboard that reads, "The Secret to selling Real Estate is Chaz. " A photo shows the smiling Chaz Walters wearing a tie and white shirt, his shoulder revealing a hint of suspender. A red box announces that he's sold more than $67 million worth of houses and apartments.

"0nce real estate agents sold themselves," says Walters, who looks older and less gorgeous than the billboard picture. " Later, franchises like Century 21 and Re/Max organized to sell their agents. But nowadays it doesn't mean much to be a Century 21 guy showing up in a gold jacket to grab a listing. An agent has to set himself apart--but not in the old ways."

"Save us from the billboard boy," pleads a respected Lincoln Park agent. And he isn't the only agent to complain that Walters's brazen approach to marketing sullies the profession, which has struggled mightily to leave its faintly oleaginous reputation behind. Another agent says he's scummy. "You wouldn't see the head of the phone company on top of the AT & T building. What Chaz does would be laughable, except that he makes us all look like used-car salesmen."

But image marketing seems to be working for the 34-year-old Walters--it's lifted him from obscurity to supersalesman. "We're the new wave," says Francesca Rose, an agent and a friend of Walters. "People like me and Chaz are young and aggressive, with lawyers and stockbrokers for clients--who expect us to be as sophisticated as they are in the ways of marketing and negotiating. The little old lady who drives around in a station wagon showing properties isn't going to make it anymore."

"Call me cheesy if you want," says Walters, "but I'm the person who will sell your unit."

"Sergio, it's Chaz. How you doin'?" Walters purrs into the phone at 9:15 on a Tuesday morning, returning the first of nine messages that have collected overnight. Sergio Martinucci owns Coldwell Banker Stanmeyer Realtors, the local affiliate of the giant realty chain that employs Walters. Walters, one of Martinucci's top agents, is selling condos in an apartment building in Uptown--he calls it Sheridan Park--that Martinucci is converting as a side project.

"Yeah.... Sure.... Right.... Later," Walters says in staccato bursts. He funnels some less important calls to an assistant, then grabs his coat and is soon cruising east on Belmont in his black Lexus, car phone pressed to his ear. A few minutes before ten he pulls up in front of a luxury Gold Coast high-rise just off Michigan Avenue, where he'll tour an apartment that's for sale. He's representing a young foreign-born heir who's moving to Chicago to study art and wants a proper apartment with a view. Price is little object.

The agent who's selling the apartment meets Walters at the door of a spacious, 61st-floor aerie with a spectacular view of the city. It's listed for $2.15 million. "There's probably $100,000 in electronics in this apartment," the woman says, pointing toward a bank of television and stereo equipment in the living room. Walters nods coolly.

The living room is all white and contemporary. Art deco paintings dominate, but in one room there's a photo of Heather Locklear in a silver frame. The master bedroom has a bed festooned with drapery, an overstuffed window seat, and two lavatories in addition to the main bathroom. The woman wonders if Walters's client will be troubled that a feminine hand has influenced the decor.

"If it means redoing this whole place," he says, "I don't think it'll be a problem."

Walters grew up in Northbrook. His family owns and runs the Villa Olivia Country Club and Ski Area in west-suburban Bartlett. After high school he attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University but soon abandoned his boyhood dream of becoming a pilot. He transferred to Loyola, then dropped out to work as a fashion model, bit-part actor, and waiter.

But he had larger ambitions. His father had developed town houses adjoining Villa Olivia, which gave his son a taste for real estate and big bucks. "On the floor there is a million dollars," his father had told him. "Your job is to learn how to pick it up."

In 1987 Walters--still going by Chuck then--earned his real estate license and took a job as assistant sales manager with Centex Homes, a nationwide home builder, unloading moderately priced single-family houses in a subdivision in Streamwood. Centex soon offered him a better position, but it paid too little and he would have had to work out of Gurnee. In 1989 he hired on as a salesman with Stanmeyer, which was then affiliated with Century 21.

In his new job Walters had to focus on selling existing houses, the "secondary market," which was a big change for him. "At Centex they run full-page ads, and they have beautiful model homes and a track record," he says. "A lot of the work is already done for you. If a new buyer wants to live in your area--if they're hard and ready to buy--you've got a sale. Not so with the secondary market. You have to go out and find your clientele."

One common tactic for the neophyte is cold calling, phoning up home owners at dinner to ask if they're interested in listing their property. "You make five million calls, and I'd say 75 percent of the people hang up on you at the start," says Walters. "You don't get very far with the other 25 percent either." Sending out postcards proved equally futile. "Every new person does that. You can't bleed blood from a turnip." He didn't want to try to persuade owners of property that had languished on the market with other agents to give him a chance to make the sale because he knew it was stale property, and he didn't have a network of acquaintances through family, church, and school. He was also young. "People don't want to give a $400,000 house to a kid, and I was a kid."

Yet all around him on the north side sales and home prices were starting to explode, the result of gentrification and low interest rates; prices rose an average 20 percent in Lincoln Park and Lakeview between 1990 and 1995. "I'm thinking to myself, I have to do something different to get out of the hole I'm in," Walters remembers. "I wanted to become known to the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time, and I was willing to spend the money to do it."

He decided the answer was "image marketing"--marketing himself. "You open up all these magazines, and what makes you read an article or an ad is what you see on the page. I like to think I have a creative background, and so I applied it." He called a billboard company and said he wanted to contract for one. The rate was $800 a month. A photographer and a stylist produced a photo of Walters showing him in a vest and open shirt. "I wanted to avoid a three-piece-suit, IBM look," he explains. He came up with the tag line: "The secret to selling. . . " A banner noted that he'd sold $36 million in properties, though that included everything the Streamwood office sold in the time he was there and his own meager sales after he left.

In May 1992, a few days before his first billboard was to go up at Halsted and Clark, Walters went out to dinner with some other Stanmeyer agents, who bluntly told him what they thought. "Are you out of your fuckin' mind?" one man said. Chuck Saponaro, an agent friend of Walters, says, "Chaz laughed like he does, but he didn't really say anything. He just kept his cool."

For the first month the billboard didn't seem to have any effect, but gradually the calls began to trickle in. "You're driving by, and you remember Chaz," says Walters. "Maybe you're not interested in real estate at the moment, but in five or ten months you'll be looking to buy or sell--and there's my name coming out of your consciousness. And you'll phone me."

Between 1991 and 1993 the Stanmeyer office on Belmont where Walters works jumped from next-to-last place to the top in total sales among the franchise's nine sales offices. Cheri Davis, then office manager, credits part of the rise to the dumping of several nonproducing agents "who sat around drinking coffee and whining about the poor market" and the hiring of harddriving replacements. But she says a key ingredient was Chaz, whose sales were rising 30 to 50 percent a year. "He was the core of the turnaround. To succeed in real estate today you need two qualities--business knowledge and a marketing plan. And Chaz has both going for him. He took my office, and in fact the industry around here, to a whole new level."

Walters is always working. "Chaz and I jog together, and we're constantly talking deals," says Francesca Rose. "When we were in Greece together we were fighting over the fax machine."

"On a busy day I'll cover 35 miles in one-, two-, and three-mile hops," he says. "I'm always parking and unparking--and the car gets dinged up." He turns in his car every 15 months for a new luxury model. "I don't want to appear arrogant when I say this, but if you're dealing with high-end buyers a Ford pickup isn't going to cut it."

The fringes of Lakeview are the heart of Walters's market. In addition to existing homes he's marketing and selling town houses and new luxury houses. He helps developers come up with names for their complexes, advises them on what room shapes and showerheads young professionals prefer, and supervises the production of brochures, signs, and ads. In 1996 he bought and sold 78 units--an average of one deal every four or five days.

Today he stops at Magnolia Manor, the Uptown condo conversion he's handling for Martinucci. He walks into a two-bedroom flat and says irritably to the workmen, "What happened here, guys? Why the slowdown? You gotta close this up--a fella from Louisville is moving in next week."

He moves on to a first-floor duplex, where an assistant is about to host an open house for other brokers. Apparently few are expected to materialize. The tip-off is the food. When Walters has a particularly attractive property to showcase, he provides a full spread--Thai chicken salad, sandwiches, cookies, fruit. Today there's pizza from a box.

By all accounts Walters is quite good at the real estate spiel. "Every good real estate salesman has to sell the emotion of a transaction and then follow that up with statistics," says Charlie Vernon, manager of the Belmont office where Walters works. "It's like falling in love and then rationalizing it in the morning. Chaz is very good at the falling-in-love part. He gets very enthusiastic, and the buyers and sellers find themselves swept up in getting the job done."

As Walters marches through an unfinished apartment at Ivy Lane, a town-house complex just north of Diversey, he can't stop pitching it. "Ivy Lane is a place where we say, 'The upgrade is standard.' Good motto, huh?... This is a beautiful kitchen, with granite countertops--and it's all basic here.... Consider this bilevel living room, with a vaulted ceiling 18 feet high.... Look at this bathroom. It's all marble--the floors, the walls, the surrounds. And there's a double vanity and a perfect six-foot soaking tub.

"You get beautiful views of the city," he says, touting the rooftop deck above Lincoln Avenue as if it were the top of the Hancock Building. He seems quite pleased with himself as he describes how he's pushed one buyer to pay more for extras like metal staircase railings, French doors in his den, and complicated computer wiring--though nothing's been installed yet. "As you can see, this is a very, very dramatic unit," he says, looking at the drywall and joint compound. "Great, isn't it?

Walters often takes people to his own condo at nearby Vinery Lofts. He considers the place yet another way to advertise himself, and it's always ready to show. "When I get up in the morning, before I even have a cup of coffee, I make the bed. After a shower I pick up the wet towel, and I make sure the inside glass is wiped dry."

According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of real estate agents in this country has dropped to 690,000 in the last decade, down 80,000. In part that's because automation has shifted some tasks once performed by agents, such as locating mortgages and listing houses, to banks and consumers. In part it's because aggressive agents like Walters have been capturing more of the market.

More and more trade has been flowing toward national chains such as ERA, Re/Max, Century 21, and Coldwell Banker, which advertise heavily and handle lots of corporate relocations. Coldwell Banker's 55,000 agents bring in $2 billion a year in commissions and relocation fees, making one of every nine residential sales in America. Where 20 percent of the agents once did 80 percent of the business, 20 percent now do 90 percent.

Walters tries to persuade sellers to list their properties with him in two personal visits. At the first one he offers lots of friendly PR, and at the second he presents a market analysis that includes the proposed sale price. He prides himself on not inflating the sale price in an attempt to sign the customer, though that's what any real estate agent would contend, but he demands that sellers sign with him for four months instead of the standard three. "I'm putting out a great deal of expense from the beginning," he says, "and I'd like the opportunity to recoup my costs." Once the customer signs, Walters places newspaper ads, posts for-sale signs, hosts broker open houses, distributes slick brochures, and sends out postcards. He likes postcards now, because he's so well-known.

Walters is doing so well that his contract with Stanmeyer--which shifted its affiliation to Coldwell Banker in 1993--has changed. Where he once paid the local franchise 50 percent of his commission, he now pays only a pittance, though he still pays the national office 10 percent. But he now pays for two assistants--one full-time and the other part-time--who take care of paperwork, customer hand-holding, and some open houses. He also pays for his own office expenses, including rent and phone. And he pays for space in Stanmeyer newspaper advertisements and holiday gifts for his customers, buyers and sellers alike--caramel corn from Neiman-Marcus for those who've been merely good, Baccarat crystal objects for those "who've gone above and beyond."

Walters says his total sales for 1996 will top $17 million, placing him in the upper echelon of city real estate dealers. And he's a rainmaker for Stanmeyer, prized for the spillover business he generates. "He's our plaque on the wall, our trophy," says Charlie Vernon. "It's fair to say people come here because of him. See, a pack mentality is often at work in real estate. Picture yourself walking down the street in a place you don't know, looking for a restaurant. You don't want to eat where no one else is eating. The busy place will draw you--and that's us with Chaz working here."

Walters does complain about his expenses, which he calculates add up to 40 percent of his gross income. "I'm in the hot seat. Every decision I make has to be a good decision--because if it isn't I lose money." Still, his net income was well over $200,000 last year, six times what the average U.S. sales agent makes. And he's confident his earnings will rise sharply as the years go by--after all, condo and town--house sales in Lincoln Park and Lakeview rose nearly 25 percent last year.

Walters recently started running ads in Chicago magazine, in Unique Homes, a New York-based magazine that features manor houses, and in Hilton Guest, a periodical distributed in Hilton hotels in Europe (the foreign-born heir found Walters through a Hilton Guest ad). The ads are headlined "Hot Property" and feature the billboard photo of Walters and an 800 number.

But his principal marketing tool remains the billboard, which now costs him $1,000 a month per site. He rotates his billboard ad through 11 locations around Lakeview and Lincoln Park and posts it at several sites in January and February, when people are just starting to think about real estate. Three years ago Bruno Boucher, an agent with Koenig & Strey, put up his own billboard in Bucktown, with the line "Bruno is numero uno." He says he kept the billboard up for eight months, but didn't get much response; the major problem was that people confused him with Walters. "Chaz had the balls to do it ahead of me, and he got all the recognition," Boucher says. No one on the north side has tried it since.

Walters's customers say the billboard is a key reason that they turned to him, though they also often mention word of mouth. "I'd seen the billboard driving around," says Steve Gilberg, a marketing specialist who sold a town house and bought a condo at Ivy Lane through Walters. "Chaz has to be doing something right to be able to afford that billboard. And I am a person who believes that successful people in business want to deal with other successful people."

Competing realtors aren't always so kind. Lino Darchun, a manager in another Coldwell Banker office, says, "The overwhelming majority of us would want to be known as reliable members of the community who happen to sell real estate. We serve on school committees and on the boards of neighborhood organizations. There's something a bit flashy about that billboard, which appeals to that part of the community that's easily impressed." David DiCorpo, a realtor and president of the South Lakeview Neighbors, a community group that inspects developers' plans, says, "What he does is self-aggrandizing, an ego thing." Some agents contend he inflates his sales figures. "There's no way he's sold $67 million, unless he did one huge commercial deal--which I doubt," says one woman who wanted to be anonymous.

The more you probe, the cattier the comments get. One veteran chuckles and says, "Chaz must have a pretty small penis to need that big of a billboard. But more power to him."

Walters's friends and associates of course applaud him. "It was very astute of him to jump in as if he was already the best," says Charlie Vernon. "It was a presumptive strike to present himself as great before anyone had even heard of him. It showed chutzpah. It was brilliant." Francesca Rose says, "These realtors who complain about Chaz are jealous. Look, the numbers speak for themselves--that billboard sells."

As 1997 began Walters was closing on the Gold Coast apartment for the foreign-born heir, and he had only one unit left at Ivy Lane. Four new billboards were going up in Lakeview. "Other agents don't want to spend the scratch for billboards," he says. "They don't see the value in them. But in business you have to pay with your money or your time--there's no free ride--and I'd rather put out the money. The competition is only going to get worse, and only the agents willing to take a shot are going to survive."

Walters stands in the living room of a one-bedroom loft apartment north of Ivy Lane, two-year-old Nicholas eyeing him suspiciously. Walters has cemented a contract for the sale of the loft on behalf of Nicholas's parents, and he's here today to answer any questions the buyer's bank appraiser has. The appraiser says that another agent has told her the loft is worth much less than the agreed-on sale price. She points out that another unit in the building had just sold for $143,000 when Walters listed this one at $169,000.

Later Walters explains that a buyer had offered $143,000, but he'd contended the loft was priced right, since it had better windows and a higher ceiling. He advised Nicholas's parents to hold firm. "But we wanted to be respectful to the buyer, so I called the buyer's broker and said, 'We are honored that you have chosen our property, but you have to understand there's no hope here. However, to show our good faith we're going to drop our price $500.' That was conciliatory. There were two more back-and-forths, and the loft sold for $167,000--almost at the price point I set it at."

But now the appraiser is threatening to value the loft at $143,000, which would torpedo the sale.

"Oh, jeez, don't do that," Walters says, growing alarmed. He attacks the agent who advised the appraiser about the price. "I sell three times more than that woman does, so who are you going to trust?"

The appraiser is silent.

Walters marches around the apartment, showing the appraiser all the pluses of the loft. Finally she seems persuaded, but as he leaves, Walters tells her, "If at any point you have a problem with this, give me a call. I can provide you with more than enough ammunition to prove the case."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos of Chaz Walters by Kathy Richland.

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