U. Gary Charlwood reflects on 40 years of Century 21 in Canada

Friday, October 28th, 2016

Dennis McCloskey

When U. Gary Charlwood immigrated to Canada from England 50 years ago as a young man and got a job in the airline business, little did he know he’d end up spending more than four decades enjoying a high-flying career in the Canadian real estate industry.

He worked for Western Airlines (now Delta) and CP Air (now Air Canada) and before the age of 30 he was holding executive positions in the Canadian airline field. His career was taking off and he was satisfied in his work but he wanted to pilot his own ship, so to speak. He had a desire to do more. “I wanted to go into business for myself,” he says. “I wanted to do better.”

Turns out, he did better himself. The Vancouver-based entrepreneur is founder and executive chairman of Century 21 Canada, which has more than 9,000 system members in nearly 400 offices in 272 cities. He also heads the family-owned Charlwood Pacific Group (CPG), which includes Century 21 Asia-Pacific; Uniglobe Travel International; Centum Financial Group, which is a national network of independently owned and operated mortgage broker firms; and Real Property Management Canada. Together, these companies have more than 1,800 franchise locations with more than 24,000 support staff in over 65 countries, making it one of Canada’s largest international franchise systems.

Charlwood’s entrepreneurial dream began to take flight when he attended a task force on travel that made him think of possible layoffs or mergers in the airline industry. He realized he didn’t want to hang his hat on those future possibilities. He considered going into the insurance business but that didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he used three months of personal savings to live on and earned his real estate licence. In his 10th week as a real estate agent, he sold his first house. After that, his new-found vocation began to soar. “I went on a tear and sold 115 houses in the next 15 months,” he says. Soon, he was making five times his annual salary as a director of consumer affairs with Canada’s largest airline company.

He became 50 per cent owner of a Vancouver real estate firm and grew it from six salespeople to nearly 60. After buying out the other 50 per cent he was approached by Century 21 International in 1975 and he and a partner were offered the master franchise for Century 21 Real Estate Canada. By early 1976, a few months before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a company called Apple, U. Gary Charlwood was on his way to realizing his ultimate dream. He later he bought out his co-founder and was in the process of building Century 21 Canada into one of the largest real estate companies in the country.

On the eve of celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary, Charlwood was asked why his enterprise became so successful. Without hesitation, he names several factors, including being innovative, having a good product, and using a team approach to his business. “There are a number of reasons for our accomplishments but when we first started we were the only trainers in the industry,” he says. “There was a story going around in the early days that one large real estate company would tell its recruits, ‘Why don’t you go to Century 21 to get trained and then come work for us?” He adds: “That was a long time ago; we’re all good competitors with each other now.”

As Charlwood speaks on the phone, gazing out the window from his Vancouver home at the spectacular view, with his 193-lb. American Mastiff by his side, he emphasizes that his family-run firm has a team approach to business and discusses how he has always nurtured this family context.

“We have been very fortunate over the years to have a phenomenal group of people working for us and it is this team spirit that has played an important role in our successes,” he says. “I have always treated all of the people who work in our organization as though they were partners. Everybody plays an integral role and contributes to the whole firm. If one person fails, it has an impact.” He notes that the team spirit of his corporate staff is especially “key to me” and acknowledges there is “longevity in management” at the firm. Feedback has always been an important component in his approach to business and he points to his annual Chairman’s Circle when some 80 of his top franchisees meet to discuss various topics of interest to the Century 21 brand, including, “What’s happening in the marketplace that could impact us; what do we need to do to stay on the leading edge; and what new technological platforms do we need to pursue beyond what we are already doing?”

As the first franchisor in the industry to span coast-to-coast in Canada, Charlwood takes great pride in pioneering and paving the path for others to follow and he likes to think he played a role in “professionalizing” the industry. The titan of the real estate industry is generous with his praise of those who’ve helped him along the way — including some deceased executives — and current key players, such as his two sons: Martin, who is vice chairman and CEO of Century 21 Canada and president and COO of parent company CPG; and Christopher, an executive director of the firm who sits on various boards and is involved in the strategic planning and financial aspects of the organization.

The elder statesman also speaks fondly of the now-retired Don Lawby, who joined Century 21 in 1976 as a sales associate and rose to become its president in 1988. Charlwood likes to tell Lawby, “You joined me as a private and left me as a general.” Credit is also given to Brian Rushton, current EVP, “who joined as a franchisee and, with his brilliant humour and inspiration, guided us on the technology front.” Tracy Bartram, EVP and CFO for the parent company, is touted for her skills in the finance, legal and corporate services departments.

Charlwood concedes that without people who “do what they do and do it well” he would not have reached the pinnacle of success that he now enjoys. Notable among his many career highlights is being the first Canadian to be inducted into the International Franchise Association’s Hall of Fame and the American Society of Travel Agents Hall of Fame. In 2016, Charlwood Pacific Group was also recognized with the Canadian Franchise Association’s Hall of Fame Award.

A former marathon runner and an active swimmer, Charlwood says he enjoys his life and has no plans to retire. When asked to describe his current role with CPG, he says he sees himself essentially as a strategist. “I am the composer: I help Martin write the music and he conducts the orchestra.”

When Martin was asked about his father’s metaphor he said he is not surprised by the reference because his dad is a musical aficionado. He confirms that the two do work in concert together, with the senior Charlwood working on long-term strategy while Martin works closely with the senior management team “to help fine-tune that long term strategy and to execute on the short term and midterm must-do’s.”

Martin says he and his brother, Christopher, knew at an early age they’d like to follow in their father’s footsteps. When his brother was 14 and Martin was 12, their father was in the process of founding Uniglobe Travel International and he asked their advice in choosing the brand’s logo. “We were captivated; hook, line and sinker,” says Martin, while adding their father never “badgered or pushed us to get us into the travel or real estate business.” When the boys were not in school, Gary would invite them to his business meetings where the young lads would sit at the back of the room soaking up what was being discussed.

“His business philosophy was and is to teach people for themselves, not by themselves.” Martin adds, “He set up a structure on how to run Century 21 and Uniglobe, and in my early days in the business it was all about learning from the system and the individuals within that system that he created, rather than learning from him, directly. That came later when he and I worked more closely together when I became president of some of the divisions.”

Martin describes his father as kind and caring to those around him and says he always recognized his father’s leadership skills. “He was always the coach of the soccer team when we were growing up and people just gravitated to him,” he says. “He always had –and still has– very creative and valuable things to share with people. And he sure can hold an audience.”

Martin, who graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1990 and has worked in nearly every facet of the family business, is an inveterate traveler, passionate snow skier and boater, has a healthy appreciation of wine and is a partner in Trim Wines in Calif. As he prepares to take over the reins of the company one day, Martin says he shares the same business philosophy as his father and adheres to the team member collaboration style of business. “If we can’t have a good time with someone and enjoy their company over dinner, we’re not sure we can work or do business with them.” He adds that he and his father share three tenets of business practice: empower people to get the job done; give them the resources to get it done; let them get on with it.”

When asked about the future of Century 21, Martin outlined a few pillars of growth: “Recruit more agents and brokers to our Century 21 brand and increase the number of homes that we help our customers buy and sell through the brand.” He maintains it is also important to help the broker network grow their individual local business through acquisitions and/or mergers of other brokerages in their local marketplace. He adds that the company will continue to refine their industry leading work in the digital world, especially as it relates to marketing real estate on the Internet.

In a salute to his pioneering businessman father, Martin adds, “We have always viewed ourselves as a ‘thought leader’ and plan to continue as such.”

On a more personal note, Martin says this of his father and his family, including the Century 21 family: “We make sure to enjoy the ride that life provides us and make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities that come knocking on our doors.”

© 2016 REM Real Estate Magazine

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