Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned – Cardboard Boxes & Apple Pancakes

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me in Las Vegas for the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention. We learned. We recharged. We celebrated and most of all, we inspired each other to find even greater success tomorrow than we have today.

Each year at General Session, the presentations and awards are followed by a keynote speaker who shares their words of wisdom with the crowd. This year, after our keynote speaker Kevin Brown took a bow at the end of his speech, I heard someone behind me yell: “I’m feeling all the feels now.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned – Cardboard Boxes & Apple Pancakes

Kevin Brown made us laugh, cry, jump up from our seats to a standing ovation and recognize in his leadership lessons, the ways we can enrich our own. Here are a few takeaways from Kevin’s keynote:

There’s one question you should ask yourself, always. As Kevin said, ask yourself: “What can I do to add value to the people I serve?” He says when you look in the mirror, do you see yourself or do you see the people who helped you become you? We are the sum and the byproduct of all the people who have passed into (or out of) our lives.

Heroes are not ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Kevin believes heroes are far from ordinary. “I don’t think there’s a person in this room doing ordinary things,” he said. The true definition of a hero for Kevin is extraordinary people who choose not to be ordinary.

Splash brilliance on your cardboard box. As a child, our vision for the future is limitless. Then, Kevin explained, our vision begins to narrow, and we don’t see the world as it should be; we see the world as it is. Growing up, Kevin and his friends would live for the day someone bought a washer or dryer in the neighborhood. Why? Because once the box was discarded, they could use it for anything. “If someone got a refrigerator, jackpot!” He said. “We had a time machine. Inside the box, time stood still.” They’d color on the box, “splashing their brilliance” across the cardboard canvas. Then we grow up, Kevin said, and a box no longer stands for imagination, it stands for conformity. We say things like, “Think outside the box,” but Kevin said that phrase makes no sense. “The game is played in the box,” he explained. Why are we drawn to certain people and certain leaders? Because they never lost their ability to decorate the box. They still splash their unique brilliance on it every day. That’s why, to us, their approach to life and leadership looks different – because fundamentally, it is.

Nobody notices normal. A trip to Disney with Kevin’s son, Josh, who was diagnosed with autism, proved to be a turning point in Kevin’s theory of heroes and in his young son’s life. Josh was on a specific diet, and when they went to a restaurant at Disney on the first day of the trip, the chef didn’t have all the ingredients necessary to make the apple pancakes Josh requested. The next day, Josh asked to return to the restaurant, and the same chef was working. This time, she came out to their table and said she could make the pancakes. How? After the interaction the day before, she’d gone to the store on her way home from work and bought all the ingredients necessary for Josh’s apple pancakes. It was an incredible lesson in love, support, and customer service. “Nobody notices normal,” Kevin said. “Satisfied is code for ordinary and organizations chase it like gold.” Instead, you want enthusiastic ambassadors for your brand – the apple pancake variety of ambassadors – and that only happens with extraordinary customer service. Josh went to that restaurant every day for the entire trip, enjoying Mickey-shaped apple pancakes, and on his next trip to Disney, he returned once again, near-famous for his meal request. The chef had taken the interaction and transformed it into an opportunity to launch a menu for children with special dietary needs, and more than one million kids were served. The experience was so profound for Josh, he’d wind up moving to Orlando just to be closer to the chef, who he kept in touch with for years.

Customer feedback usually follows two kinds of interactions. Kevin said: “There are only two times when people talk about you: When you exceed expectations or miss them completely.” We’ll pay a premium for people who reach beyond the requirements and achieve something remarkable. Like the Disney chef, leaders must constantly ask that question: What can I do to make your life better? The chef could’ve easily said, “No, we don’t have apple pancakes on the menu.” And that would’ve been that. But she went to the store. She purchased the ingredients. She went above and beyond, and it did no less than change Josh’s life and the lives of the one million kids she’d go on to serve. Ordinary has become commoditized. It’s what some people wrongly compete with others to achieve. Extraordinary makes heroes.

Be careful of the vision people cast on your lives. Kevin said we either live up to or down to the vision people cast upon us and that practice isn’t right. Instead, we need to create our own storylines – just like his son, who was told by teachers and doctors he’d be lucky to even graduate high school. With hard work and support from his “Mama Bear” and family, Josh graduated high school … with honors.

So, what’s the message? Yes, a hero is an extraordinary person who chooses not to be ordinary but as Kevin explained, it’s also someone who understands the storyline life tries to give them and rewrites it their own way.

Thoughts on Leadership: In Memory of Wes Foster

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday morning I participated in Intero’s Spring Blitz and the following day, I joined Intero’s Leadership Sessions then attended Intero’s Honors Awards. Today, I flew to Las Vegas to prepare for the upcoming Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention, which officially kicks off this weekend. And now, I sit down to write this post to you.

A few days ago, we received the sad news that Wes Foster, co-founder, and chairman emeritus of the Long & Foster Companies, passed away on March 17 at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 89 years old.

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: In Memory of Wes Foster

Wes was a real estate icon, and his story is quite the lesson in leadership. A onetime aluminum siding salesman, Wes would go from building materials to building one of the largest independent real estate companies in the nation.

I remember the first time I met Wes Foster. It was the 90s, and I was a young partner at Contempo Realty. What stood out to me was not only all his accomplishments and everything he had achieved in his incredible career but also what a gentleman he was. He was polite, courteous, and honorable.

The story of Wes Foster’s career begins on the football field. He received a partial football scholarship to attend Virginia Military Institute, where he graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He then served as an artillery officer in Germany and upon returning to the U.S., took a sales job for Kaiser Aluminum. Through his work, he met many home builders and eventually, in 1963, one of those builders offered him a job as a new home sales manager, the start of his real estate career. In 1966, he joined Nelson Realty, serving as vice-president of sales until 1968, when Wes and Henry A. “Hank” Long co-founded Long & Foster.

There were many similarities between the two leaders: Hank was an Air Force veteran and Wes served in the Army. They were both in their 30s with a few years of experience in real estate. They were also willing to name their business on the chance of fate. In an interview with the Washington Business Journal, Wes recalled how Long & Foster came to be. Apparently, the two men flipped a coin. Wes said: “[Hank] got his name first. I became president. We took off.”

If only every success story began so succinctly.

At first, Long & Foster operated out of a 600-square-foot office and had just three real estate agents including Hank, who specialized in commercial real estate and Wes, who specialized in residential. Of course, as we all know, the brokerage grew exponentially, expanding from Northern Virginia into Maryland in 1974 and into D.C. in 1977. In 1979, Wes bought out his partner after Merrill Lynch offered to buy the company. As Wes explained to The Post in 1988: “I told [Hank], ‘Gosh, I really like this crazy business.’”

Now solo, Wes eventually built one of the largest privately held companies in the Mid-Atlantic area. In September of 2017, Long & Foster joined the HomeServices of America family of companies. Today, Long & Foster has more than 200 offices, over 8,500 agents and staff, and is No. 1 in total transactions in the Mid-Atlantic region.

But Wes’ success wasn’t without sacrifice. In 1995, Wes told The Post he’d cut his salary down to zero to keep his company afloat. Years earlier, Wes and Hank had led the brokerage through the “stagflation” of the 1970s, finding ways to withstand the difficult economic conditions even as so many businesses around them were failing.

Wes was also a pioneer of the “one-stop-shop” real estate business model that almost everyone is trying to duplicate today. Under Wes’ steady leadership, the company developed services like mortgage, settlement services and insurance, to provide customers with everything they needed for the real estate transaction, all under one roof. Later, Wes launched property management and vacation rental divisions.

When asked about Wes’ leadership, Patrick Bain, president and CEO of The Long & Foster Companies, said: “Working with Wes for several years, what stood out most was his appreciation and attention for everyone he met. Wes always treated you as the most important person and knew it was the agents and employees who chose to work here, who were the heart and soul of the company.”

In 2004, Wes was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame. In 2006, Virginia Military Institute’s football stadium was dedicated as the P. Wesley Foster Jr. Stadium, a fitting tribute to the place where Wes once played.

So, what’s the message? When The Post asked Wes Foster what contributed to his famously competitive drive to succeed, he said he believed he was “born that way.”

Wes, your drive may have started from birth, but your legacy and memory will remain in the hearts and minds of all those you inspired forever. 

Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Amadeo Pietro Giannini

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting Monday at home with an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I hosted the monthly HomeServices of America leadership meeting and yesterday, virtually joined the team members at Long Realty to celebrate their 2022 accomplishments and talk about finding opportunities amid chaos. Today, I drove with HomeServices of America’s SVP of Research and Development Allan Dalton to visit Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Drysdale Properties, where we celebrated 2022 award winners from the brokerage.

The big news story this week was the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which happened after the bank’s announcement it would have to sell part of its bond holdings at a major loss, subsequently causing a run on the bank. The tech-focused lender was taken over by federal regulators, and we’ve been following the fallout ever since.

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Amadeo Pietro Giannini

The story reminds me of another Northern California banking narrative that began in the small Italian town of Acereto …

Amadeo Pietro (“A.P.”) Giannini was born in San Jose, California, the child of Maria Virginia De Martini and Luigi Giovanni, who left Acereto just a few months before Amadeo’s birth on May 6, 1870. When Giannini’s father died, his mother remarried the owner of a produce business and moved the family to San Francisco. As the A.P. Foundation describes, Giannini left school at the age of 13 to work full-time for his stepfather. Just six years later, Giannini was a partner in the successful produce enterprise, servicing farms throughout the Santa Clara Valley.

In 1892, Giannini married Florinda Agnes Cuneo, the daughter of wealthy Italian immigrants who owned a substantial share in Columbus Savings & Loan, a small bank located in San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” located in a neighborhood known as North Beach. At age 31, Giannini decided to retire, selling his interest in the produce business. The Wall Street Journal estimates that at his retirement, he was worth about $300,000 or the equivalent $9 million today. But Giannini’s business career was far from over.

Not even a year after Giannini’s “retirement,” Giannini’s father-in-law died, leaving Giannini to take over his position on the Columbus Savings & Loan board. For Giannini, this new role was a chance to help the city’s growing immigrant population, who had trouble securing loans. The directors disagreed. Frustrated, yet far from defeated, Giannini left the board and on October 17, 1904, founded the Bank of Italy with $150,000 raised from family and friends. Coincidentally, he headquartered the bank in a converted saloon that was directly across the street from the Columbus Savings & Loan. Giannini said this new bank was for the “little fellow” and was determined to service the hardworking, predominantly Italian immigrants from San Francisco’s Little Italy.

During the early 1900s, banks only worked with the wealthy. If you were poor, things like savings accounts, checking accounts, even home mortgages or auto loans simply didn’t exist – at least not for you. Those who were poor had to hide their money under mattresses and borrow funds from loan sharks at outrageously high rates. Giannini’s Bank of Italy gave these people hope. He focused on lending to merchants, farmers, and laborers, encouraging immigrants to transfer their money from beneath their mattresses to the safety of his newfound bank. It wasn’t just a whole new way of banking; it was the democratization of the entire banking system, and from an old saloon-turned-bank in San Francisco, Giannini led the charge.

Then, as most stories do, this one took an unexpected turn. On April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco. Lasting less than a minute, the earthquake sent the city into shambles. More than 3,000 people died from the destruction and the subsequent fires it caused. Giannini was somehow able to get to the Bank of Italy building and salvage about $80,000 in gold and cash, loading everything into two horse-drawn produce wagons, which he discretely covered with crates of oranges then wheeled to his home in San Mateo, about 18 miles from the bank. (The Wall Street Journal reported Giannini said the money smelled like oranges for weeks.)

His careful retrieval of the bank’s funds paid off. While other city banks struggled to recover, Giannini set up a makeshift bank on the docks near North Beach. He leaned a wooden plank on top of two barrels and used that as his “desk.” On a cardboard sign nearby, he wrote: BANK OF ITALY: OPEN FOR BUSINESS.

From his new Bank of Italy “headquarters,” Giannini met with customers who were able to secure loans with a simple handshake, allowing them to get the money they needed to survive and rebuild. His efforts are widely regarded as pivotal in the redevelopment of the city. The Wall Street Journal, citing a 1921 interview, published Giannini’s remarks about his work: “The ‘glad hand’ is all right in sunshine,” he said. “But it’s the helping hand in a dark day that folks remember to the end of time.”

After the 1906 earthquake, Giannini wanted to do more to help. He decided that instead of one central banking location, he’d open “branches” of his bank to service additional customers. In 1909, the first Bank of Italy branch opened in San Jose, and in 1913, branches opened throughout Southern California. On November 1, 1930, Bank of Italy merged with another bank, and Giannini’s new bank was called Bank of America, which in time became the largest banking institution in North America.

Customers weren’t the only beneficiaries of Giannini’s vision. In 1923, when Giannini set up a motion-picture loan division at the bank, hundreds of films were financed, including “West Side Story,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” When a filmmaker named Walt Disney couldn’t secure the loan for his first feature-length film, Giannini’s bank loaned him the $1.7 million and Disney finished “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Giannini’s bank also helped finance “Pinocchio,” “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella” and later, Disneyland. And when an innovative engineer named Joseph Strauss came to Giannini with the idea to build a bridge spanning the Golden Gate Strait, Giannini famously asked Strauss how long the bridge would last. “Forever,” the engineer told him, to which Giannini replied, “California needs that bridge.” In 1933, with Giannini as a financial guarantor, construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began.

So, what’s the message? Before Giannini retired (again) in 1945, he worked almost every day on the main floor of Bank of America’s headquarters, interacting with customers well into his 70s. After his passing in 1949, Giannini left behind just $500,000. Famously, he believed in only keeping as much money as he absolutely needed. When Transamerica Corporation gave him a $1.5 million bonus, he donated it to the University of California to develop a school for agriculture economics. Beyond his inspiring selflessness, Giannini’s tale reminds us that when a crisis occurs, we must be nimble – rolling that vegetable wagon down the road, nailing the wooden plank to the barrels on the wharf, and serving everyone. It’s not when things are simple and quiet that legends like Giannini are made. It’s during times of upheaval when the real heroes of our story emerge.


By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I attended an early Berkshire Hathaway Energy call and was in team meetings for most of Wednesday before flying out this morning to Cabo San Lucas for a business trip to attend Rishi Bakshi’s Intero Peak Performer’s Getaway 8-Cabo. While there, I will also visit with the team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Los Cabos Properties including Owner/Managing Broker Ian Gengos and Owner/COO Michelle Wilhelm.

March marks the start of Women’s History Month and Wednesday was International Women’s Day, so I’d like to dedicate this post to women leadership and specifically, to one woman leader who is blazing a path in entertainment as bright as her superstar status: Jennifer Lopez.

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Thoughts on Leadership: Celebrating Black History Month

By Gino Blefari:

This week my travels found me starting Monday with an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by my typical WIG calls with the team. On Tuesday, I participated in several event planning meetings for the upcoming Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Summit, HomeServices’ Stronger Together event and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention 2023. Yesterday, I joined the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention virtual review, and today I’m writing this post to you.

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