Real estate company manages to grow

COSTA MESA — When Cameron Merage was a 22-year-old Sacramento State University graduate, he told a professor that he wanted to go into development.

"He told me, 'You're too young to do development, why don't you go into the sale of real estate?'" said Merage, chief executive officer of First Team Real Estate, which recently opened new locations in Beverly Hills, Marina del Ray, Pasadena, Westlake and San Diego. "I asked him where, and he said that Newport Beach is the hottest market in the U.S."

Rather than Newport Beach, Merage opened a Century 21 franchise in 1976 in Huntington Beach.

"I packed up a U-Haul and drove myself over here," said Merage.

The office grew and, in 1985, changed over to First Team Real Estate.

"We were paying tremendous franchise dollars," said Vice President of Production Chuck Grant, who served as the office's first manager. "Cam's idea was rather we should be investing that money into our own marketing to build value to the client."

They later moved to Costa Mesa — they are currently on Bristol Street near South Coast Plaza — and expanded into Mission Viejo and other markets.

And though the housing market is still considered soft, First Team Real Estate opened eight new offices outside of Orange County last year and ranked ninth in sales volume nationwide, according to RISMedia's Broker Report.

The company now has more than 60 locations overseeing operations in residential and commercial real estate, as well as title, escrow and mortgage services.

There are some high-profile clients as well. First Team

recently closed escrow on two homes owned by TV personality Jesse James — a $1.065 million condo in Long Beach and a $4.5 million house shared with ex-wife Sandra Bullock in Sunset Beach.

Over the years, the way to build value to a client has changed, and with the advent of the Internet, clients are demanding more knowledgeable Realtors.

"If your business model was based on getting a listing, sitting in an open house and telling everyone how great you are — those days are over and they're not coming back," Grant said.

Though Realtors at first worried about the Web, today they see it as a tool more than a threat, Merage said.

"Real estate is a hyper-local business," Merage said. "The Internet enables the Realtor, who has access to tools and knows how to use them to drive value to the consumer in way that has never happened before in a way that the consumer actually can't."

As an example, Merage pointed toward proprietary software that can map the market trajectories by city and neighborhood.

The new software and technology innovations are part of Merage's growing business, which he hopes to eventually expand throughout the state to Nevada and beyond.

And when the housing market is in a downward cycle, it's the perfect time for expansion because it provides the company opportunity to stand out from the competition, Merage said.

"We're going to grow the organization as long as we can add innovation to add value to the consumer and agent base," Merage said. "I like to say you build a foundation from which you can launch a rocket from and that's what we're going to be doing."

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