The year was 1864.
Ulysses S. Grant took control of the Union Army, battling Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces in Virginia during the Civil War. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman marched on, seized and burned Atlanta before marching to Savannah. President Abraham Lincoln won re-election.
Buffalo’s population topped 94,000. And three men selling homes locally created a firm that is still selling real estate in Western New York, 150 years later.
Gurney Becker & Bourne is a stalwart of the Western New York real estate scene, having survived multiple recessions, the Great Depression and the rise and transformation of Buffalo over the past century.
The real estate brokerage has long since been overtaken in size by rivals RealtyUSA, Hunt Real Estate Corp. and M.J. Peterson Corp.
But Gurney Becker & Bourne continues to thrive handling higher-end properties in the city, particularly in the downtown, Elmwood Village, Delaware District and North Buffalo areas. The firm is now expanding with new offices in the suburbs.
Chairman Max Becker Jr. and President Charles “Sam” Gurney III spoke with The Buffalo News about the company’s longevity and future.
Jonathan Epstein: You’re marking your 150th anniversary this year. How have you done it?
Sam Gurney: We’re by far the oldest real estate company that I can think of.
Max Becker: We’ve done it with the independent contractors that work with us over the years. We’ve had mostly good, Buffalo people who are familiar with the area and know the properties.
We’ve been in downtown Buffalo for all that period of time. We did have a suburban office a number of years ago, in Amherst. But other than that, we used to work out of the salespeople’s houses in the suburbs, as opposed to having an office.
I think that it’s been a family operation. We treat everybody as a member of the family. We all get along together, and that’s been the key to our success.
JE: How many salespeople do you have today?
SG: We have probably 40 salespeople now. We started with three residential brokers when we began.
We’re in three businesses. We’re in the insurance business, we’re in the commercial real estate business, and obviously we’re in the residential real estate business.
JE: How has the real estate business changed, at least in recent times?
MB: We never had computers like we have today. We never had an ML system like we have today. We never had the networking that there is today. Those things all came later on and have been very helpful and have changed the way people do business.
Particularly with computers, because people go online and look at houses and commercial properties. So it’s a different ballgame. There’s enough information that people can have on their iPad and go out in a car and you don’t need this fancy office anymore.
SG: To me, the big change is the Internet. Now the buyer is much more attuned when they look at a house than they were in the old days. It’s been a big benefit to us.
JE: Is it less of a personal business? Do buyers and sellers still depend on the broker?
MB: There is much reliance on the broker. The broker knows the marketplace and can do a market study and can inform the prospective seller as to what his property is worth.
Also, the buyer is looking for someone who has the knowledge of what the area is, and what the prices should be and what the ranges are in that area.
SG: Where we add value is we can set the price where it makes sense. It isn’t overinflated or undervalued. It’s just based on our knowledge.
JE: Has it become more competitive, with Hunt, M.J. Peterson and RealtyUSA?
MB: They’re much larger than we are. They’re all over other parts of New York. We’re basically Buffalo brokers, who know the Buffalo area. So we’re more niche players than just being a general agent with many offices.
JE: What is your niche?
MB: Within 25 to 30 miles of Buffalo. Traditionally, we’ve been downtown.
SG: We cover all of Western New York. We have a new Northtowns location and a Southtowns location, so we spread our market share.
We want to deal with those who have taken really good care of their home and who care what’s going to happen to it. Eighty percent of our business is referral, and the balance is the Internet and the newspaper, and I think that tells a tale.
JE: Is there a different clientele now?
SG: In the old days, we specialized in high-end, city properties, and now have broadened our scope to handle any size transaction. That was a strategic move.
We’re going to a broader market now. We’ve opened an office in the Northtowns and we’ve opened an office in the Southtowns, and both have been very successful. We were lucky enough to get agents with a lot of expertise, so that transition has been good.
JE: How is the Buffalo real estate market today? How has it changed?
SG: It’s a really strong market. I don’t remember a market when there was less inventory and more buyers. We have multiple offers on a lot of our listings, and it’s not because we’re underpricing them. It’s because there are so many people looking for housing in the city.
I think it’s the demand, which is overwhelming. We’re seeing so many multiple offers. I don’t remember ever having this kind of demand.
You have more people moving into the area. You have low interest rates. We’re just seeing a flood of buyers.
JE: Is Gurney Becker & Bourne looking to grow even more than you’ve been doing?
SG: Yes, we’re definitely on a growth path. We’ve added at least 10 to 15 people, and they’re experienced, and they know their market. We’re looking to add experienced agents who have been in the business and have good reputations and good market knowledge.
We’re not necessarily a firm that wants to be really big. We like to keep it small and we think that just creates the right environment.
JE: Where do you hope to position the firm in the future?
MB: It’s not our intention to be either a Hunt or a RealtyUSA, with 300 to 400 offices. That’s not our modus operandi.
We are looking to grow, within the sphere in which we want to be, which is not across the state. We try to stay in a controlled area where we know the market and can do a good job on it.
JE: How do you want to be viewed by consumers?
MB: As a company that’s been here for a long time, has a very good reputation, and knows its market and can do a good job of listing and selling.