Long & Foster's Detwiler: Strategist in a Reviving Economy

Jeffrey Detwiler in the lobby of Long & Foster's headquarters in Chantilly, Va.
Robert Devaney
Jeffrey Detwiler in the lobby of Long & Foster's headquarters in Chantilly, Va.

From his Chantilly, Va., office near Route 28 and Dulles Airport, Jeffrey S. Detwiler, president and chief operating officer of the Long & Foster Companies, sees the dynamism and traffic of Northern Virginia. Here, he keeps tabs on the company's wide-ranging real estate activities and checks updates on his iPad as he speaks confidently about the national and local real estate market and a company that has become a real estate icon.

"The epicenter of housing recovery is Washington, D.C.," Detwiler says. Centered here, Long & Foster operates offices from Pennsylvania and New Jersey down through North Carolina and tracks the trends, such as seeing Richmond nine months behind the Washington area.

"The Mid-Atlantic region is the best performing region in the nation," he says. "The real estate market is so local, and Long & and Foster is the best place to be during tough times." One thing is for sure: Other corporate real estate giants have come and gone and have tried to buy the company, co-founded by chairman and CEO P. Wesley Foster, Jr., in 1968. Indeed, the legendary Foster is the one who has bought other firms adding to his army of 12,000 sales associates with 170 sales offices.

In a competitive field during an economic downtown, Detwiler says he knows that agents need any extra edge they can get. We are in "a never-before-seen real estate market," says the 50-year-old president. "It is harder today than ever before. From the agent to seller, we have to be 24/7 business-ready. We have an e-real estate team to help." And he is well aware that the "next generation is using social media to find agents, too."

"The years 2003 through 2007 were an anomaly," he says. "There was a mortgage bubble." The additional agents who jumped into the market are gone now. As for the housing economy, he says, "The banks are scared to death and don't want to make mistakes. Appraisers are scared, too, and people are scared to buy. Consumer confidence affects sales."

Detwiler lists four fundamental issues affecting housing: overly tight credit; negative equity; consumer debt, especially sub prime loans; distressed assets. "They complicate the system," he calmly says. "The government can do more. So many loans are dinged up. In January 2010, we began to adjust to the new world. . . . It will return to normal in 2015 or 2016."

Nevertheless, "spring has been a great selling season," relative to business last year, Detwiler says. In Georgetown, specifically, number of units sold is up 24 percent over last spring. Median sale price is down roughly 15 percent year-over-year, but inventory continues to tighten, which leads to a more balanced real estate market, and sellers in Georgetown are receiving about 95 percent of their list price when they sell, on average.   Long & Foster made the biggest neighborhood and D.C. sale of 2011 with Evermay, the estate on 28th Street, going for $22 million. Right now, it is listing a 31st Street historic home, across from Tudor Place, for $6.75 million. Over near Massachusetts Avenue, it has two listings within four blocks of each other: one on Benton Place for $12 million and another on Whitehaven Street for $6.95 million. A different company holds the highest-price listing in D.C.: a Chain Bridge Road property across from Battery Kimble Park for $16 million.

Luxury home listings and million-dollar-plus homes have become a greater part of Long & Foster's strategy; it already has almost 30 percent of all the million-plus sales in the Mid-Atlantic region. Aware that local sales can go global, its Extraordinary Properties group includes exclusive affiliations with Christie's International Real Estate, Luxury Real Estate and Luxury Portfolio International. More worldwide connections mean more sales.

For these efforts as well as for Long & Foster's mortgage and insurance entities, Detwiler has at least 25 years of finance and real estate-related experience to draw upon. "My previous businesses share the same model," he says.

In fact, when Detwiler arrived at Long & Foster in 2009, the charming, down-to-earth, yet tenacious co-founder Wes Foster appeared incredulous. "At first, Wes could not fathom a non-real estate guy running the show," he says. "What I brought to the table was a different view. The company is at a different point in its life: it has more structure and financial discipline."

A Princeton graduate, who majored in psychology, Detwiler brought 20 years of experience in the mortgage industry along with his other work in traditional banking, insurance and portfolio management. "Detwiler has benefited from having direct responsibility as the senior executive for all facets of the mortgage business that included sales and production, capital markets and trading, finance and risk management, operations and technology, and servicing," Foster announced at the time.

According to Long & Foster, "Detwiler was the chief production officer for the Correspondent Channel at Countrywide/Bank of America. The Correspondent Channel included correspondent lending, warehouse lending and Landsafe origination services. In this role he was accountable for all revenue-producing activities. Prior to Countrywide, Detwiler worked on Wall Street for Credit Suisse First Boston in the mortgage trading and finance group. While at CSFB, he built and managed the warehouse lending business, and reengineered and oversaw the servicing operation. In addition, he designed, built and managed the mortgage conduit. Before Detwiler moved to Wall Street, he spent ten years at GMAC/RFC and was the chairman of the Conduit Operating Committee."

For a firm which began in a single, 600-square-foot office in Fairfax, Va., and became the largest privately-owned real estate company in America, Detwiler looks like part of its continual plan for more firepower. Long & Foster has that developing foresight and zeal -- and well-regarded, connected executives. Detwiler's predecessor was David Stevens who left Long & Foster to become head of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and is now president of the Mortgage Bankers of America.

Long & Foster's headquarters in Chantilly opened five years ago just as the housing bubble burst. It is a massive Williamsburg-style office building, built with handmade, rough-hewn bricks and filled with art, sculptures along with murals depicting a developing Washington in the mid-1800s. There are other tenants in the five-story structure with adjacent land available for new construction in a healthier economy.

In 2011, Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc., sold more than $22 billion worth of homes and helped more than 69,000 people buy and sell homes.  The combined sales and equivalents for the Long & Foster Companies in 2011 were in excess of $42 billion.

After Detwiler came from California to head the parent company -- it includes Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc., Prosperity Mortgage Company, Walker Jackson Mortgage Corporation, Long & Foster Settlement Services, and Long & Foster Insurance Agency, Inc. -- one corporate trait stuck him. "It was eye-opening to me," he says. "People have been here 20 to 25 years. It makes a big company seem small."

Such staying power is owed in no small part to Wes Foster himself, now in his late 70s, and known for his honest, personal touch as well as hard-driving spirit. And you can bet that Detwiler with his ready smile and business acumen has a similar competitive glint in his eyes. Just what Foster ordered.

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Sun, 23 Nov 2014 09:32:57 -0500

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