Days after Hurricane Maria descended upon Puerto Rico last fall, Orbe Soto sat in his San Juan office in the dark across from a new recruit. The power was out, clean water was scarce, and the storm – the strongest to hit the U.S. territory in 89 years – had toppled cellphone towers.
But business went on. The new agent, Zuleika Rodriguez, put pen to paper, joining the swiftly growing Keller Williams family. Rodriguez was one of 30 new agents that Soto, Puerto Rico’s regional operating principal, and Sylvia Purcell, regional director, brought on board in the four months following the Sept. 20 hurricane. The duo grew their team – a newer addition to the Keller Williams Worldwide family – to over 100 agents and seized market share, making Keller Williams the number one real estate company in Puerto Rico.
Rising to Number One
The territory is part of Keller Williams’ ongoing international expansion. Last year, the company built on its momentum, adding nine new regions, ending the year with 29 total outside of the United States and Canada, and with 6,006 international agents – a rise of 63 percent from the year prior.
Soto joined Keller Williams after having served as owner and president of the Puerto Rico-based Grand Homes Real Estate since 2000.
“Anybody would tell you that business and growth are supposed to go down when something like this happens,” says Soto. “But we were determined to become the largest real estate company in Puerto Rico by the end of the year, and we did it.”
December turned out to be one of the best sales months yet for the franchise, which opened seven months before the storm, as agents worked diligently to help clients buy and sell properties in the wake of the destruction. Sales in December increased by around 30 percent compared to the average monthly sales volume in 2017, said Orbe.
Despite the uptick in sales, Maria’s toll remained significant. The Category 4 hurricane ripped off roofs, destroyed homes and farms, and claimed dozens of lives. It came just weeks after Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, skirted the island – leaving millions without power.
“It was very tough,” Soto says. “We had no electricity and no water, but you still had a business to run. Instead of laying down and feeling sorry for what happened, we had to keep going. You have to move forward, and you have to be positive.”
Soto and his team fully embraced the country’s rallying and inspirational message, “Puerto Rico se levanta,” or “Puerto Rico rise up.”
Rising from the Storm
After the storm, Soto and Purcell’s priority was to check in on agents and their families to make sure they were safe, and to support them in whatever ways they could. Luckily, the local market center emerged from the hurricane unscathed, but it remained without power for two months. Most agents and their families suffered only minimal damage to their homes. Soto and Purcell had been communicating with KW Cares – a public charity created and financially supported by KW associates, for KW associates – before the storm hit to formulate a relief plan. Their proactive approach paid off. After Maria hit, KW Cares was able to respond immediately – donating 50 generators, food, clean drinking water, and first aid supplies.
“KW Cares stepped up,” Soto says. “Our agents could not have done what they did without electricity or drinking water. We were solving problems and helping people.”
In addition to tangible resources, KW Cares also sent emergency money to local agents to help them cover expenses over the next several months of recovery and the immediate family members of agents in the U.S. who were living in Puerto Rico. That gesture provided peace of mind, Purcell says. “The moral support was amazing,” she adds. “Knowing our Keller Williams family was there to take care of us. That was very reassuring.”
With those resources, agents were able to help clients whose homes had been destroyed buy a new one, and bring on sellers who had previously attempted to sell their property on their own with no success. “In this type of disaster, people start to understand that they need an agent,” Soto says. Agents explained to sellers how KW’s vast, global network and reach would help them sell their homes faster and more efficiently.
When it came to showings, Soto’s team had to get creative. Without power, they tried to schedule open houses and showings during the brightest time of the day. Gas was also in short supply – community members waited in 10-hour lines to fuel up – and roads were still blocked with downed trees and fallen power lines. Agent Carlos Molina hopped on his bicycle to meet clients at properties they wanted to see.
“Our agents were as passionate as we were,” Soto said. “They said, ‘let’s do what we have to do.’”
Hurricane Maria arrived against the backdrop of an ongoing recession in Puerto Rico, which has been marked by a high inventory of homes and a slew of foreclosures. It’s a buyer’s market, said Soto, noting that 15 to 20 percent of clients are investors from abroad buying prime properties at a steep discount. Other clients have included locals who after the storm decided to move to the mainland and needed to sell their home.
Puerto Rico Agents Pay It Forward
While agents were helping clients with their properties, they also paid it forward, simultaneously giving back to the community and helping those in need. With the help of KW Cares, the Puerto Rico franchise gathered crucial supplies – food, water and generators – and delivered them to some of the country’s most remote, hardest-hit areas. In December, the team collected Christmas toys for children impacted by the storm.
“Everybody on the team rose up and said, ‘How can I help?’” says Soto. “They became leaders.” “In Puerto Rico, and at Keller Williams, that’s what the culture is like,” says Purcell. “We will help each other no matter what.”
Bill Soteroff, president of KW Worldwide, called the franchise a prime example of how Keller Williams thrives in even the most difficult circumstances, citing the firm’s dedication to supporting its agents and local communities. Soto and Purcell “have become icons to us,” Soteroff says, “and the leaders we hoped they would be.”
Six months after Maria, nearly 200,000 families and businesses on the island remained without power. Others with power were rebuilding and reestablishing routines.
Keller Williams has been a crucial part of that recovery. “It’s emotional to see a country that has gone through so much join together,” Soto says. Recovery will take time, but “people are positive.”
Soto, Purcell and their team have received a number of referrals from families they worked with just after the storm … and their business continues to grow.
“It’s all about helping your clients and giving them a great service,” Soto says. “You’re part of a family every time you do a closing.”
Purcell is proud of the impact their agents are making on the community, especially after a disaster that brought so much destruction and heartache to the island. “You’re making people’s dream a reality,” she says.