Wes Foster goes from luncheon table to luncheon table, slapping a back here, placing an affectionate hand on a shoulder there.
His crinkly blue eyes meet each gaze. His laugh is easy, and starts a cascade of kindly wrinkles across his ruddy cheeks. I care about you, his manner says to the two dozen or so real estate agents he has invited to lunch at the Kenwood Country Club in Bethesda. You're important to me.
Lunch is on Wes -- formally, P. Wesley Foster Jr., chief executive of Long & Foster Cos., but known to the thousands of people who work with his company as just Wes. These regular gatherings are a way for him to keep up with his top producing agents, the people who have been key to making his company both the region's largest real estate brokerage and the nation's largest such privately held firm.
One agent, new to the company, complains about the number of meetings she has had to attend. "I couldn't agree with you more," says Foster sympathetically, peering over his glasses. "Every time I want someone at headquarters, they're in a God------ meeting," he says, breaking into a full Santa Claus-like laugh.
Foster, 70, is the consummate nice guy. And he works hard at keeping his agents happy, using his own brand of grandfatherly love. Even though he is a seriously wealthy man, Foster's image is that of the guy next door, the kindly neighbor who would do anything to help you.
"People like Wes a lot," said Henry Long, Foster's former business partner, when asked what single trait had made Foster successful. "He's a good Georgia boy. People trust him."
His down-home style seems to be working. Last year, Fairfax-based Long & Foster Real Estate was involved in the sale of 109,990 pieces of property worth $29.7 billion in seven states and the District. Long & Foster Cos. also has mortgage, insurance and title companies under its brand. It ranked as the 13th largest privately held company in the Washington region last year, according to a Washington Post survey, with revenue of $810 million.
And this year looks better yet. As of the end of October, the value of real estate sales was up 30 percent over the same period a year before, according to the company. And company officials predict they will have been involved in sales of $39 billion worth of property during the year. In 2004, Long & Foster also bought two brokerages in Roanoke, bringing the total number of company offices to 212, part of a steady expansion that began soon after the company was founded in 1968 by Wes Foster and Henry Long.
Behind Foster's kindly demeanor is a shrewd and fiercely competitive businessman, always on the lookout to expand his company by acquiring smaller brokerages or attracting new agents and managers. This week, Foster was named to the Washington Business Hall of Fame.
"Wes is a relentless competitor," said Wayne Wyvill, president of Re/Max 100, a franchise with nine offices and 450 agents in Maryland and Virginia. "He plays to win, and he wants to win at all costs."
The main asset that real estate brokerages battle over is people, both agents and managers. And Foster puts up a good fight.
If he senses turmoil at a competing brokerage or gets word that the manager or agents there aren't happy, he starts wooing.
"He took me to breakfast two or three times at a family place in McLean," said Nancy L. Itteilag, a Long & Foster agent in whom Foster became interested when she worked at competitor Pardoe ERA. "We had scrambled eggs. He was very genuine. And easy to talk to. And he stayed in touch. He has a wonderful way of staying in touch without pressuring."
Said Long & Foster President Brenda Shipplett, the company's second in command: "There's nothing that Wes loves more than recruiting a good agent or a good manager. He lives for that."
When Itteilag finally decided to join Long & Foster, Foster made a big deal out of it.
"There was a huge picture of me in three or four different papers with a big announcement saying I had moved to Long & Foster," Itteilag said. "And Wes sent me flowers and called me. They didn't even tell me they were doing the media spread. It was so lovely and so elegantly done."
Once he gets the agents and managers, Foster makes a point of being really nice to them. Any of the company's 14,000 agents is encouraged to pick up the phone and call him with any problems. He answers his own phone. He gets back to people the same day. Issues brought up at one of the regular luncheons are looked into promptly.
But staying competitive requires more than just being nice. Long & Foster has what are generally regarded as good support services for agents, such as technology support and training. Foster also has had to match commission splits offered to agents at other brokerages. Rival Re/Max, he says, has made the brokerage business tougher by allowing agents to keep their entire commission and just pay a fee to use the brokerage offices. For several months in 1998 and 1999, Foster increased the commission his company charges to 7 percent from the regional standard of 6 percent, but no competitors followed and he dropped the rate back.
But Foster tries to offer more than just a commission split.
Once a year, he hosts a retreat for all agents who have sold more than $5 million in the past year. Once there, he is often the star of the show.
This year, the agents' retreat was four nights in Bermuda. At the dress-up night, dubbed "spy night," Foster and his wife Betty, 70, came in bathrobes and flip-flops with towels wrapped around their heads, saying they had made a mistake and thought it was "spa" night.
"It was adorable," said Long & Foster agent Carol Greco, who attends the retreat every year. "They were as cute as they could be."
Toby Rhodes, former owner of competitor Coldwell Banker Realty Pros brokerage, said Foster's attraction for agents is that "he offers all that warm and fuzzy stuff. He's got the country accent going. 'Just come on over and I'll take care of you,' he's saying. That works."
It's that protective attitude toward his agents that has helped keep the company ahead of the competition, said Steve Murray, editor of Real Trends, a real estate industry newsletter.
"The one thing Long & Foster has been able to do consistently better than anybody in the D.C. marketplace is attract and retain good agents," Murray said. "That's why Long & Foster is strong and getting stronger. That's the key to the real estate business."
Foster wasn't born to become a wealthy businessman. His father worked in a Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouse for years, then ran a produce stand. Wes, the oldest of four boys, was born at home in McDonough, Ga., in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Foster's mother suffered from crippling depression and migraines. When Wes was 12, Sarah Francis Foster had a nervous breakdown.
"She was crying all the time" Foster said. "That's when things started for me. I got depressed, too."
Since then, Foster has suffered blinding migraines. He has also battled depression and anxiety. He says it's a genetic disorder that runs in his mother's family -- his grandmother, his mother, him, his younger brother and his daughter all have suffered.
Sometimes, the headaches have been so severe that he has had to shut himself in a dark room for several days when they struck; aides have canceled business meetings at the last minute; trips have been ruined over the years.
"The pain would be so bad, I'd want to bang my head on the wall until it was over," said Foster. He said he took enough aspirin as a young man to "float a ship."
A few years ago, Foster started taking an anti-depressant as well as an anti-epilepsy drug and the migraine drug Imitrex. He also lies down twice a day in his office or at home for half an hour, face down with a wet towel around his neck, to head off any developing headache.
"Things are better," Foster said. "But migraines will always be a part of my life."
Despite economic and health problems when he was growing up, Foster said, there was always "a lot of love in my family."
Foster says that from an early age, he knew he "wanted to be somebody. I wanted to go to college. Even though we didn't have anything, I had uncles who were successful. And that's what I wanted."
Foster left home in 1951 and attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., where he played football on a partial scholarship for four years. He still wears his VMI class ring, sees a group of his "brother rats" from his freshman class every year, and says that he is particularly indebted to the institution. He graduated in 1956 with a degree in English. He then joined the Army, serving as an artillery officer in Germany until 1959.
"VMI had a big influence on Wes," said Marshall Mundy, a VMI "brother rat." "He attributes a lot of his success to the training and values that he received at VMI. And he's been very generous to VMI since."
In addition to his partial football scholarship, Foster put himself through college with a job waiting tables at the mess hall, and with a scholarship awarded by an alumnus from Atlanta.
Foster's wife Betty says the two most important influences on her husband were the "complete, unconditional love he got from his parents" and the "honor and integrity and honesty he learned at VMI."
Mundy said he recognized leadership qualities in Foster when they were in college. "If he had made the military a career, he'd be a four-star general now," said Mundy, a lawyer in Roanoke.
After college and his tour of duty in Germany, Foster returned to the United States and started working for Kaiser Aluminum, selling aluminum to developers. The company moved him to Washington, where he launched his real estate career.
He also met his wife-to-be Betty in Washington, on a double date in 1962 at a Dupont Circle bar called the Junkanoo. Wes was with a French stewardess; his college roommate brought Betty, a striking artist then studying at George Washington University.
"For me, it was love at first sight," he said.
Betty, too, was struck by the Southerner who spoke glowingly about his meager childhood. "I was amazed at Wes having so little and still having so much," she said. "He learned to be positive early on."
When the couple wed a year after they met, they say now, they didn't really know each other.
"I thought I was marrying a good ol' Southern boy," said Betty Foster. "I didn't realize I was getting an incredibly successful businessman."
Wes Foster said he thought he was marrying "a debutante," a woman who had had a privileged New England childhood as part of a family that owned a construction company. "Instead, I got an earth mother."
Betty Foster said the two "have astounded each other."
They have raised three children together, including Betty's son Rod from her first marriage. The Long & Foster Cos. are now owned by the couple and their three children. Son Paul Wesley Foster III and son-in-law Terry Spahr work for the company. There are four grandsons.
Foster worked as a sales manager for a builder in Fairfax and at local real estate brokerage Nelson Realty before teaming up with Henry Long to start Long & Foster. (Long's name got to go first after the two men flipped a coin.)
In 1979, Merrill Lynch offered to buy Long & Foster. At that point, Foster bought out Long, who then formed a land development company. The two have remained friends. Foster bought the Long name when he bought out his partner.
Long & Foster has grown steadily, acquiring smaller brokerages and opening offices under an "umbrella" concept of expanding by opening offices near existing offices. The company has seen both good times and bad.
Foster said that in 1974, after the OPEC oil embargo, the company went through one of the "largest down-cycles we ever had . . . when they cut off the oil and they scared the heck out of people and they quit buying houses."
He said, however, that Long & Foster has never had a money-losing year. "When times are tough, we cut spending to the bone," he said.
Company President Shipplett said that 1990 and 1991, the area's last housing slump, was "not fun." She said Long & Foster cut headquarters staff by a third during that period. However, the company tried not to change anything that affected agents.
For a man whose agents have sold the area's most opulent homes, Wes and Betty Foster chose for themselves an unpretentious house, albeit in an exclusive setting.
The couple lives in a quaint yellow clapboard house overlooking the Potomac River in McLean. They had it built in 1977 to resemble a Virginia farmhouse. They could certainly afford a grander home.
The house, with its orange metal roof, is situated down a wooded winding lane and surrounded by big beech and oak trees. It looks out over the river from the top of a hill. The couple cut down a big swath of trees near the river so they could see the water from their porches and many windows.
Betty Foster's sculptures adorn the yard and the home. They've also built an eclectic art collection on trips to such places as Peru, Mexico, France and India.
Foster is a voracious reader and history buff. Evenings and weekends are spent in his favorite rose-colored chaise longue in the family room, reading or watching football on television.
In the summer, the couple head to their longtime summer home in Stony Creek, Conn., where they entertain friends and family or take the Boston Whaler out for a spin on Long Island Sound. This winter, they plan a month-long trip to London.
The big question on the mind of people in the local real estate business, though, is what will happen to Long & Foster without its formidable founder.
Foster says the company won't be sold as long as he's alive. He has already put in place his hand-picked management team. Shipplett, promoted to president last year, says that Foster already delegates to his top managers. "We're used to doing a good bit on our own," she said. "That's a very smart way to run a company, to empower people so they have confidence in themselves."
The family's next generation is not yet part of top management. Foster's son Paul, 40, is a vice president who runs a region of Northern Virginia and West Virginia. And Foster's son-in-law Terry Spahr, 38, is a branch manager in Philadelphia.
Foster said when he stepped down from the presidency last year that both men needed more grooming before either was ready to assume a top role at the company. Local real estate watchers question whether either of the two will ever be able to step into Foster's big shoes.
"There's a great cloud over this company at the moment, that is what happens when he's not here," said Murray of Real Trends. "He's got a strong company and a strong management team who's worked together for years. But it's his spirit, his involvement. If you lose a visionary, a driven, intuitive leader like him, you're not going to be the same company. It'll be a different place without him."