Tom Atwood

Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign

Third generation Mankato Realtor carries on family real estate legacy

Photos by Kris Kathmann

“Atwood” likely is the most “seen” surname in all southern Minnesota.

In fact, so many Century 21 Atwood Realty signs have bedecked our region’s lawns over the years that at times the signposts have looked like corn. They grow tall, align in neat rows and have hanging fruit: SOLD.

In 2003, the company was involved in sales of $78 million, accounting for an eye-arresting 25 percent of the Greater Mankato total. Its closest competitor (Re/Max) had 15 percent.

Three Atwood generations have been sold on southern Minnesota. First-generation Frederick Atwood began selling farmland in 1934 as Atwood Land Co. Presently, that company run by grandson Tom manages one-tenth of Mankato’s available rental units, which means the Atwood name is on 16 apartment complexes, too. Frederick also started Atwood Investment Co. Then his son, Charles, cofounded a residential real estate firm in 1965 that morphed into Century 21 Atwood Realty.

The surname is high-profile, yes. As for 45-year-old Tom—no. Today, he is responsible for the family legacy, owning 50 percent of Century 21 Atwood Realty and managing Century 21 Atwood Realty, Atwood Land Co. and Atwood Investment Co. For a man whose family name gets planted on most cul de sacs, gravel roads, tree-lined avenues around Greater Mankato, he has done remarkably well not having his face recognized.

Until now.

CONNECT: What was your grandfather like?

ATWOOD: My grandfather Frederick Atwood moved from St. Cloud in 1934 and started the Atwood Land Company, which was involved with farm sales and management. In 1949, he started a mortgage company. He died in 1968, at 65, when I was 10.

To me as a boy, he was very big physically. He had played football for the Univ. of Minnesota and been involved there in something called “plunging.” It was a collegiate competition in which people would dive into a pool and see how far they could go underwater with one breath. And he won at least one gold medal.

1934 was also the year my father, Charles Atwood, was born. He started in the family business in 1954 and began selling homes. VA loans were very popular then, and he started developments with builders. Back then, people could get into homes for literally nothing. I remember seeing some of my dad’s old advertising, where down payments were only $500 and buyers could paint their homes to earn the $500. The homes were priced between $13,000 and $15,600.

Again, my dad started in the business at 20. Originally, he was going to enroll in a photography school, but there was a six-week wait before getting in. To do something those six weeks he sold homes for my grandfather. And he fell in love with it. But he never lost his love for photography. After every vacation, he brings trays and trays of photos for us to see. He’s in the digital era now with a digital camera. He lives in Florida or Wisconsin most of the year, and visits Mankato in between.

CONNECT: What did your father do to prepare you?

ATWOOD: I remember when our office was at 209 South Broad Street, a block behind our office today. (Now at 209 South Second.) I would go down as a little boy with my father to it on Saturday mornings. We’d also go out together to look at properties and developments. Probably just to get me out of his hair, he told me to walk around the homes to pick up nails left by builders. I was allowed to keep the nails, and would go home to pound them into boards. That piqued my interest in building. My summer job for three years in high school was a carpentry job with Earl Kjos and his construction crew. He and my dad worked together. Earl and Willy Thielges had their offices directly behind our 209 South Broad real estate office. One of Willy’s grandsons is an agent here, and Willy and his wife are my godparents.

CONNECT: When did you realize you enjoyed selling real estate?

ATWOOD: I grew up with it. I also grew up with construction. It was what I knew. I graduated from Mankato West in 1976, went to Gustavus Adolphus a while, and then my dad decided he wanted to sail a boat to the Virgin Islands. He asked if I wanted to go along. I couldn’t turn him down. We sailed up the U.S. coast, and out to St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands, where he kept his boat a number of years. My father has always loved the water and boating, which is one reason why he lives in Florida.

One time he even took a boat in trade as a down payment on a house.

CONNECT: How long has he lived more than half the year in Florida?

ATWOOD: About 15 years, and he’s 69 now.

CONNECT: And he owns the company?

ATWOOD: There are several companies. First, there is Atwood Land Company. When my father became involved selling homes, he started Atwood Realty. George Smith and my father were partners many years beginning in 1965. In 1977, they bought the Century 21 franchise in Mankato, which became Century 21 Atwood-Smith Realty. In 1981, my father bought out George, and three years later I received my brokerage license. I’m an equal partner in Century 21 Atwood Realty, and also manage Atwood Land Company, which primarily involves property management of apartment buildings.

CONNECT: Did you have long discussions with him in the 1970s about one day running the business?

ATWOOD: No, not really. Running the business was just something I worked my way into. I had to work my way up. When someone would quit, I’d sometimes inherit a position. Other times, I’d learn by taking over a position temporarily until we found someone else for the spot. My father did shove me a bit into earning my real estate license. So I took the classes, and earned my license. Over time I became more involved in taking property management schooling—I’m a Certified Property Manager.

CONNECT: Looking at newspaper ads, often there are letters after a Realtor’s name, such as GRI or CRS. What do those designations mean? and what must a Realtor do to earn the designation?

ATWOOD: First, to become a basic real estate agent, three 30-hour courses are required. After the first course, agents typically take a license exam through the State of Minnesota. But before they become licensed, they have to take the second and third courses. Once they have all that accomplished, they can interview with brokers. In most cases, agents are independent contractors. They are not employees.

CONNECT: So your agents don’t work for you?

ATWOOD: Right. They handle their own taxes, healthcare, benefits. They are strictly on commission. Once hiring a new agent, we send them back to school. Through Century 21, we offer new agents a nine-week training program in addition to what the state requires. In our school, we want to make sure that everyone is doing their job correctly, helping them become more successful by giving them the necessary tools.

CONNECT: How does someone become a Realtor?

ATWOOD: A Realtor is someone who pays membership dues to the Realtor organization. There are national, state, and regional associations, and they are all interrelated. You can’t join one association without joining the others. Dues are about $400 a year. If a brokerage is a Realtor, by mandate all its agents must be Realtors. By being a Realtor, an agent has more tools, such as educational opportunities. The state Realtor association’s legal staff has prepared the forms we Realtors use.

CONNECT: What about GRI?

ATWOOD: That means a Realtor is a graduate of the Realtor’s institute. That’s the next step; the first designation a Realtor typically works for. The training to earn that designation covers taxation, investments, and other issues. Through the Realtor’s association there is also a CRS designation, certified residential specialist, which is the next step beyond GRI. That requires even more classes and training, and additional dues. For a broker the next step is CRB, certified residential broker. I also hold the CPM designation, for certified property manager.

CONNECT: I’ve seen these designations. What good are they if only a handful of people know what they mean?

ATWOOD: Most people don’t have a clue what they mean. Anytime you see that designation, if anything, just take it to mean that an agent has gone the extra mile to learn more about his or her profession. The agents without these designations haven’t furthered their education and career. Of course, every agent must take 15 hours a year of education to maintain their real estate license.

CONNECT: Has anyone you’ve known lost their license because of ethical problems?

ATWOOD: Not that I know of. Brokers tend to police themselves through the Realtor associations. As for Century 21 Atwood Realty, my reputation is on the line because my name is on the sign. The various Realtor organizations look out for each other. We have a code of ethics that we all follow and agree on.

CONNECT: Have you fired an agent?

ATWOOD: Technically, we can’t fire agents because they aren’t employees. We simply disassociate ourselves. We’ve never had an agent that has committed a single, huge ethical infraction. Rather, a “disassociation” would more likely involve several smaller infractions, in which their pattern of work wasn’t up to our standards.

I meet with all my agents at a weekly sales meeting, and with each of them one-on-one quarterly. If there is a problem with any agent, we discuss it during a one-on-one meeting.

CONNECT: How has the Realtor’s role in the home ownership process changed the last ten years?

ATWOOD: ‘Designated agency’ has become a big issue. Typically, in the past, real estate agents were hired to represent the seller in selling. Buyers were treated and referred to as “customers.” Ten years ago or more, buyers didn’t have any representation. Now there are buyer, seller, and dual representation relationships. One of the first things any agent needs to do when first meeting a customer is to explain agency issues. Especially for a buyer, this needs to be done right away.

Problems can arise if the buyer tells the selling agent what they would like to offer, for instance. Once the selling agent knows that information, it’s too late. The agent, as the seller’s representative, has to tell the seller.

CONNECT: I hear so much about a shortage of affordable housing. How do you define affordable?

ATWOOD: (Laughter.) That all goes back to supply and demand. Housing prices have risen dramatically the last few years. And yet young couples with their first jobs are buying new homes without any money down. I don’t know where to draw the line. What is affordable? Who are we trying to make it affordable for?

CONNECT: The number of homes and apartments in Mankato has increased significantly the last few years. Yet its population doesn’t seem to be growing at the same rate. What sort of dynamics has this growth in housing created?

ATWOOD: The glut of apartment housing has changed the market. There are more alternatives now to apartments. For instance, retirees moving out of big homes now have the option of moving into townhomes or twinhomes. Also, there are young couples and professionals, like I’ve said, who in the past would have moved into an apartment but now can participate in homebuyer programs with no money down. So those programs have taken away that segment of the potential apartment renter market, too. Low interest rates have made it easier for apartment renters to purchase their own homes.

CONNECT: So if there is a glut of apartments, isn’t that keeping rental prices low?

ATWOOD: Yes. As for apartments, we’ve rolled rents back. There is too much of a selection right now. Year after year, especially with student housing, we always used to be 100 percent occupied, turning people away. Now we have a glut. And we have to be competitive with other apartment rates because potential tenants are shopping around. Now it’s almost to the point where they are asking for our “best price.” In the past, we used to offer our price and that was it. For apartments, it’s a buyer’s market.

CONNECT: With such a glut, why would a developer build a new apartment complex in Mankato? How do they make it cash flow?

ATWOOD: I don’t know if they can. Behind the University, for instance, there is a newer student housing complex. They believe they have built a better “mouse trap,” and are trying to offer more amenities. Some apartments are offering free Internet access, free phone, free TV cable. Some even include heat, water, sewer, electricity, and offer washers and dryers.

CONNECT: There was a riot after an MSU football game last year that began outside an apartment complex near campus. The riot made national news, even popping up on the Drudge Report. Should the landlords of those apartments be held responsible for what happened?

ATWOOD: I know the City would like to hold the landlords responsible, but rather they need to hold the people involved in the riot responsible. Fortunately, none of the apartment complexes we manage were involved, but it was very close. The riot started next door to one of our complexes.

CONNECT: What of the dynamics with new home construction?

ATWOOD: The market has kept up with new construction; we’ve seen nice, steady growth. But the situation could change drastically. Home sales and construction are tied to interest rates and if interest rates rise, that will cool the market quickly.

CONNECT: Agents in Mankato seem to move regularly from one brokerage to another. There is lots of churn. I’m guessing, because of this, that you always have to be in “recruitment mode.” How do you go about recruiting agents?

ATWOOD: The last four I’ve hired have come from other companies. They say they prefer the atmosphere in our office. We have a team spirit. Our agents help each other in pricing properties. It helps when you have 32 different opinions—and that’s the number of agents we have. Some agents might say your property is priced too high; others, too low. At weekly sales meetings, our agents spend about an hour pitching their listings, buyers, and buyers’ preferences. They tour new listings. Everyone works together. In some brokerages, agents work for and by themselves.

CONNECT: Do you seek potential agents or do they seek out you?

ATWOOD: Both. I often receive calls from people thinking of entering real estate, and I then explain the process, such as the required education and licensing examination. I tell them to evaluate how they feel after taking the first required course. If they are comfortable with the profession, then I tell them all our company offers and we see if there is a match with their goals and dreams and ours. I ask them how they feel about our company. I want to know if we mesh.

Sometimes I’ll hear from one of our agents of an agent from another company that stayed on top of details, worked well, and followed through. I might ask our agent to send that one a note saying I’d like to meet with them.

CONNECT: What personal characteristics do you look for in a potential agent?

ATWOOD: I wish I had that magic formula, one where I can look at a person and know immediately they have all the traits for success. Or I wish I could just give them a test. This is a people business, and a great deal of hiring does come down to personality—and there are a lot of different personality types that can succeed in this business.

CONNECT: How many apartment complexes do you own? How many do you manage? And what is your market share?

ATWOOD: Personally, I own one complex. Atwood Land Company has a partner in several, owns others exclusively, and in total manages 16. My father himself owns some of the complexes we manage. We have no ownership interest in a few of the properties we manage.

As for market share, in Mankato it’s easy to track the number of rental units available because the City requires rental licenses. You can just call the City of Mankato to get that information. North Mankato only recently started licensing their rental units, so I don’t know that number. Mankato has 6,544 licensed rental units, and we manage and/or own about 700.

CONNECT: Any other businesses you or your father own?

ATWOOD: Atwood Investment Company began in 1949 writing mortgage loans as an approved FHA and VA lender. It processed and serviced loans for FMHA, Lutheran Mutual and Wells Federal Savings and Loan. I first became involved myself in the ‘80s when first-time homebuyer loans first became popular. After finding out from the Minnesota Finance Housing Agency that we were writing these loans, dozens of people began lining up outside our door. It was a bit overwhelming, and I was handling the business myself. Some of the homes we sell today have mortgages originated through Atwood Investment.

CONNECT: How many employees at Atwood Realty and Atwood Land Company?

ATWOOD: At Atwood Realty, we have only four. Atwood Land Company has eight. And we have 32 agents. Along with my father I’m owner of Century 21 Atwood Realty, and I am an employee of Atwood Land Company.

CONNECT: I’m sure one day you’ll buy into Atwood Land Company. Your father is 69.

ATWOOD: We’ve talked. I also have two sisters. When the time comes, and my father is ready to sell, I’m assuming my sisters won’t want to be involved in the company. So I’ll be buying them out. I think my father will be involved in Atwood Land Company the rest of his life, which, hopefully, will be a long, long time.

CONNECT: Do you have a formula or process for determining rental rates?

ATWOOD: It’s similar to determining prices for homes. You look to see what the competition is doing. You do a market survey and compare amenities. It’s almost like doing a home appraisal. My leasing manager does the market survey, and we’ll then meet to analyze the information for each complex.

CONNECT: What does it take to win a Century 21 franchise? Do you have a protected territory? Can a Century 21 agent from Elysian, Waseca or Fairmont sell in Mankato?

ATWOOD: There are no protected territories. In the ‘70s, Mankato had three Century 21 agencies. Obviously, two of those are no longer around. Having three worked out well for everyone. It gave us all tremendous recognition. If someone saw a Century 21 sign or ad, they just assumed it was all one company. People thought that Century 21 was huge here, and all over.

To the best of my knowledge, the current franchise fee is $25,000 and Century 21 must approve any potential franchisee. And today, potential franchisees are scrutinized. This is different from the ‘70s when the company was actually selling rights to people to sell the franchises. Then, potential franchisees weren’t scrutinized at all. The people doing the selling wanted to sell as many as they could. Now they are selective, and require that we maintain their standards and follow their guidelines. All Century 21 franchises are independently owned and operated. We don’t have to worry about another Century 21 franchise; they will not sell another franchise here because of our market share.

CONNECT: Some residential real estate firms sell commercial real estate. Do you?

ATWOOD: We have sold some investment properties, but primarily we’re residential.

CONNECT: Why not sell more?—besides the fact Curt Fisher’s office is directly above yours.

ATWOOD: Commercial real estate is a whole different ball game. You have different clientele, different marketing. Commercial Realtors tend to deal statewide or even nationwide to sell property. Residential Realtors, like us, are local. The relationships between agent and customer in commercial real estate usually are longer term. In residential real estate, a seller and agent usually go looking for potential buyers. In commercial, you often deal first with a buyer that is looking for something specific, and then you go looking for a seller. With a residential buyer, you can show them 30 different homes in a week. You can’t show a commercial buyer 30 properties.

CONNECT: Curt Fisher’s office literally is directly above yours. You have similar businesses. Have you ever thought of merging? You both manage property and sell real estate.

ATWOOD: Curt and I had discussions several years ago and considered the possibility. But it never came together.

Often you’ll see a company with residential and commercial wings operating separately because they market to different clienteles. Again, residential is marketed locally, and commercial often regionally or nationally.

CONNECT: Personally, you keep a very low community profile, and yet your company is the No. 1 homeseller in the region. What accounts for your success?

ATWOOD: The credit goes to our 32 agents. I have a good balance of agents, from those with more than 25 years of experience to new ones—and we’re continually bringing in new agents because in this business you lose some. Some new agents don’t make it, and other agents retire or move to another company. It’s a team effort here. Again, the agents help each other out.

CONNECT: In the last few years you married one of your agents. Can you ever leave work behind?

ATWOOD: Yes, we are both very busy in our real estate careers. It can be hard to leave work behind. We try to set aside time for ourselves and family. During the day we don’t see each other that much because she’s out working. Typically, you don’t see many agents in the office during the day; they do their paperwork and go back out.

CONNECT: Do you sell homes?

ATWOOD: I don’t because I won’t compete with our agents. If I get referrals, I send them out to our sales manager, who then distributes them to agents.

CONNECT: I’m sure some people think you give your wife all the good properties.

ATWOOD: If anything, our marriage has hurt her in that respect. We go the extra mile just to make sure that we don’t cross that line. Before our marriage, I used to handle all the referrals and distribute them to our agents. To eliminate the potential for internal problems, I turned that function over to our sales manager. Deb was a top-producing agent before we were married and still is today.

CONNECT: I’ve always heard with real estate, “location, location, location.” Yet, as for my knowledge, not one real estate brokerage in Greater Mankato has a high-traffic office location. That applies to your office on South Second. Why not move to Madison Avenue?

ATWOOD: Our location is convenient for employees and agents. We’re in the heart of downtown Mankato and from here you can quickly get anywhere in town. We’ve been in this location since the day it was built in 1976. We have an established location, and people know we are here.

CONNECT: Finally, who will take over when you retire?

ATWOOD: My oldest son Matthew has his real estate license, and attends MSU. My next oldest is in high school. Of my four sons, I hope one carries on the family tradition.

Father Knows Best

My father is a very good, sharp businessman. He’s always been able to see a good business opportunity. For example, in the ‘60s he took risks by buying, subdividing and developing property. He went against my grandparents’ advice: they always used to say that once you get past Victory Drive, no one will want to live that far away. —Tom Atwood

Youth Better Off

As for affordable housing: if young people today can afford to buy homes, and they can, then I think we have plenty of affordable housing. For young people starting off in life this was unheard of 30 years ago. —Tom Atwood

It’s The Law!

The City of Mankato has a number of regulations governing rental units. Here are a few, edited:

• It is illegal for any person controlling any dwelling unit to lease or rent that unit without having a rental license for it.
• The annual license fee for each long-term hotel or rooming house dwelling unit is $11.55, with buildings of more than six units, $5.75 each. The fee for each dwelling unit other than a long-term hotel or rooming house dwelling unit is $18, with buildings of more than six units, $8.90 each. Mobile homes are $18.
• Each rental license holder or agent must maintain an occupant registry for each dwelling unit that contains the unit’s address, number of bedrooms, and current tenants’ names and telephone numbers.
• The City requires rental property training sessions at least once per year for license holders and their agents receiving at least one disturbance notice for a rental unit.
Source: Mankato City Code

Cendant Corp.

As a side issue, the Cendant Corporation, the franchiser for Century 21 nationwide, is also the franchiser for Coldwell Banker and ERA. —Tom Atwood


Minnesota law requires real estate salespersons to discuss “agency” early in any relationship with a consumer. There are five types of agency:

Seller’s Broker: lists the property, and represents and acts on behalf of the seller.

Subagent: represents the seller, and also works with the buyer.

Buyer’s Broker: represents and acts on behalf of the buyer.

Dual Agency: when an agent represents seller and buyer, or when two salespersons licensed to the same broker each represent a party to the transaction.

Facilitator: performs services for a buyer, seller or both but does not represent either in a fiduciary capacity as a Buyer’s Broker, Seller’s Broker or Dual Agent.

Getting To Know You: Tom Atwood

Born: June 25, 1958.

Education: Mankato West High School, 1976. Attended Gustavus Adolphus College.

Children: Matthew, Andrew, Bryan, Michael. Step-children: Jason and Jennifer.

Association memberships: National Association of Realtors; Minnesota Association of Realtors; Realtor Association of Southern Minnesota; Institute of Real Estate Management; Multi-Housing Association.

© 2004 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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