What’s now the largest real estate broker in Illinois and the oldest in the nation has certainly grown with its hometown. The values of its founders still ring true today, through five generations of family ownership.
Baird & Warner, the largest independent real estate broker in Illinois, and the oldest in the country, marks its 160th birthday this March. The brokerage, owned by five generations of Bairds, runs 26 offices throughout Chicago and has such close ties to the city that on Jan. 31, 2005, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley officially declared March 28 as Baird & Warner Day, actually renaming part of LaSalle Boulevard to Honorary Baird & Warner Way.
“The history of Chicago is the history of Baird & Warner,” says Don Prigge, a sales manager and managing broker at Baird & Warner’s Crystal Lake and Carpentersville offices.
To understand just how much of an impact Baird & Warner has had on the city, one must travel back to the brokerage’s beginnings.
The firm was founded in 1855 by Lucius Olmsted, who moved to Chicago from the East Coast. The first recorded transaction his firm made was for $5,000 on a loan to Edward Casey & Brothers, taking security mortgages on property along Washington Street in downtown Chicago.
Olmsted soon joined up with Lyman Baird, also from the East Coast. When Olmsted died in 1862, Francis Bradley joined Baird as firm partner. The firm was then named Baird & Bradley. The two men were said to have worked with East Coast investors to bring millions of dollars to the growing city. One of their projects led to the purchase of land for Union Station.
The firm quickly expanded, and soon proved vitally important to Chicago, in the wake of the Great Fire.
Baird & Bradley was located at 90 LaSalle St., when the Great Fire destroyed Chicago and devoured public property records.
But the Baird family’s ledgers survived, having been tucked safely away in a fireproof safe, in what remained of the Baird & Bradley office. The ledgers helped Chicago officials to verify property ownership throughout the city. Baird and Bradley then began to work with out-of-state investors to bring in money to assist with the rebuilding of Chicago.
In 1893, Lyman Baird’s son, Wyllys, and son-in-law, George L. Warner, were named heads of the company. The firm was then dubbed Baird & Warner, and was active in many developmental and, eventually, residential projects throughout the city. The company passed into the hands of two more Bairds before Stephen, the fifth generation of leadership, took over in 1991. He still serves as president and CEO.
The Baird & Warner firm has received a number of awards, and was named as a Top Workplace by the Chicago Tribune. The company also is on the Real Trends top 500 Power Brokers list, and is the only Illinois firm to make Top 25. Four years in a row, Chicago Agent Magazine also has recognized Baird & Warner for having the best brokerage website. Nationally, Baird & Warner ranks No. 15 in sales and No. 11 in transactions.
“We chart our own course,” Prigge says, reflecting on the company’s success. He references a quote on the company website. “Throughout our long history, Baird & Warner has continually reinvented itself in response to the changing demands of the real estate industry. This evolution has but one goal in mind: to serve our clients in the best way possible.”
Prigge knows a thing or two about the real estate industry and what it takes to roll with the changes. He’s been involved in the real estate business for nearly 40 years, working with Baird & Warner since July 2002.
Prigge started his career with a utility company, but became a real estate agent by happy accident.
“I was really bad at being a lineman for Commonwealth Edison,” he says. “I fell off a couple of poles and fell into real estate.”
Prigge bought his first home at age 21, while still working for ComEd. Unhappy with his job as a lineman, he pursued his interest of buying up additional houses and, eventually, found his way into the world of real estate.
“Falling off that pole sealed the deal,” he says with a chuckle.
Prigge worked in real estate sales for two years and then went on to management, working with smaller “ma and pa” offices as well as Coldwell Banker. He then joined Baird & Warner, where he now coaches agents on how to increase business and improve their business plans. There are 55 agents at the Crystal Lake office and 19 in the Carpentersville office. Both locations boast high success rates, due in part to intensive training sessions, which Prigge says happen three or four days a week. Prigge also attributes the firm’s success to its many professional staff members.
“My people in both offices work together as a team,” Prigge says. “In an industry where people are often lone wolves, we really have people who will stop in a heartbeat to help each other out. My job as their leader is to make them do their jobs the best they can, and supply them with the tools and technology that make their jobs easier. We also have an IT and marketing department on steroids, and are constantly giving our people tools to make all of our jobs easier.”
Prigge also attributes much of the company’s success, of course, to the Baird family and its current patriarch.
“He is the best of the best,” says Prigge. “He knows everything about real estate, and he cares about people.”
Prigge adds that the company is progressive and sticks to moral and ethical codes.
“Selling or buying a house is going to be one of the biggest events, financially, that our client will ever experience,” he says. “If handled by a professional with care, it should not be a stressful situation. It should be a fun event. Our job is to take the stress off sellers, to take that stress away from the clients so they can go on with their lives. What we are trying to create here is a raving fan base. We want people to brag about the service they got from us.”
Prigge shares a quote from Wyllys Baird: “Goodwill is something we can’t buy in the open market. It has to be earned, and nothing will acquire it quite so rapidly as courtesy, cheerfulness and respect.”
He pauses, and reflects on the words. “We follow that motto today. We kind of live by it.”
One of the biggest challenges Prigge has faced, working at Baird & Warner, has been helping the public to recognize that the market is again good for buying and selling properties, and is performing much better than it has in recent years. Prigge says the average person isn’t aware of market improvements, and buyers are getting record-low interest rates.
“Our company left the chaos of the recession behind in 2011,” he says. “We’ve started to feel a turnaround and an increase in sales, listings and personnel – exponentially – since then.”
According to company records, 2013 was the best year in the firm’s history, with 2014 equaling it. The coming year is predicted to be another highly successful year.
“Real estate is a local and regional business,” says Prigge. “The issues affecting values can vary dramatically from area to area. With a long history of independence and a concentration on the Chicagoland area, with 26 local offices, Baird & Warner is best suited to respond to market changes. I know what our industry did in 1855 is dramatically different than what we are doing now. What the real estate industry did five years ago does not look, at all, like it does now. What we will be doing five years from now will look different than today. One thing my customers and I know is, through all the continual changes, Baird & Warner Real Estate Services will keep its independence and will be here leading the way, changing with the times and providing world-class services.”