Lewis Tillman had been an executive at Motown Records for 15 years when he decided to return home to North Carolina for a career switch into real estate. Though many told him he’d have to spend years learning the ropes at an agency, Lewis had his own idea. He wanted to start his own agency, and he had a new model that he wanted to implement. Rather than having agents pay a percentage of sale to the agency, he only required a flat fee—no matter how much they sold, or what the price was. This allowed him to attract talented agents to grow his business. To further his financial stability, Lewis wanted to purchase the building he was operating in. But getting a bank loan proved difficult, and he was turned down despite showing over 12 years of profits and stability. He turned to the Small Business Administration, and was referred to Carolina Small Business Development Fund where he was able to get the financing he needed to purchase the building. Today, Westchester Realty specializes in government sub-contracts, primarily through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and Fannie Mae. Westchester Realty has two employees and seven agents, and covers the Triad region. As his business grows, Lewis hopes to take it to the next level by obtaining prime government contracts.
CSBDF: Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.
Lewis: I’m from Charlotte. I went to school there and went into military after high school. After serving in the military, I went to college and after that went into the music industry for 15 years. I served as an executive at Motown Records, managing artists and producers. After that I went into real estate.
CSBDF: Tell us about your business.
Lewis: We are a residential real estate company. We have sub-contracts for government programs, mainly with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Fannie Mae. We cover the entire Triad region and also have a Housing Authority contract in High Point.
CSBDF: How did your business get started? What was the inspiration that started it all?
Lewis: I started this business in 2004. We started out doing strictly residential properties, and began to explore different types of price points. But when the housing market crashed in 2009, we had to redirect to find our niche. We found it in HUD’s Good Neighbor Next Door program, which provides law enforcement officers, school teachers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians a 50% discount on property, in return for a commitment to live in that home for 36 months. We were the first in region to start with that program.
CSBDF: Where do you see your business going in the next five years?
Lewis: We are currently certified as an 8(a), VA and GSA firm. In five years, we would like to expand and secure prime government contracts. For the past nine years we have been sub-contracting, but it’s time to go after the prime contracts.
CSBDF: How do you define success in your life?
Lewis: Success is being self-contained; meaning, developing a product or service, building upon it, and moving on to the next level. In business and in life, being self-contained and being able to help others is how I define success.
CSBDF: What is your inspiration?
Lewis: I’m inspired by continually building and doing things that people think are impossible. When I came back to North Carolina to get into real estate, people said I’d have to work under other company to learn the business. But I had a different model—to bring in agents and requiring that they pay my agency a flat fee on their sales, rather than a percentage. I felt that having to provide a percentage was unfair to the agents. To me, it doesn’t matter what you sell, no matter the price, the agent should only pay a set amount to Westchester realty. This way we were able to attract talent and grow the business.
CSBDF: How did you hear about CSBDF?
Lewis: We first went to Wells Fargo to get a loan. We were able to show profit and financial stability over the past 12 years. We didn’t think it’d be a problem getting a loan, but unfortunately they weren’t able to help us. We were denied a loan. So we went to the Small Business Administration, and from there was referred to CSBDF. Getting a loan allowed us to purchase our building.
CSBDF: What were the most difficult issues you faced?
Lewis: Financing is the biggest hurdle. In order to go after prime contracts, we have to team up with bigger companies through a teaming arrangement. They have the infrastructure and platform to go after these contracts. For us to do that on our own, we’d have to make a huge investment in technology, systems, staff, etc. You need financing to do that. But we have set ourselves up strategically so that we can expand through prime contracting. We are licensed in to do business in other states, so we can take advantage of those opportunities.
“Success is being self-contained; meaning, developing a product or service, building upon it, and moving on to the next level. In business and in life, being self-contained and being able to help others is how I define success. ” - Lewis Tillman