LEADING QUESTIONS: Real estate maven keeps swinging

February 24, 2011

Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses and civic leaders to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

H. James Litten, 64, began working as a residential sales associate for F.C. Tucker Co. in 1972 and by 1986 had become a co-owner for what is now the state's largest independent real estate brokerage. On April 1, he bought out longtime partner Fred C. Tucker, becoming sole owner and maintaining his position as head of the company's residential real estate division.

"I think some of my friends think, 'What was he doing?'" Litten said, when asked about taking over the company during the worst real estate slump in decades. "It was the right thing to do. The market hasn't cooperated. It would have been nice if the market went up 50 percent. I would have looked like a genius. But as it is, we're doing great as a company. I have no second thoughts."

The evidence of the slowdown is stark. For example, in the nine-county central Indiana region, home-sale agreements declined 10.9 percent from 2009 to 2010—from 24,223 to 21,594. However, Tucker's home sales for central Indiana held steady at $1.3 billion from 2009 to 2010; sales statewide (and in a few Kentucky outposts) also held firm over the two-year period at $2.2 billion.

In the video above, Litten discusses how the role of real estate agents has changed in the bleak market, as sellers struggle to understand why their homes have declined in value and buyers expect to scoop up properties at even deeper discounts. An old-school salesman, he also demonstrates the high-tech way he now tries to stay in touch with and encourages Tucker's 1,500 agents and employees.

A native of the small steel-mill town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, Litten earned a football scholarship as a middle linebacker to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Although he's mellowed through the years, the burly Litten still bears signs of his grappling gridiron days, including a hard-charging spirit and fingers broken so many times that they no longer fully extend.

"Just to be successful in business today, you've got to be mentally tough, and you can't can't give up. You can't ever, ever, ever quit," Litten said. "I said to people in our office when the market started slowing down four years ago, 'I've never been in a fight that I've backed down from.' And I look at the challenge of this market as a fight."

Another formative experience was his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969-1970 as a company commander of an Army postal unit, for which he earned commendations including a Bronze Star. "I grew up a lot," he said. "All of a sudden one day you are thrust into a war zone and you're responsible for a lot of people. Your life changes. When I came back from Vietnam, I had a focus, and I was driven to succeed."

In addition to detailing his experience in Vietnam in the video below, Litten describes several habits he has developed to put himself in a position to succeed. They include a daily self-assessment of his work while driving home, planning his following day in detail, and keeping his desk nearly spotless so he can focus all of his attention on tasks at hand.


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