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Finding a home as a CEO

Without ever meaning to, Ryan Tucholski has been bucking trends, first by leaving a budding career as a concert pianist and second by leaving his hometown in Ohio while his two siblings stayed close by. 

From a career writing grants for art museums and the long-term goal of becoming an art teacher, Tucholski changed gears to real estate. That started him on a shortcut to Rochester, where at the age of 28 he holds his third CEO position, this time at the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors Inc. 

At the non-profit organization’s East Avenue headquarters, Tucholski has led a team of 17 since last September, shortly after GRAR’s Buffalo-based headhunter chose him from a similar post he held near Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

The Florida association operated on a budget of $700,000; GRAR, including its multiple listing service, has a budget of $2 million to $3 million a year. 

"I would have to say the budget (in Florida) was about a third of what it is here in Rochester, but Rochester has three times as many members as Lakeland does and offers 10 times as many services," Tucholski said. 

Accepting his third CEO position in three years was a leap of faith Tucholski took with some reticence, he said. Leapfrogging from posts in Michigan to Florida to New York could have put his credibility on the line, he explained, and his reputation has been crucial to his success. 

Current and former co-workers say he has earned respect quickly and amplified it this year when he was named to the board of directors for the National Association of Realtors-all without ever having sold a single house. 

To hold one of two available board seats, Tucholski was chosen from among 900 real estate association CEOs across the country. That, he says, bodes as well for Rochester’s standing as it does for his own. 

Chuck Hilbert, GRAR’s president, agrees. 

"It’s huge for Rochester," Hilbert says. "Ryan is appointed by his peers and the president of NAR to be the appointed association executive in the whole country. There’s only one, and he is it. 

"We were definitely a progressive association, and in the past we’ve always led the country with new ideas and taking our business to the next level, and now we’re coming back," Hilbert added. "We’re definitely on the radar screen nationally now, and I attribute a lot of that to Ryan’s leadership." 

Tucholski is delighted with the new role and the honor, he says, to represent 1.2 million real estate agents across the country, serving as liaison between the NAR’s board and local CEOs like himself. 

He hopes it will shed more light and add deeper insight into Rochester’s operations, whose size and breadth already made the association a standout well before he joined last year. 

"I’ve seen a lot of different models through other associations across the country. They don’t even compare with some of the things we’ve done because of a lot of the hard work the Realtors here have done in the past, as well as John Piper and Karen Wingender, who were here before me. Great people and great minds do great things, and I’m glad to be a part of it now." 

It was late 2007 when Wingender told GRAR she was leaving the CEO post to join the area’s largest residential real estate agency, Nothnagle Realtors. She declined to comment for this story. 

GRAR’s search committee took its time finding just the right replacement, explained Margret Roberts of RE/MAX First. She was one of a dozen people on that committee.

"The combination of his age and his knowledge was mind-blowing," Roberts says. Instead of being a hindrance, his young age was something that attracted GRAR to him. 

"The average age of a real estate agent is 52 or 54. We needed someone who was going to speak to the next generation; we saw him as a bridge builder," she said. 

The organization initially was concerned about his frequent job changes. It would have been remiss not to be, she says.

Start through IT 
Tucholski got his start in real estate through information technology, when a friend and real estate broker in Toledo, Ohio, asked for help building a Web site for his listings. The agents were eager to get their listings online but lacked the necessary IT skills, which Tucholski had been developing as a personal hobby. 

Eventually, that work got him the job of multiple listing service administrator for the Toledo Board of Realtors. After months of grooming under his mentor, a female CEO at the association for 35 years, Tucholski quickly was recruited to Dearborn, Mich., to serve in his first CEO position. 

Fourteen months into the job, a headhunter contacted him about a new post for a six-person organization in Florida. Soon after, he was leaving his parents and nearby sister and brother with a one-way ticket to Tampa to join the Lakeland Association of Realtors. 

"I had no intentions of leaving Dearborn for years, but the opportunity came up," he says. 

"I did that for 12 months. That was a really interesting experience down there. I absolutely love Florida. It’s a beautiful state. But you realize quickly if you belong in the North or the South. I’m a northern boy; I know it. I love visiting Florida still, but I don’t want to live there." 

When he was contacted by GRAR’s recruiter, he wanted to leave Florida but worried about the impact on his resume. 

"’Was it career suicide to leave?’ I asked myself. I had been with one association for a year, and then another one for another year, and then here I am in Rochester," Tucholski recalls. "I wanted to make sure I was making good decisions, but as soon as I met with the group here, I saw this is one of the most progressive associations I’ve experienced." 

Wingender had been CEO at GRAR since March 2004. But before her, the organization had had only two other CEOs in its history. Choosing the next one was a major affair that took months to accomplish, Roberts says. 

The committee interviewed eight to 10 candidates by phone and brought four of them to Rochester for interviews. 

"We could assess very quickly that he was the one," Roberts said of Tucholski. Strong communication and organization skills were fundamental, and he had them in abundance, she says. The concerns the committee had about his frequent job changes were quelled by simple, straightforward reasons. 

As important as his communication skills was his background in IT and MLS, Roberts says, particularly given GRAR’s plans to collaborate with Buffalo and Syracuse in a combined MLS, planned for launch this November. 

Of the associations in the three cities, Rochester’s is the only one to run its MLS; most cities have private companies running those services. To maintain its identity and to protect its interests, Rochester needed a leader who was MLS-savvy, and Tucholski more than fit the bill. 

In Toledo, Tucholski worked with June Clark, now CEO of the Monroe County Association of Realtors in Michigan. Her association then was working with the Toledo board as the primary vendor for its MLS. 

At the time, she says, he was new to the industry and using his IT background as a springboard to advance. Along the way, Tucholski explains, he was trying to amass as much information as he could to climb the ranks in five years when others had taken 35. 

Clark recalls: "He’s very well liked by all the members because he would go out of his way to help everybody. If someone didn’t understand something, he was right there to help them." 

As he progressed on his career, she says, he constantly strived to expand his responsibilities. One way was through a generational CEO committee he co-established at the NAR level. 

It was meant to help bring young CEOs together with baby boomer CEOs, Tucholski explains. 

"It was supposed to be a work group focused on generational issues-the gap between association executives who are 35 and under and how to they relate to their members who are 45 and over-because it’s a huge gap," Tucholski says. "How do we create effective programs? How do we run efficient meetings?" 

After just a year, NAR instituted the program. In its first year, four years ago, Tucholski was chairman. 

"We’ve found that there are over 100 local board CEOs who are around the age of 30 with amazing minds. What we’ve done is create a sort of resource, a place where people can go to be among peers and share great ideas," he says.

A lot of them, he says, think there is one golden approach to take when faced with issues such as having to prove themselves to their peers. In reality, Tucholski says, the right approach depends on the situation and is more about people and communication than some singular method.

Leadership skills 
Part of what made the group successful, Clark says, was the tone Tucholski set as its leader. 

"His demeanor and his knowledge and professionalism really stuck out," she says. "It was a roomful of CEOs, who ranged in age from 70 to early 20s, and with his demeanor he really shined." 

One comment people make again and again about Tucholski is that he does not act his age. His maturity, they comment, often surpasses that of people much older. 

"He may be a young man, but he is an old soul, and he takes his leadership role extremely seriously," Hilbert says. His approach, Hilbert says, is collaborative, which helped win over the staff, some of whom had their misgivings. 

Tucholski says he is used to having to prove himself. 

"People doubt my abilities or maybe chuckle a little bit. I’m sure my staff doubted me. When I was interviewed, I probably wasn’t their choice, but I’ve always been able to prove myself in a short amount of time," he says. 

Hilbert says that in exceeding the expectations the search committee had for Tucholski, he simultaneously has helped employees exceed their own past performance, and he does it through his collaborative approach. 

"He engages employees and lets them find their way, and then he tweaks it and points them in a direction they should be going," Hilbert says. 

Tucholski says it is his way of applying his art to business by way of his primary skill, which he considers communication. Creativity through communication is Tucholski’s forte, and he channels it through the business of management. 

Hilbert says Tucholski loves leading, reads everything he can about leading and enjoys giving people the ability to do their jobs better. 

"I think I’m a creative person, but I don’t think creativity is limited to the arts, by any means," Tucholski says.

Early focus on art 
Until he graduated from college, much of Tucholski’s life was dominated by art. 

During his first two years at the University of Toledo, Tucholski’s aim was to become an art teacher for K-12 students, but then he changed his concentration from ceramics to English literature. 

While in college Tucholski worked various jobs, one at the Toledo Museum of Art, where he developed course catalogs, and later at another arts organization as a grant writer. Throughout college he also worked playing piano, often as a rehearsal pianist. 

He started playing around age 4. 

"My father had purchased a piano for my mother as an anniversary gift, and no one in the family had any interest in playing a musical instrument, so being the youngest, it was on my shoulders," he recalls. "Since my entrance to association management, I haven’t had the opportunity to play very much and no longer even own a musical instrument. I’m sure I’m quite rusty, but it’s like riding a bike: You just jump back on and give it a shot, and it all starts to come back!" 

As a manager, Tucholski likes to experience art by writing copy for the association but mainly by creatively interpreting the role of CEO. 

"I’m not a typical CEO. There are days when I’ll go down and wear the headset at the switchboard and sit at someone else’s desk and help them with something, not because I’m obsessive, but because I can show them, and I want them to do a good job. I know that good guidance is the way to get good results."

The field of business gives him the structure he needs, and the changing state of real estate provides the stimulation, he says. 

"I could never be an artist," he says. "I don’t paint. I don’t want to be a pianist. This is exactly what I want to do. The board of directors likes things new and different, and that’s how I get to be creative here.

"This business is my life, and I know almost everything I possibly can about it by immersing myself," Tucholski adds. "It’s all about earning respect from people, and vice versa: You have to put yourself out there and prove your abilities." 

That he never was a real estate agent was not so much of an issue, Hilbert explains, since leading a non-profit is quite different from leading a real estate company. Tucholski is not selling houses, Hilbert says; he is directing people and educating them. A lot of real estate associations, Hilbert says, are led by managers who are trained leaders, not necessarily trained brokers. 

Real estate is quite different when it comes to running an organization, Hilbert said. 

With its various arms, including political lobbying, finance, member services, MLS and the organization’s charitable organization, Tucholski’s job has more to do with managing and directing the future of those businesses within the framework of GRAR’s strategic plan. 

"Within the organization there are five businesses he is managing. To do that, you need a leader, you need a CEO."

Ryan Tucholski
Position: CEO
Age: 28
Education: Bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences with a concentration in English and literature from the University of Toledo in Ohio, 2003
Residence: Rochester
Interests: Fine food and wine, good music
Quote: "I’ve worked with brokers here in this market who will call me and not be aware of something, and they haven’t been for 30 years, and I’ll have the answer for them. I don’t think it’s an age thing by any means. It’s just what I’m here for. It’s my job, and I’ve always been able to put it all out on the table and prove it right from the start." 

rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

09/11/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.

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