2023 Business Icon: Tomlinson Family of Companies’ Bob Tomlinson
Third-generation broker expanded real estate firm to national prominence
Kim CromptonMay 11th, 2023
Bob Tomlinson, who recently turned 76, winters six months a year in Arizona and no longer is actively involved in managing the Tomlinson Family of Companies real estate brokerage he helped develop into a major enterprise here over five decades.
It would be wrong to assume, though, that he now is content to bask in the Southwest warmth and leave all his former business ventures and holdings in the hands of others. Tomlinson retains some commercial building ownership interests here, including with former business partner NAI Black CEO Dave Black. He also is continuing to pursue land-acquisition opportunities aimed at creating more lots for new homes throughout the Inland Northwest.
He remains chairman of the Tomlinson Family of Companies board, and thus stays in regular contact with his daughter, Shelley Johnson, who took over as CEO when he stepped down from that position two years ago.
“I don’t know how to retire,” he says, laughing.
His ongoing need to stay involved in real estate dealings, rather than shifting fully into a leisure-focused retirement phase of life, comes as no surprise to family members and former colleagues.
“He would tell you he wants to be relevant and not responsible,” muses his daughter, Shelley, who speaks to her dad often and says he never tries to influence how she guides the real estate enterprise’s day-to-day operations.
The Tomlinson Family of Companies, encompassing the three major brands of Coldwell Banker, Century 21, and Sotheby’s International Realty, now includes more than two dozen real estate brokerage offices, and about 1,000 agents throughout Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
It ranked 74th in the country last year with closed sales volume of about $3.83 billion in an annual review of the nation’s top 500 real estate brokerage firms compiled by RealTrends, a prominent source of analysis and information in the residential real estate market industry. Separate from sales volume, its 6,396 closed transaction “sides” ranked 90th in the country in RealTrends’ 2022 compilation.
Such achievements seem remarkable for a brokerage operation that began modestly here in 1938. That’s when Tomlinson’s grandfather, C. Verne Tomlinson, sold his farm during the Great Depression to launch Verne Tomlinson Realty, marketing farm and ranch properties. Bob’s father, William R. “Bill” Tomlinson, joined the company in 1948 and became a leading ranch and farm specialist. Bob Tomlinson began his real estate career there in late 1968, selling farmland in the Spokane area. At the time, the brokerage had only about eight agents.
Before becoming a third-generation real estate professional, Tomlinson had been working at the venerable Crescent department store in downtown Spokane, contemplating a possible retail career, and says he considered it “a big deal” when he was promoted to assistant manager there. His career took a lifelong detour shortly thereafter, though, he says, when his father approached him about coming to work at the real estate firm.
Tomlinson took the real estate exam while attending college and transitioned fully into real estate soon thereafter.
“He was pretty happy being a farm guy and only a farm guy,” Tomlinson says of his father. “I was a city guy and didn’t know a thing about farming.”
He says he quickly convinced his father to diversify the brokerage into residential real estate, adding, “The rest is history, I guess.”
Tomlinson took over the company reins in 1971. Over the following decades, the enterprise expanded steadily, largely through a mix of opportunistic mergers and acquisitions, including a key early merger with Alvin J. Wolff Co. in 1976. The growth wasn’t linear, though, as the operation shrunk substantially in size during real estate market downturns, but the overall long-term trend remained upward, he says.
“My dad impressed on me pretty early in life that (in business), if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking,” he adds. “I always felt pretty strongly about growing.”
Dave Black was business partners with Tomlinson for 12 years following a merger in 1995 that created the Tomlinson Black Group of Cos., blending companies with respective commercial and residential expertise. Black is awed by Bob’s achievements over the course of his career.
“His dad went from A to B (with the brokerage), and he went from B to Z,” Black says.
Friendly competitors before their merger, Black says Tomlinson “was a big-picture guy, which I appreciated, because I’m a big-picture guy. We always talked in macro terms.” Though their merger eventually dissolved when the companies decided to refocus on their separate market niches, it ended amicably.
“Bob was always a very good people guy. That to me was the hallmark of his success,” Black says, adding, “He’s very good at getting other people’s opinions and then finding a path (toward a common goal).”
Tomlinson’s daughter, Shelley, who joined the family business in 2017 after working in the insurance industry for many years, describes him similarly.
“This business is very relational. He’s got a wonderful way with people. I’d say that’s his superpower,” she says, adding, “As I watch him today, he doesn’t have a sense of hierarchy in who he interacts with,” treating everyone equally.
Beyond those people skills, she says, “I really appreciate his vision and expertise.”
Fred Meyer, a Tomlinson Family of Cos. board member and longtime friend and business colleague, says the key thing Tomlinson learned from his father in his early years in real estate was how to treat people honestly and fairly.
“Bob had a way of making anybody he was in front of feel they were the center of his attention,” Meyer says.
Tomlinson also was adept at nurturing the talents of the colleagues working around him.
“He’s a special guy. I’ve always looked to him as a leader,” Meyer says. “He just had a skill set that’s unique and a really fine mind.”
He describes Tomlinson as “a hard act to follow,” but adds that he believes Shelley—the fourth-generation family member to lead the real estate enterprise—is “doing as good as anyone possibly could. I think the quality of the agents and the quality of the company have remained consistent, including through tough times.”
Reflecting back on his career, Tomlinson says, “My father told me your good name is the most important thing you have.” He attributes a large part of his success to striving to live and do business with that thought in mind.
He’s uncomfortable, though, taking singular credit for the success of a business enterprise that he says had many key contributors.
“I sure don’t want it to come off like it was all me, because it wasn’t,” Tomlinson says. “An awful lot of people helped.”
One of the development projects he says he and fellow investors currently are pursuing likely will include 21 residential lots with boat slips along the Spokane River in the Post Falls area. Other projects are in the Tri-Cities and the Lewiston-Clarkston areas.