Two Luminaries Who Helped Shape Coldwell Banker into the Worldwide Real Estate Brand It Is Today
Lifelong friends Forest Olson and Jerry Cole developed Coldwell Banker’s residential and franchise affiliate programs, helping the company grow beyond its California roots.
Today, Coldwell Banker is one of the most prominent real estate companies in the world with 100,000 residential agents serving 39 countries and territories. Flash back to 55 years ago, when Coldwell Banker consisted of about 800 sales associates, most serving the commercial real estate sector, in 25 offices centered in California. How did Coldwell Banker grow from a smaller west coast brokerage into a worldwide leader in real estate? Much of the credit can be given to a pair of innovators who helped lead the company in the back half of the 20th century: Forest Olson, who steered Coldwell Banker’s expansion into the residential real estate market, and Jerry Cole, who developed the company’s successful franchise system. Olson and Cole share a bond that is deeper than their business accomplishments, though; they also developed a lifelong friendship that has persisted into their 90s.
From its founding in 1906, Coldwell Banker agents were focused on commercial real estate. As the 1960s drew to a close, company leaders decided it was time for a serious expansion into the larger market awaiting in the residential business. To achieve this goal, Coldwell Banker began seeking an established expert in selling homes.
Olson, a native Californian, graduated from the University of Southern California in 1951 and founded his own real estate business in 1953 with $500 of borrowed money. Forest E. Olson, Inc., which specialized in residential property within Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, achieved phenomenal growth over the next 15 years. Olson was truly an innovator; his company introduced IBM data processing to residential brokerage, simplifying accounting, production and investment management. Olson’s company created the first comprehensive sales associate training program utilizing video. Olson himself developed the iconic and widely used “Colonial Style” real estate For Sale sign. Several Forest E. Olson, Inc. sales associates, led by Art Bartlett, branched out on their own and founded the nation’s first successful national franchised real estate brokerage company—Century 21 Real Estate, which today resides with Coldwell Banker under the Anywhere Real Estate corporate umbrella.
On July 21, 1969, Coldwell Banker announced the groundbreaking purchase of Forest E. Olson, Inc., adding 450 residential salespeople and 30 southern California offices to its roster. Olson was elected to the Coldwell Banker Board of Directors and assumed primary responsibility for the acquisition of other residential companies, sharing his own positive experience in joining the larger Coldwell Banker network. He served as director, senior vice president and then executive vice president, always focused on expanding Coldwell Banker’s residential services. Under Olson’s leadership, Coldwell Banker expanded its residential business throughout California and ultimately nationwide, opening offices in cities such as Atlanta, Kansas City, suburban Chicago, and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
After returning from the Army and attending college, Cole, a Hollywood native, began working as a real estate salesperson for Olson’s company in the early 1960s. He had become a top salesperson before leaving in 1969 for Larwin Realty to expand its footprint and then manage all of its seven resale offices. Those offices were a branch of Larwin Company, the largest homebuilder in the U.S. at the time. Also an innovator, Cole started the first ever home buyer inspection service in the U.S. During this time, Cole belonged to no less than seven real estate boards. Century 21 Real Estate recruited Cole in 1974, and he spent three years playing a crucial role in expanding the brand from 200 affiliated franchisees to approximately 2,200, according to Cole. He helped launch another franchisor called Realty World in 1976, building it from the ground up to 2,300 franchisees over four years.
In 1980, Cole approached his old mentor, Olson, about developing a national residential franchising program at Coldwell Banker. While company leadership was not initially interested, Olson saw the potential in Cole’s idea and asked him to prepare a feasibility study. With Olson’s support, Cole presented his proposal to the Coldwell Banker Board of Directors in spring of 1981 and approval was promptly granted. Cole was named president of Coldwell Banker Residential Affiliates, Inc. Jim Gillespie, a stalwart from Cole’s initial management team, would years later serve a distinguished tenure as president and CEO of Coldwell Banker. Cole implemented an ingenious concept by one of his sales directors, Larry Goeble, to “award” franchises instead of selling them, ensuring that earning a franchise with America’s largest and most respected real estate company was a coveted prize bestowed upon the most promising residential brokerages. “Other franchises were selling a brand, not real estate expertise. Coldwell Banker was the No. 1 real estate company and had training to match,” said Cole.
Olson surprised his colleagues by announcing that he would retire in December 1984, at age 58. “I had done what I wanted to do—and simply longed to spend more time with my family and to do those things I enjoy, which I had postponed too long,” Olson reflected years later.
At Coldwell Banker’s annual affiliate conference in 1987, Cole stunned the Nashville audience by opening the show with his back to the audience, strumming a guitar, dressed in a flashy suit and whirling around to perform a rousing impersonation of Elvis Presley. “Nashville was the home of country music. They bought me a pair of cowboy boots and that crazy outfit,” Cole recently recalled, chuckling. Cole admits to lip-synching the song, and fondly recalls meeting comedian Minnie Pearl backstage. It was a bittersweet day for Cole, though, because beneath the good times he had just accepted an offer that very day to set up a franchise program for Prudential. After returning from the conference, Cole announced his resignation. “If I could do it over again, I never would have left. I was emotionally locked into Coldwell Banker for the rest of my life,” said Cole. As the founder of Coldwell Banker’s residential affiliate program, Cole ensured its long-term viability and profitability by establishing 1,000 new offices and closing his final year with a net profit of $12 million on a gross of $25 million.
Although Olson and Cole left Coldwell Banker in the 1980s, they took something with them—a friendship that lasts to this day. Both men reside near each other in Orange County, Calif. “Forest has meant so much to me throughout the years. He has been so supportive,” said Cole, who in 2016 had a benign brain tumor removed and woke up paralyzed. Olson was there for his longtime friend, visiting and lifting his spirits. Today, Cole, soon to turn 90, is fully recovered and keeps busy with his franchise consulting business. He still checks in on Olson, who is nearly 98 and in poor health. “I hold Forest in such high regard,” said Cole. “He was definitely ahead of his time and revolutionized the way real estate is done.”
Both Cole and Olson left an indelible mark on Coldwell Banker, building the company into what it is today. They are examples of how one person’s intelligence, determination, creativity and passion can play a crucial role in shaping the future of a large organization. The importance that Olson and Cole placed on technology, education and expertise remain tenets of the Coldwell Banker ethos. Coldwell Banker has a long story going back 117 years, and that book couldn’t have been written without Olson, Cole and the many luminaries who shaped the company into the global brand that its agents and employees are still proud to be a part of today.
SOURCES: Jerry Cole; “Preserving the Trust: The Coldwell Banker Story,” 2000.