Bill Bullock, president, CEO and co-owner of Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty, is widely perceived to be one of the most successful realtors in Northern California. He grew the small firm he launched in 1991, with partner Olivia Decker, into its current behemoth form, with 22 offices and 500 agents in Marin, Napa, Sonoma, the East Bay and Silicon Valley — all while representing his own clients. With partners Lydia and Magda Sarkissian, his annual sales average is over $100 million.
But few know Bullock’s “up by his bootstraps” backstory: a remarkable journey from poverty-stricken Appalachia to service under intense fire in Vietnam to the life he loves in Marin. Soft- spoken, impeccably groomed, Bullock is that rare individual in his field — a man of few words.
Bullock grew up the second of five sons raised in McArthur, a tiny town in southeastern Ohio. “Most of my friends lived in shacks with dirt floors and no electricity,” he recalls during our interview in the Vault, a luxurious, high-tech reconverted bank vault in GGS’s Tiburon office. It provides a sharp contrast to the environs of his youth.
His family was only slightly better off than the others. “My dad was the last of the old-time country doctors — often paid in trade or not at all.” By age 10, Bullock was cutting grass and shoveling snow to earn money. By age 12, before 7 a.m. every day, he was cleaning, restocking and opening the local pharmacy.
Summer employment meant manual labor 12 hours per day, six days per week, in one dangerous location after another, including coal mines, sawmills and construction sites. That work ethic later helped him earn his Ohio University degree.
“I didn’t stay long in the coal mine, though,” Bullock admits. “It scared the hell out of me down there.”
Long work hours didn’t keep him from occasionally having fun. One Saturday Bullock got off work early, drove 50 miles to the county seat, Lancaster, stopped for a few beers and ended up in jail following a bar brawl. “I had to beg my way out of that jail on Monday morning to get myself back to work,” he says.
Although anti–Vietnam War sentiment was peaking when he graduated in 1968, Bullock volunteered for the Marines. “We still believed then that if the President of the United States said you should do something, you did it.” He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and earned the rank of captain during a decade of service. He developed an aptitude for teaching and leading large organizations, too. When asked how he felt about the war, Bullock quietly admits, “I now feel that it was wrong.” He shudders slightly. “I saw a lot of stuff that I didn’t like.”
Bullock’s aptitude with large organizations didn’t translate well into the corporate world he joined next, as a trainer of Wells Fargo employees in California. “I’m much better suited to be an entrepreneur than to be a corporate employee,” he says with a grin.
He found the perfect employment fit when he joined Coldwell Banker in Greenbrae as a realtor in 1982. “I don’t know what else I could have done as a professional that would have earned as much money as I make,” he declares. He learned early on what and how to communicate with homeowners: “People want to know what their home is worth.” He mailed easy-to-understand information about home prices to all county residents in his territory, and they thought of him first when they were ready to sell.
“But people have no idea how hard this business is, either,” he notes. “Agents have to be willing to work every night, every weekend, every holiday. They don’t get to keep as much of each sale as people think, either. Expenses are high and there is a constant downward pressure on fees, upward pressure on commission splits.” The recent consolidation of real estate firms in the county and advent of an entirely new business model with Compass increases that pressure too.
“We’re in a service business,” Bullock says, where EQ (emotional intelligence) is as important as IQ and a good agent (and a good boss) has to be knowledgeable, thoughtful and a talented problem solver. “You are only as good as your last sale,” he adds. “One of the biggest traps is losing humility, becoming arrogant.”
After 700 transactions over 37 years, Bullock also knows there is no such thing as an easy sale. “The good realtors make it look easy,” he explains, “but there is always a moment in every transaction where it’s either going to go forward or fail.”
Bullock describes his firm’s community service with as much enthusiasm as he describes his personal support for his favorite cause: WildCare. GGS supports Cycle for Sight: a Rotary Ride for Veterans and Bullock is proud that Nick Cooper, a former GGS agent who grew up in Marin, founded Home For A Home, a Bay Area nonprofit that builds homes people in Guatemala (read our story on this here). Nationally, Sotheby’s also supports New Story, which provides affordable homes.
Although the details of Bullock’s life journey are unexpected, the values embedded in his success are not. His story shows that hard work, trustworthiness, humility and attention to the needs of others are still essential ingredients in the American success story. Drawing from this story, here are Bullock’s tips for other aspiring realtors and entrepreneurs:
- Know how to work hard and enjoy it.
- Find work to which you are well-suited.
- Be knowledgeable — master your subject and the most effective ways to communicate it to potential customers.
- Take good care of your people. Good businesses are built on good relationships. Prioritize, listen to and help your employees, customers and colleagues. Success will follow.
- Plan for the unexpected and difficult moments in every transaction. Make it look easy to move the deal forward.
- Stay humble, even when impressive business flows.
- Nurture personal passions and give back to the community.
Susan B. Noyes is the founder and chief visionary officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional aide and passionate philanthropist, she has also served on many boards.