By Kimberly Hundley
Photos by Sam Nalven
In person, Jason Mitchell looks even younger than his 32 years, though on this day a faint smudge beneath the eyes hints at the toll of taping a reality show on top of his seven-days-a-week 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule as head of Mitchell Private Realty Group in Scottsdale.
Mitchell and fellow top-performing agent James Wexler aren’t famous yet, but the costars and business partners could find themselves household names if Bravo pick up a full season of “Top Agent.” Already the basic cable channel, home to the real estate reality hit “Million Dollar Listing” in Southern California, has committed to airing six episodes in test markets to see if audiences go gaga for a Scottsdale version of sorts.
“We’re not there yet. If they like it, they will pick it up,” Mitchell says, and glances away for a moment, the math clicking away in his head: In the handful of years since he got back into real estate and formed his own group with Realty Executives, business has boomed. The new offices on Hayden Road still smell like a furniture showroom; technology enhancements are slated for a summer rollout; the group’s sales rank in the Valley’s top 10; and local media teems with articles and ads following an energized marketing campaign.
“We’re already taking off, our team, we’re getting there,” Mitchell continues. “If this does crack, if Bravo does pick us up, I need to have a full-blown plan for—“
He pauses a second.
Rags to Riches Redux
Hatching a contingency plan for how explosive fame may impact your business and personal life (while aggressively pursuing other growth strategies) would be a challenge for even the most weathered of entrepreneurs. But Mitchell is more seasoned than he looks.
By the age of 29, he’d started three companies, employed more than 70 people, made millions, and then lost it all when the housing market did a Godzilla impression and left him a humbler man. His resume makes Horatio Alger heroes look like slackers. For one thing, he was only 10 years old and when he landed his first job in south Detroit, sorting dirty cans to help out with family expenses. He’s worked ever since, through high school, through college, through the downturn and all the way back to the top.
Mitchell didn’t plan, however, to become a contender for reality TV star. He envisioned producing a show he’d pay to air for the local NBC affiliate, more infomercial than “Desperate Housewives.”
“It started out as a marketing tool for houses, and somehow it turned into this whole ‘let’s take that idea and really capitalize on your brand and success as an agent,’” he says.
A producer heard about the project, introductions were made, flights to Los Angeles ensued, backing was secured, and a “sizzle reel” was shopped around until Bravo bit. Mitchell brought in longtime buddy and counterpart Wexler to share the spotlight and add interest. “It’s always better with two,” Mitchell says of reality show dynamics.
It’s easy to see the potential that fired up producers. Beyond Mitchell’s camera-friendly features—with Wexler no slouch in the looks department either—there’s the rags-to-riches back story, colored with a golden work ethic and the fact that he is indeed a top agent, placing No. 27 out of 8,000 agents in the world in terms of production. On top of that, Mitchell’s past glints with resilience and redemption, ingredients irresistible to Hollywood.
Mitchell wields charm the way fish swim. It’s effortless. He admits to being a born salesman, a talent he discovered at 15 while manning the phones at a telemarketing job. After school, he’d practically race to work because he reveled in cold calling and connecting, a quality that helped the company’s youngest employee rise to top-selling rep.
“I can talk. I was really good at it,” Mitchell acknowledges, adding that natural skill only goes so far. “You can teach the kinesthetics of sales, the ways and certain approaches and pitches, but you can’t teach effort. A lot of it comes from drive too, and I won’t be outworked. It just won’t happen.”
Wexler, who hails from the East Coast where he worked in investment banking, met Mitchell during a Valley real estate transaction more than eight years ago. The two became friends, then business partners, sparking with complementary characteristics that Wexler, 43, succinctly describes as energetic/experienced vs. enthusiastic/more cautious.
“Most people can be honest and know the product, but really what separates Jason is he simply outworks every other person,” Wexler says. “You combine that with his honesty and integrity and some natural-born charisma—that makes him as good a salesperson as I’ve seen.”
Mitchell dove into real estate right after college because a friend told him that’s where the money was. After dazzling the bosses at Pulte Homes in Michigan with his sales numbers and training chops, he was offered an opportunity to transfer to the white-hot Phoenix market in 2005, and soon after branched out on his own.
He sold over $40 million in real estate his first two years, and among other ventures, launched a mortgage company in a downtown Scottsdale basement, bringing on Wexler along with a fleet of other employees.
“Then the crash hit, and that sucked,” Mitchell says, summing up the worst two years of his life—a period of personal loss salted with the anguish of seeing the staff and clients who’d trusted him suffer too. “All I’d cared about was the sports cars, the money, how much can I make on this deal. All I cared about was ‘I was Jason Mitchell,’” he says. “I can’t even tell you how sickening it was to take these calls from people saying, ‘What am I going to do?’ And I’m sitting there going through the same thing, going, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’”
Now, Mitchell regards losing everything as his biggest blessing. “It taught me it’s not about money anymore. It’s really truly being a better person,” he says. “I was a millionaire at 25, and wanted people to see that I’d arrived, with my $2 million condo and Ferrari. And those same people saw me lose it too. That’s where the humbleness comes in.”
The crash also led Mitchell to a job with a private lending company in Manhattan, experience that he says helped him become an even better agent when he returned to selling. “I understand financing better than any agent you’ll ever meet,” he says. “I mean, I understand it better than loan officers, OK? With clients in real estate, it’s not just about selling a house, it’s about showing them you know the whole realm of real estate—and financing is the most important thing.”
In 2010, a more cautious but just as determined version of Mitchell started from scratch with Realty Executives in Scottsdale, staging open houses six days a week for 18 months. That’s how he found all his clients.
His goal today, he says, isn’t to have the biggest team in Arizona, but the best, “in terms of technology, process, everything.”
“The way to have a successful team is to provide members with an opportunity to be successful,” he says. “My agents, they come in and they are given business; they get 15 quality leads a month [through our loan partners] … I also give them the opportunity to market themselves. I want them to be proud to work here. We have a young culture—it’s fun, it’s exciting.”
Mitchell also teaches his agents the tips that helped make him the “Arizona’s No. 1 Realtor under 40.” Just like when he was making cold calls back in high school asking prospects lots of questions, he sells the relationship, not the product. “When you are selling a house, go away from the house and let them like you,” he says. “If they like a house, they will buy a house—show them you are the one they want to work with.”
Technology is a huge part of Wexler and Mitchell’s vision for the group as well. “Clients are better served by instant information in terms of not only listings but communications,” Wexler says. “We wanted to bring real estate to the 21st century, and we have a much more proactive use of technology.” The partners are developing an interactive online and mobile process that will “almost pick houses for you, over time, when you fill out basic info in only a handful of steps,” Wexler says.
Buyers who use the sytem, for example, will get better suggestions than if they were just getting listing information from an agent, he adds.
Once prospective clients register on the website or the interactive kiosk Mitchell is installing in the McCormick Ranch office, they’ll receive instant notifications of new properties or leads, video options, reminders of key dates, and follow-up marketing.
“Through our systems and marketing, I’m going to stay in front of you until you decide you don’t want to buy anymore,” Mitchell says.
The location of the Mitchell Group’s new office reflects another differentiating strategy. Mitchell wanted to bring a “community approach” to residential real estate by encouraging foot traffic in the office, so he set up shop in a retail/restaurant center near a residential community.
“We have 10 to 15 people a week who come in here because they are seeing our signage, our branding, and they want to see what’s up,” he says. “You see it all the time in California, but there’s nothing like that in Arizona, where people who are curious about real estate can just wander in.”
And come summer, Mitchell is counting on visitors to gravitate to the kiosk, where they’ll hopefully be seduced by the intuitive registration process, forging a long-term digital relationship with the group in an instant.
Reality of Reality TV
In the meantime, cameras are rolling, and a Valley premiere of “Top Agent,” locally titled “Selling Scottsdale,” is tentatively slated for the end of May on NBC, regardless of what Bravo decides later.
“We don’t fashion ourselves as actors, and even though it’s reality TV, there is still some acting involved,” Wexler says. “We really thought this was the best way to let some of our clients showcase luxury properties. And it really helps our employees and us build our brand and reputation and get it front of the public.”
The shooting schedule is every other week, two days a week for 14 hours a day.
“It’s exhausting,” says Mitchell, who found the interminable waiting around for lighting and sound adjustments the most sapping part of the process, though having to do everything over and over again for the cameras was frustrating too.
The six-member production crew trails Mitchell the entire time, following him to the gym, on dates, to business meetings—and constantly has to stop to get signed releases from anyone he encounters on tape.
The basis of the scenes is real, but much of it is set up beforehand or repeatedly renacted, so the term “reality” is relative, according to Mitchell.
“They film a lot of our personal life, whether it’s me coaching soccer or Jason going on a date,” Wexler says. “We’re also filming with clients and in our offices negotiating with agents.”
The Greater Airpark is getting some exposure along the way. Last month, the crew documented Mitchell taking a date to dinner at North restaurant in Kierland Commons and working out at Gainey Village Health Club.
Mitchell jokes that he gets more screen time than Wexler because he’s single and has more interesting pastimes. “He’s the best guy you’ll ever meet, but he’s super boring. He does book clubs and dog stuff.”
Wexler fires back that he’s a volunteer for Arizona Humane Society, fostering dogs at risk of being put down. “Who says that’s boring? And the funny thing about the book club—and Jason always laughs—is the members are all past clients, all people I helped sell or buy a house,” Wexler says. “Not only are we salespeople and business professionals, we really count our clients as friends.”
Plus, Wexler adds, he’s an avid golfer and skier. “So I’m not that boring.”
If the show makes the big-time, Mitchell says his greatest concern is that he’ll come off as something he’s not, like a playboy.
On the other hand, the show could be a springboard for Mitchell’s post-recession passion—becoming a better person and inspiring others to do the same. Like “Million Dollar Listing” star Josh Altman, Mitchell can see himself traveling the country, coaching people on how to live a better life.
“It all comes down to how good you want to be, how hard you want to work,” he says. “I make mistakes every single day, but I try to be better. If you do that and you treat people right, I know good things will happen.”
Mitchell Group/Realty Executives
8320 N. Hayden Road