Laurie Covington began her career selling credit card services to merchants and small banks in the Peoria area. After taking a real estate class in 1976, the Peoria native obtained her license the following year, becoming one of the youngest agents in the area. Her real estate career officially began in 1978 when she was hired by Ron Hodges, who had a small company on Knoxville Avenue at that time.
Covington notes there have been many changes in the field of real estate since she began her career 30 years ago. Most notably, technology has really influenced the field on both sides—agents can better network and list properties for sale, and buyers can get a better idea of what they’re looking for and do preliminary research before meeting with a Realtor to visit potential homes. When introducing future Peorians to the city, Covington takes them on a three-hour journey which showcases all the unique charms our city has to offer.
When she’s not at work, Covington enjoys traveling with her husband, Al, and sailing on the Illinois River in the summer. She practices yoga and has recently started taking a sculpture class with Preston Jackson at the Contemporary Art Center—something she’s always wanted to do! Covington is a sustaining member of the Junior League of Peoria and recently finished working on the committee for the Angel Ball for the Children’s Hospital of Illinois.
Tell us about your background, education and family.
I was born in Peoria, attended Peoria public schools, and graduated from Peoria High in 1970. I am married to Al Covington; he is the senior vice president of Illinois National Bank.
My parents were both raised in Peoria. My father, Bill Cannon, was the 14th of 15 children. He grew up in West Peoria and his dad was a coal miner in Pottstown. My mother, Emma Brereton Cannon, was born in Pittsburgh. Her grandfather worked with Elliot Ness as an IRS agent in Chicago during the prohibition. My grandfather was also an Internal Revenue agent in Chicago; he was sent to Pittsburgh where he met my grandmother.
When I was 13, my dad was critically injured fighting a fire as a Peoria fireman. This was before workers’ compensation and personal injury lawsuits. He spent several years both in a cast and recovering from surgeries. Prior to his accident, my parents heard about a young teen living in a foster home who was going to be sent to Boys Town. He was a gifted athlete at Spalding Institute. Through the Catholic Social Service, Terry Renard joined our family and my parents raised him as their own. He has been a part of our family for over 45 years.
Right after Terry joined us, my mother discovered she was pregnant with my youngest brother. So, within about one year, our family doubled. My father was unable to work and we were living on the Fire Department’s disability. We lived in a modest home, but our house was always fun, and everyone was welcome. I don’t remember ever feeling that we were less fortunate than others. Many first-time homebuyers expect their first home to be at least as nice as their parents’ home, but forget that their parents probably did not start out in a large house, but moved up through the years as their housing needs changed.
I laugh when I work with young clients who can’t imagine anyone buying a home with one bathroom. I always tell them that somehow I survived in about 900 square feet with four kids and two adults with one bath and a toilet in the basement. Later, my grandmother moved in and lived with them for 22 years until she died. I am starting to see a trend of buyers wanting space in their home for their parents to visit, or to help out after surgery or an extended illness. If they are building a new home, commonly the space is a room on the main floor close to a bathroom.
How did your career path lead to your current position as a real estate professional?
Prior to selling real estate, I was working at the former Commercial National Bank as a sales representative selling Master Card and Visa services to merchants and small banks in the area. I was the first woman doing this job, and the first one who did not have a college degree. I discovered I was successful at outside sales and decided to take a real estate class in 1976.
In 1977, you had to go to either Chicago or Springfield to take the license exam and it was only offered once a month. I only had a year after completing the class to take the state test. I don’t think I had ever driven to Chicago, but I picked up my grandmother, who used to live there, and took the test at McCormick Place in Chicago along with thousands of others. I had not taken the course in about nine months and was concerned that I would remember most of it. The guy sitting next to me struck up an encouraging conversation; he wanted to know how many times I had been there to take the test. He was from Chicago and told me that he did not know anyone who passed the test the first time. I did, barely. At that time, you needed a real estate broker as a sponsor to apply to take the exam.
Bernie Pilon, who was the manager at Commercial National Realty, agreed to sponsor me. I passed the test, received my license, but did not decide to start selling real estate until the following spring. I went back to CNR to let them know I was ready to begin. By then, Peoria was swamped with new agents, and Bernie decided that he did not want to hire me after all. He did not think I would make it. I was very young for a Realtor at that time—I was 25 and looked younger. Today many young people are starting careers right out of college or taking over their parent’s business, but in 1978, I was one of the youngest Realtors in town.
Ron Hodges, who had a small company on Knoxville, hired me. About one month into my new career, I discovered I was pregnant. Many of my clients have watched my daughter grow up—she was in the car with me for about 16 years until she got her driver’s license. I would pick her up from school in the afternoon and put up signs, drop off keys, etc., with her tagging along. She still enjoys riding along with me when she is in town. Megan is now 29, married, and living in Washington, DC. Just for the record, she is not a Realtor!
Ron Hodges taught me how to sell real estate in a down market. I remember sitting at an open house on East Seneca listening to the radio when they announced mortgage rates were at an all time high of 17 percent. I decided to call on banks and sell foreclosures the next day. It was a nightmare—there were half-finished homes, abandoned homes and filthy homes. One house had a bird’s nest in a closet, along with a flock of birds. Getting a loan to build a new home was very easy then. People were attempting to build their own homes without a contractor, and several large savings and loan companies were going along with it. They were my target.
Of course I made numerous mistakes for the first year or two, but Ron was a remarkable mentor and I learned the true basics of selling real estate. In a strange twist of fate, he purchased Commercial National Realty, the same company that would not hire me. The first year I was with CNR, I was their top salesperson, which became a great joke between Bernie and me.
Explain how the RE/MAX franchise network works.
Charlie Rock started RE/MAX in Peoria in 1979. It was a very new concept. Instead of a traditional agency where agents and brokers split commissions, the RE/MAX concept was that agents kept 100 percent of the commission, but paid all of their own expenses, including advertising, office space, signs, lock box rentals, board dues, postage and much more. Of course, the agent took on the risk in return for the opportunity to keep a larger portion of the commission. It was a really great plan for top producers, and many agents decided to join. When I joined in 1985, there were not quite 5,000 agents. Now, there are over 113,000 around the world. RE/MAX changed the real estate industry. We could basically run our own business and make our own decisions about how we wanted to run it. Many companies now offer similar programs to recruit top agents.
Most of the top agents were still selling two or three million dollars a year in sales. Charlie gave agents in Peoria the opportunity and the inspiration to reach higher. During the early years, with most of the agents being prima donnas, we disagreed most of the time. I don’t know how Charlie put up with us so graciously. Everyone had a vote on large purchases and advertising, and we had a management committee to work with him on decisions. Of course, we had quite a few heated debates, but it worked. Charlie respected our ideas and did everything possible to implement them.
With 113,000 agents across the world, RE/MAX has unlimited opportunities for agents to grow their businesses. We have RE/MAX Mainstreet, which has advertising templates, updated technology information, an approved supplier list and a database of all of the agents in the network, including details about their businesses. I use this feature to select an agent to refer my clients to when the move away from Peoria. I can see how long they have been in the business, the languages they speak, what advanced designations they have earned, their hobbies and RE/MAX award levels, which tell me how successful they have been over the past year. I normally pick agents who are around the same age as my clients, who have their CRS designation, and have been in the business for several years. If I find an agent with similar interests or hobbies as my clients, I contact them.
How do you employ the latest technology in your field?
Over the past 30 years, technology has truly impacted the real estate industry as much as or more than any other industry. It was simply not possible for agents to sell as many homes as we can today. We did not have any of the basic technology we take for granted. Being the newest agent, I had to run to the Board of Realtors’ office on McClure Avenue to pick up mimeographed new listing sheets in the morning.
We were selling homes without cell phones, computers (no Internet or email), fax machines, digital cameras, Palm Pilots, video cameras or copy machines. I was happy because my office had an electric typewriter and I had learned to type on a manual typewriter. My first portable phone was in a large bag. It was a ship-to-shore radio device. I had to call the mobile operator who would place my call, and only one of us could talk at once; it was a brief and public conversation.
I have always been fascinated with technology and had to have one of the first mass-produced computers. I had to insert a big floppy disk to start MS-DOS. There was a very small selection of software available, and none of it related to real estate. Basically, all I could do was compile databases and spreadsheets. Since I did not have many clients, it probably took longer to start it than it took to use it. I was hooked, however, and still love computers. There are two in my office, and I carry a laptop with a wireless card. I signed up for an AOL email account as soon as possible. None of my clients had it yet, so it was not very helpful, but I could see the potential.
Today, I have five email accounts, including my business email address, my shopping email, gmail and two RE/MAX email accounts. I keep my old AOL account just for fun. I advertised it quite a bit, and occasionally I will have someone contact me on it. I recently set up a Facebook group for RE/MAX agents. I carry my iPod to open houses for background music and to save podcasts. I have a blog, PeoriaBlog.com. I own about 15 domain names—most of them redirect traffic to my website, LaurieCovington.com.
I have a YouTube account. The only video I have uploaded was made by accident. My husband and I went with the Bradley soccer team to the NCAA Soccer Tournament in December. The end of the game was unbelievable. I grabbed my digital camera out of my purse as the players were charging across the field singing and jumping into the stands. While trying to take a photo without my glasses, I took a video by mistake. It is a poor-quality video, and if you listen closely you can probably hear my daughter and I arguing about changing the setting on the camera, but it was a hit. I posted it on YouTube, and the next day AOL news picked it up and inserted it in their news story. It had over 31,000 hits in the first couple of days and won four honors, which are based on views. I am going to buy a Flickr recorder soon and start putting my listings on YouTube.
I was also one of the Realtor.com pioneers, which includes all of the listing in MLS systems across the country. When I first joined, the fee to enhance my listings on their website was $149 per year. It is now closer to $1,500, and that does not include fees for “featured” homes. But, I have the ability to add my contact information, showcase my listings and add several photos and virtual tours. Now you can load videos in addition to photos, tours and maps. Buyers expect all of this, and most do not look at homes that do not have photos.
My favorite Realtor.com story involved a couple calling me who had been searching for homes in Peoria on the site. Nadyne Clark called me to look at some homes with her husband, Terry, their two daughters, a son-in-law, a grandchild, a son and two mothers. The entire family came…every weekend for weeks. We looked at homes in all areas in all price ranges. It was a mystery—I could not figure out what was bringing them to Peoria. At one point, I almost gave up, but Kathy Smith, who was helping me show them homes, convinced me to hang in there.
Why would they take the time to come to Peoria with all of their family every weekend if they were not serious buyers? To make the situation even more difficult, they all wanted to live close to each other, in different price ranges. Finally, they explained the situation; they had just purchased all of the local McDonalds restaurants and the whole family was moving from Chicago with them. So, I sold them a home, each of their daughters purchased a home, their son bought a home, both of the mothers bought condos, and I sold their manager—who transferred along with them—a home. I think the Clark family justified my Realtor.com fees for the rest of my career.
What are some of the awards and honors you have received over the years?
I was awarded “Realtor-Associate of the Year” in 1984. It was only the fourth annual Board of Realtors Award Banquet, and our guest speaker was Congressman Bob Michel. The award was based on outstanding service to the association of Realtors and to the community. I was on the board of directors for the association at that time and was teaching a new agent orientation program at the board office.
In 1987, I received my first national advertising award. Homes and Land magazine published a monthly magazine for Realtors and Real Estate Boards across the United States. It was presented at the National Association of Realtors Convention. I was not there; I did not even know they had a contest.
I received another national award from RE/MAX International in 1989. The Illinois Valley Yacht Club, of which I am a member, purchased several small sailboats for sailing instruction. I donated money to sponsor one boat with my name on both sides of it. I held a Regatta at the IVY Club—the “First Annual RE/MAX Regatta.” It should have been called the “First and Last.” In the midst of the event, a huge storm came over the bluff, and we had to have the committee boat tow the participants to shore. It was open to all club members, not just students. It was great! I had awards, prizes and a committee boat. I submitted the event, with photos and the promotional material, to the annual RE/MAX advertising contest, and it won first place in the personal promotion category.
I qualified for the RE/MAX International Hall of Fame in 1997. This award is based on cumulative commissions earned during your career with RE/MAX. I have been a member of the RE/MAX Platinum Club every year since 2002. Agents who receive this award are in the top 5 percent of RE/MAX agents internationally. In 2007, I qualified for the RE/MAX Lifetime Achievement Award—only 10 percent of RE/MAX agents worldwide have earned this award.
Tell us about your numerous professional designations and how they help you in your career.
In 1994, I earned my Certified Residential Specialist (CRS) designation, the most rigorous residential designation available to Realtors. Agents with a CRS have completed advanced training in residential real estate and have a proven track record of sales transactions required to earn the designation. Most agents who have the designation refer their clients to agents who have also earned the designation. When I send a referral to another state, I can look agents up in my CRS directory online and know they have advanced training, skills and experience, and I can trust sending my clients to them. Only four percent of Realtors nationwide hold this designation.
Last year I completed a course to receive my Residential Construction Certification. It is a comprehensive training program covering materials, methods of construction, terminology and details of residential construction, both new and used.
I also earned a Certified New Home Specialist designation last year. Industry reports show that the majority of transferees want to purchase new construction. I have been selling new construction for years, but wanted to go one step further. The certification involves helping a Realtor understand how to sell new construction, how to understand both the buyer and the builder’s perspective, strategies for effectively selling quality design and construction, and also includes information on how to help a buyer choose a builder who suits their needs. Architectural design, blueprint reading, understanding site design and topography were all covered. Basically, I had to learn all of the correct technical terminology involved in building a home from site selection to marketing new construction, which is totally different from selling existing homes.
Several years ago, the state of Illinois decided to require Realtors to take continuing education classes every two years to keep their license active. This has added to the professionalism in the industry. I attend RE/MAX International conventions to keep up on trends, technology and new products. The CRS organization also offers opportunities for advanced training. We have RE/MAX Satellite Network TV in our office, which features some of the industry’s top speakers, and it offers top-quality training programs for both seasoned and new agents. The sales manager at RE/MAX, Barb Smith, teaches an in-depth training course for agents; it is called RE/MAX University.
Explain some of the unique services you offer when showing a client around the Peoria area.
When I work with a prospective new buyer considering a move to Peoria, I use a New Buyer Orientation Program. I try to schedule their visit when I am personally available to introduce them to Peoria. I am proud of Peoria and love to show it off, so this is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. It takes about three hours, and I always take the same route. I start downtown on Water Street, and we drive around the new Warehouse District. I show them the Contemporary Art Center, the condos and businesses at 401 Water, the restaurants and bars, and then we head to the Gateway Building and Visitor’s Center and I tell them about various festivals and the Fine Art Fair. I then head up Main Street and loop around to O’Brien Field and the Civic Center. We go past CAT Headquarters, where I point out the gift shop, which is a big hit, and we then stop by the courthouse plaza. It is so festive in the warm months.
To a newcomer, seeing street vendors, music and people in the street is very positive. Most of them are surprised to see how many trees we have planted downtown. Then, I continue up Main Street, pausing at the bottom so they can see the panoramic view of our downtown hospitals, since quality healthcare is always a concern.
Taking a detour along High Street. I enjoy stopping by the big oak tree. This is also a good viewing spot to see the city. We drive past the grand homes on Moss Avenue and go to the Bradley campus and I explain how much Bradley contributes to our community with sports events, theater productions, musical performances and the numerous programs they offer for children, adults and retirees. I believe having Bradley in Peoria brings the city to a higher level of sophistication. My next stop is One World Café for a quick cup of coffee.
Next, I cut back across town to go up Glen Oak Avenue. If you go all the way to the end, you can see a beautiful city view. I go this way to be sure to swing through Glen Oak Park and the historic Springdale Cemetery. At the very back, there is also a dramatic river view. I normally don’t have time to drive through, but I do mention the fall performances in the cemetery, which are both rich in Peoria history and entertaining. Our next stop is in Peoria Heights to see quaint shops and popular restaurants.
Of course, Grandview Drive is always the highlight of the day. I stop at the top of the circle to enjoy the vista looking north. If it is a Saturday morning, we get to see the sailboats racing from the IVY Club, which is very picturesque. We drive along Prospect, viewing the fine homes and arrive in Junction City with its fabulous updates and unique businesses. The VOP train car is always of interest.
I continue north on Knoxville towards the Dunlap area, pointing out Detweiller Drive and Park and all it offers as I drive past many of the new residential developments. Even if they are not interested in new construction, I think it is important for them to understand how much our city is growing. I am out there daily, and I am still finding new subdivisions.
I then cross town to Rt. 91 to show off all of the new buildings, beautiful new prairie-style buildings, including the Illinois Eye Center, OSF Saint Francis Center for Health and Illinois CancerCare. I point out Hoerr Nursery, and we end up at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie. I think it is important for prospective employees to see that we are still growing both commercially and residentially. There is also a level of comfort in seeing their favorite chain restaurants. I almost force Avanti’s on them as we head to Sterling. No one understands it is a Peoria institution until they have tasted a gondola! In the interest of staying on schedule, we then go back downtown via I-74, which gives me an opportunity to let them see the new highway and the entrance to downtown from a different perspective.
It is so much fun that I fall in love with Peoria again myself. Everyone who has toured Peoria with me is astounded at the things a city our size offers. I always mention clients who complained about having to move to Peoria, and cried when they had to leave.
Peoria is a great place to raise a child, so I always include a copy of the Park District playbook, and we talk about Lakeview Museum, the public golf courses, the soccer fields at Detweiller Park and the lagoon at Glen Oak Park. The nightlife for young people is improving, thanks to people like Pat Sullivan, a friend and fellow member of Peoria High’s class of 1970, who are trying to create a more urban environment downtown.
I assist some local businesses and physician practices who recruit new employees. I always ask why they choose to live here—after all, they can go anywhere. Most of them feel that the wages offered are about the same as they would earn in a major city, but the cost of living here makes it a bargain by comparison. There is virtually no commute time, they have more time to spend with their families, and the money they save on housing and cost of living allows them the freedom to travel or send their children to private schools, which are very inexpensive compared to those in urban areas.
Businesses here do not have difficulty finding top-quality employees; their problem is convincing them to move to Peoria. That is where I come in. I am committed to selling Peoria. Most of the people I work with end the day with a totally different opinion of Peoria than what they had when they arrived. They come expecting to see cornfields and flat terrain without hills or trees. I find that most people do not realize that Peoria is located on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River. No one expects to find a symphony orchestra, a ballet troupe, a Civic Center featuring national entertainment, or professional hockey and baseball teams.
What questions are asked most by those young families being recruited to the Peoria area?
The most common concern buyers have is about is schools. By the time they arrive here, most of them have already gone online and checked out Illinois school report cards, which are somewhat misleading. I have a link on my website to GreatSchools.com, which has some very good information.
As a lifelong Peorian, what attracts you most to the area?
My favorite parts of Peoria are sailing on the Illinois River on a beautiful fall afternoon, hiking at Forest Park Nature Center and looking for wild turkeys, spending time at the Peoria Art Guild’s Fine Art Fair on the Riverfront, digging around at UFS, where you never know what you might find, watching the Santa Claus Parade (which is the oldest in the country), taking photographs of Springdale Cemetery, riding my bike on the Rock Island Trail, going to the local farmers’ markets and just strolling along Grandview Drive. My own backyard is my favorite spot; it is private, wooded and has a lovely koi pond.
What hobbies do you enjoy in your spare time?
I do make time to enjoy life outside of work. My husband and I have traveled to the British Virgin Islands almost every year, and we have started expanding our journeys. We have been to France, Corsica, the Greek Islands, Turkey, Bali, Spain, Central Mexico and Italy together. We decided to get the more challenging trips done now since we know too many people who have stopped traveling as they got older.
I started taking yoga in 2006 after reading an article about Namaste in Junction City in art & society magazine. Jan Wright Vergon invited me to join her in some private beginner classes, and I have become addicted to yoga. I try to attend a class at least three times a week.
I just started taking a sculpture class at the Contemporary Art Center with Preston Jackson in January, something I have wanted to do for several years. He is so talented. Just being in his studio seeing his work in progress and listening to him talk about his projects is inspiring. I read at least a book a week, and I visit my daughter in Washington, D.C. as often as possible.
I am a sustaining member of the Junior League of Peoria. I just finished working on the Angel Ball Committee for the new Children’s Hospital. My challenge is keeping up with the receptions and events associated with my husband’s community service. Al is currently the vice chairman of the OSF Foundation Board and president of the Saint Francis Society, serves on the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District Board, and is on the Government Relations Committee for the Illinois Bankers Association. Al was the President of the Board of the Peoria Public Library Trustees and was the Commodore of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club. TPW