It began with an email.
“There I was,” Hulberg recalls, “sitting outside of my partner’s condo in Hawaii with my brand-new iPad, eleven years ago… and I got this unsolicited email from a fellow named Steve Bullock, articulating his idea for a national appraisal firm. Normally, I would have hit the ‘delete’ button.”
In an uncharacteristic move, Hulberg read through the message, which shared about how select appraisal firms across the country could partner together to face some of the challenges in the industry and better serve their clientele. “And I thought, Wow. This is interesting.”
“Fast forward to three months later or so. There I was meeting in Cambridge, [Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston] with a bunch of people that I didn’t know” to discuss the idea. “That’s the amazing thing about all of this… I went to Boston—I’d never been to Boston—to have a meeting with other people that I didn’t know, based on a vision from a fellow named Steve Bullock, who I’d never heard of.”
“At some point, [during the meeting] one of these people that were to become my partners said, ‘Well, maybe we should go around the room and talk about what are our personal goals and see if there is harmony with all of our goals, [and] compatibility.’”
So they did. Hulberg himself wrote these goals on poster paper they’d hung on the walls in the conference room. Once done, he says, they found “the goals were almost identical, they were so compatible.”
“The energy and the harmony in the room was amazing,” he adds. “We were all there to figure out how to help each other. And that’s still the case here on our 10th anniversary. We’re all there to coordinate and share with each other.”
“We benefit,” Hulberg shares, “when all of the other offices are the most successful they can possibly be. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Reach and Expertise
Through this collaboration, Hulberg says, he’s able to provide his clients a “one-stop call” for a diverse set of services that he “couldn’t provide before.”
For example, Hulberg shares, “I’m working on an important assignment for one of my top clients that requires a hospital evaluation. Well, I don’t appraise hospitals.” But through Valbridge, he has access to an expert in this property type. This partner is “flying in from two thousand miles away” to work with Hulberg on the appraisal assignment and assist his client with this unique property type.
Through these types of connections, Hulberg says, he ensures that when clients need anything related to real estate they can “call Norm” and know “he’s going to make it happen.”
“And Valbridge helps me make it happen for my clients.”
Whether a more typical or complex assignment, Hulberg knows Valbridge appraisers have it covered.
Whether it’s an appraisal for a marina without water or 50 acres of land entirely submerged in the San Francisco Bay, Hulberg thrives on the complex assignments.
Describing a recent example of complexity, Hulberg shared about a high-speed rail system to be built 60 feet under his client’s property. “And the question is, how much should the client get paid for this subterranean easement? Well, that has to do with: What’s the impact on the surface of the property?” Hulberg, another appraiser from his office, the client, and a team of architects joined in a call to discuss that question.
“It was a very complicated analysis,” he says, “with a number of different alternatives of how it should get handled, how it could get handled. And this is something that, you know, certainly could end up in court. But I think at the end of the call, the client was very happy with the guidance that they’d gotten on a very complicated matter. And that felt good for me.”
“That’s part of what keeps me going after all of these years: intellectually solving these complicated problems and helping people,” he says. “It’s very energizing.”
Independence and Cooperation
“What sets [Valbridge] apart is that we are independent,” Hulberg shares. Most of the entities offering appraisals on a national level are brokerage firms. “And are they truly an independent voice or are they there to help their brokerage firm and maybe help a deal happen? We’re just there just to help the client. And that’s one of the big things. And the other thing is just the level of cooperation within the firm, where almost all of the franchisees are also owners of the company.”
The unification of firms across the nation also came with an opportunity to invest in the technology needed to boost appraisers’ efficiency.
“That is the number one reason that I was interested in joining originally,” Hulberg shares. Keen on driving efficiency in his office, in the five years prior to the Boston meeting Hulberg had spent a quarter of a million dollars on technology that was “all was worthless.”
Through Valbridge, though, the offices we able to share the cost of a database and report writing templates, and this technology has improved over the years.
“Our technology has changed a lot,” he says. While it cost more than they anticipated and has an obsolescence factor that has prompted the move to rebuild the platform, it has still been worthwhile, Hulberg believes.
“I think without the technology, I would maybe not be out of business yet, but it wouldn’t take too much longer.”
As Valbridge celebrates ten years, Hulberg reflects on its origin and considers its outlook.
“It was indeed a startup,” he says. “We were phenomenally underfunded. And we were naïve on what it was going to cost and what it was going to take. Some startup national appraisal firms that happened since then have been funded by venture capitalists. We weren’t… We’re still a young organization,” he adds. “So we’re still evolving.”
Of the Valbridge team, Hulberg says, “It’s just the best bunch of people I’ve ever known. And I can’t imagine a more dedicated, selfless bunch of people on the Board of Directors, just trying to do the best for everyone.”
“I’m quite passionate about Valbridge—I was, and I still am,” Hulberg shares. “And I’m passionate about the appraisal profession and the future.”