At the time of his death, Mr. Foster — known to his legions of real estate agents as “Wes” — was chairman emeritus of the company he founded with Henry A. “Hank” Long in Fairfax, Va., in 1968.
Long was an Air Force veteran. Mr. Foster, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, had served in the Army. They were both in their 30s and relatively new to real estate when they combined their names and ambitions to form the Long & Foster brand.
At the outset, the two men “flipped a coin,” Mr. Foster recalled in an interview with the Washington Business Journal. “He got his name first. I became president. We took off.”
When they began the operation, they employed a single real estate agent.
Long specialized in commercial real estate, Mr. Foster in residential. Mr. Foster bought out his partner in 1979 and, over the next four decades, built the business into one of the largest privately held companies in the Washington area and a behemoth of the real estate sector nationally, with operations in mortgage and settlement services, homeowner’s insurance and property management.
In 2017, Long & Foster was sold to HomeServices of America, an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company headed by billionaire investor Warren Buffett. By then, Long & Foster was the nation’s largest independent real estate brokerage by sales volume, The Washington Post reported, with 11,000 agents in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina.
In 2020, according to the company website, Long & Foster real estate sales reached $34.5 billion.
Long & Foster acquired by Berkshire’s HomeServices
Industry observers credited Mr. Foster with leading his company through a lucrative era of development that extended into the outer reaches of the Washington suburbs.
“If you had to start a brokerage firm … there was no better place in the country to be than Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, when Wes started to expand,” Bill Regardie, the publisher of the now-defunct Regardie’s business magazine, said in an interview. “He founded and ran the most dominant, successful, richest real estate sales firm that Washington has ever seen and that the Mid-Atlantic has ever seen.”
Mr. Foster was also credited with leading the company through recessions that periodically buffeted the real estate market and the economy as a whole.
“I really work toward making a profit, no matter how hard times get,” he told The Post in 1995, recalling one downturn when he cut his salary to zero to help maintain the company’s margins.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Foster witnessed prodigious changes in the way homes are bought and sold. When he began, agents maintained hard-copy records of active listings in their territory. With no lockboxes to dangle from doorknobs, they had to fetch keys before taking clients on a showing. There were no websites such as Zillow or Redfin where prospective home buyers could peruse properties on their own.
As Long & Foster marks its 50th anniversary, questions swirl about the future of old-school brokerages
Mr. Foster said the recruitment of successful real estate agents was always at the core of his business strategy. The ideal agent, in his estimation, possessed both “empathy” and “ego.”
“If you have a lot of empathy and you don’t have ego drive,” he told the publication American Executive in 2005, “you might make a good priest, but you won’t make a good salesperson or sales manager. If you have equal quotients of empathy and ego drive, you’re a good person, but you’re aggressive and you make things happen.”
Mr. Foster grew his company’s ranks by wooing agents away from competing firms and retaining those who worked for the smaller brokerages that Long & Foster bought in the course of its expansion. One longtime Long & Foster agent, Gary Ditto, recalled that Mr. Foster at times would help haul boxes into a new hire’s office.
Long & Foster got its start in a modest 600-square-foot office, but Mr. Foster wound up going to work in a sprawling headquarters complex in Chantilly, Va. The design of the main building there was inspired by the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. (Mr. Foster was a history buff.)
Paul Wesley Foster Jr., the eldest of four sons, was born in McDonough, Ga., on Nov. 25, 1933. His father worked at a Sears, Roebuck warehouse before operating a produce stand. His mother suffered from migraines and depression, leading to what Mr. Foster described as a nervous breakdown.
“She was crying all the time,” Mr. Foster, who also suffered from debilitating migraines, told The Post in 2004. “That’s when things started for me. I got depressed, too.”
Mr. Foster told The Post that “even though we didn’t have anything,” he “wanted to be somebody.” He received a partial football scholarship to attend VMI, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1956.
Mr. Foster served as an artillery officer in Germany before returning to the United States and beginning his business career as a salesman for Kaiser Aluminum. His sales rounds introduced him to builders, and one of them gave him a job selling homes. Mr. Foster met Long through that work.
From Northern Virginia, they expanded into Maryland in 1974 and D.C. in 1977.
Eleven years into their partnership, the investment firm Merrill Lynch made an offer to buy Long & Foster. Long was inclined to accept, but Mr. Foster was not yet ready to sell.
“Hank really wanted to sell to Merrill Lynch, to take that money and for both of us to go be developers,” Mr. Foster told The Post in 1988. “I told him, ‘Gosh, I liked this crazy business.’”
After Mr. Foster purchased his share of the company, Long became a commercial developer. He died in 2020.
Mr. Foster was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame in 2004. Two years later, the football stadium at VMI was renamed in his honor in recognition of his financial backing of the renovation of the school’s athletic facilities.
In addition to his stepson, survivors include Mr. Foster’s wife, Betty Foster, an artist; son Paul Wesley Foster III, and daughter Amanda Foster Spahr.
Asked to explain his competitive drive, Mr. Foster told The Post that he was “born that way.”
“The excitement of the chase,” he added, “is fun.”