Fall 2014 • Volume 8 / Issue 3
Changers From left: Lorne Wallace, Lon Welsh and Steve Murray
These men wrote the book on game-changing industry trends.
IN THIS ISSUE: Not Just a Number Cruncher • Drumming Up Business • This Old House
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Fall 2014 Volume 8 / Issue 3
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Publisher’s Note: Unfounded Fears
There is far too much angst and worry in our industry. That’s why three individuals set out to tackle some of the big worries and methodically lay them out for all to examine.
How the authors of the book “Game Changers— The Unfounded Fears and Future Prosperity of the Residential Real Estate Industry” are game changers in the true sense of the term.
Not Just a Number Cruncher
There’s more to Realogy Chief Accounting Officer Dea Benson than her nose for numbers.
Drumming Up Business
In the heart of country music, Gary Ashton is snaring business and moving to his own beat.
This Old House
What started as a remodeling hobby has turned into a full-blown obsession for Wendy Sanantonio and her husband.
Letter from the Publisher
here is far too much angst and worry in our industry. It seems like there is a bogeyman under every rock. Three individuals set out to tackle some of the big worries and methodically lay them out for all to examine. In doing so, we discovered that behind the book, “Game Changers,” were three businessmen who took far different paths in life and work, yet arrived at the same conclusions at the same time. Lon Welsh was a high level consultant who through a corporate downsizing found success in investing in residential real estate and built a highly successful real estate brokerage business. He also pursues a passion for skiing, golfing and traveling with his young family. Lorne Wallace discovered that being an accounting professional with an interest in software enabled him to build what is today among North America’s largest real estate software companies, serving tens of thousands of brokerage firms and hundreds of thousands of real estate agents. Lorne finds time for his passion, reading books, and is a foremost collector of various kinds of fiction. I co-founded REAL Trends 28 years ago with a simple vision to create a business that serves as the source of useful trends information. This information was not available from another source at the time. Along the way, we picked up more than 50,000 readers, ranked North America’s top brokerage firms and agents and built a leading brokerage consulting practice. Along with Lorne, I love to read and collect books. I also love to fish and pursue trout wherever they can be found. Each of us has carved out a path that was new and different. Each of us thinks of ourselves at least a little bit as game changers. Researching and writing our book was not so much a stretch as it was an extension of how we have lived. To be able to do so together was an added blessing. Stephen H. Murray Publisher
Lives of Real Estate
www.loremagazine.com Steve Murray Publisher email@example.com Tracey C. Velt Editor-in-Chief firstname.lastname@example.org David Grassnick Graphic Designer email@example.com Travis Saxton Webmaster firstname.lastname@example.org Doniece Welch Advertising email@example.com 303-741-1000 Lore magazine is published online via Issuu four times a year—in February, May, August and November—by REAL Trends Inc. 7501 Village Square Drive, Ste. 200 Castle Rock, CO 80108 (303) 741-1000 Free Subscriptions: Click Here or call 303-741-1000 firstname.lastname@example.org
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How the authors of the book “Game Changers— The Unfounded Fears and Future Prosperity of the Residential Real Estate Industry” are game changers in the true sense of the term. From left: Lorne Wallace, Lon Welsh and Steve Murray
n business, game changers come in many forms. For example, you have game changers in companies such as Amazon.com, which upended the brick-and-mortar bookstore model, and Uber, which is shaking up the taxi industry. Then, you have people game changers, who shake up the Click to business world, such as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc. Even market conditions can change buy the book games, such as the recent recession that caused real today estate brokerages to reassess business models and strategies. In their book, “Game Changers—The Unfounded Fears and Future Prosperity of the Residential Real Estate Industry,” authors Steve Murray, Lon Welsh and Lorne C. Wallace talk about real estate professionals’ eight greatest fears for real estate’s future and how to prepare for them. But each author, in his own right, is a game changer in business. We spoke with Murray, Welsh and Wallace to find out what has happened to change the course of their businesses.
Lorne C. Wallace Chief Executive Officer Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies lwolf.com Lorne C. Wallace, founder of Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, began work for a chartered accounting firm in 1984. During his second week of work, that firm received its first IBM PC XT computer. After watching staff spend the week installing WordStar V1.0 and VisiCalc v1.0, among other programs, Wallace thought he would poke around, and he accidentally reformatted the hard drive late on a Friday afternoon. Thus, he discovered his love of both technology and accounting.
Lives of Real Estate
Business Leaders A manager at the firm then had the idea that if both the software and the accounting came from the same firm, it would be hard for a client to leave. This became the genesis of the concept behind Lone Wolf: Engage your clients from different directions, and they can’t run away. The Birth of Lone Wolf After leaving the accounting firm, Wallace worked as a roving controller with several companies. One, Seaborne Marketing, had a customized order entry/inventory program. After realizing that the company had no real system with which to run its business, Wallace hired a close friend, Peter Reilly, to write the order entry/inventory/accounts receivable system for him. This code, which became the original version of Lone Wolf, went live April 15, 1987. “I think providing a solid structure to what is really the foundation of any business, the accounting and workflow, is the biggest impact we have had on the real estate industry,” says Wallace. “By no means have we been perfect over the last 25 years, but no customer has ever had to wonder if we would be around or how to get hold of us. In the technology world, where many companies come and go, we have successfully navigated from DOS to Windows to Cloud and not left anyone behind. Certainly, there have been lots of changes in the frontfacing part of the industry and those challenges continue, but on the back end, Lone Wolf has never wavered.” The Real Estate Space Lone Wolf began full-time operations Jan. 1, 1989. The concept was that Wallace would develop his accounting practice in conjunction with the software company, using each facet of the operation to complement the other. Several clients who bought Lone Wolf software in 1989 continue to run it to this day, still in its DOS form. “My third customer, Des O’Kelly, owned a real estate brokerage and wanted some custom 8
Lives of Real Estate
GameChanging Strategy “This might sound funny, but it will explain a lot,” says Wallace. “I was the president of the Chess Club in high school. I approach our business with the attitude that I’m not working just for today; I’m always thinking several moves ahead. For the past 25 years, I’ve been engaged in the industry as a fly on the wall at events. I’m always listening for the challenges my customers face. Hearing what your customers hear puts you a move or two ahead. So when they come to you, you aren’t playing catch-up; you’re out in front with them. Oh, and I’m a very good chess player.”
programming done for his office. He introduced me to others in his franchise who also bought, and then staff moved to different companies and bought the program there,” says Wallace. “So a lot of organic growth occurred long before we could afford things like marketing and advertising. Word of mouth and reputation are still the two most powerful drivers of any business.” By the end of 1989, O’Kelly’s office had a Novell Network installed, a centralized modem pool and centralized laser printers. Every agent had a desktop computer with a dot matrix printer. Agents would come into the office, turn on their computers, exchange internal mail with other agents, prepare offers on their computers, connect to the real estate board and have access to other software tools. At the time, this office was far beyond state of the art. Thus, Lone Wolf had successfully entered the real estate vertical. “It’s continually a challenge,” says Wallace. “We’re selling products that focus on left-brain activities, such as structure, workflow, analytics and metrics, to an industry that is right-brain focused, on things such as look, feel and sense.” However, Wallace’s laser focus on solving customers’ problems kept him in the forefront of the industry. “I realize that my role was to take customers’ pain away, [to help them avoid] dealing with something most of them didn’t want to deal with. Once we realized that, our focus and energy went into communicating along those lines. Once we knew why we were doing what we were doing and could communicate that effectively to our clients, the business just took off.
Lives of Real Estate
Business Leaders Steve Murray, founder REAL Trends Consulting realtrends.com Fresh off a stint as the president and CEO of Equitable Realty Network, Steve Murray, founder of REAL Trends Consulting in Denver, joined forces with fellow real estate peer Laurie Moore-Moore to develop a monthly real estate trends newsletter. “That was in 1987, and there wasn’t a newsletter like it out there. Laurie and I also thought the market was big enough to make a business out of the newsletter along with some speaking and consulting,” says Murray. First-year revenues were less than $12,000, certainly not enough for the partners to eke out a living from it. “So we developed other areas, such as our rankings of brokerages, agents and teams, CEO groups, brokerage valuations and sales and the Gathering of Eagles conference,” he says. “There was a market for both a publication and conferences that weren’t tied to any one brand or kind of brokerage.” He was right. He handled his first sale of a brokerage company in 1988. That same year, REAL Trends published its first ranking of the top brokerage firms in the country. “It was the first time anyone had done this,” says Murray. That year, REAL Trends held its first Gathering of Eagles conference as well. “A key turning point for us happened in 1992. We were hired by Coldwell Banker Realty Corp. to write a manual on valuations, mergers and acquisitions. It was the first of its kind in the industry,” says Murray. “I subsequently wrote a separate book on valuation. The first edition sold 4,000 copies in six months during 1994.” By 1993, REAL Trends was profitable enough to hire its first full-time employee, Doniece Welch, who is still with I believe we are the company. “She worked out of my basement for years,” recognized as the laughs Murray. In fact, Murray and Welch didn’t have a most trusted source regular office until 1999.
for trends and market
Core Services information. We’ve Over the years, Murray grew the consulting side of the business substantially and added other conferences and developed the leading services. In 2002, Moore-Moore sold her half of the business consulting practice to Murray, who became the only owner. “The core has stayed the same—produce useful, trusted information about in acquisitions and the residential brokerage industry,” he says. But keeping pace with the changing market was tough. “We valuations as well as in bootstrapped the business, so we did not have a lot of capital brokerage technology behind us,” says Murray, who notes that for the first 10 years, consulting. he put “every dime REAL Trends made back into the business — Steve Murray and lived on (income from) consulting and speaking.” But as 10
Lives of Real Estate
business goes, “It seemed like every time we got ready to make some money, we had to reinvest due to changes in the competitive landscape. Those changes and a few recessions really forced us to stay tightly focused on serving clients and keeping our message as straightforward as possible.” Since then, REAL Trends has gone from 110 readers to more than 54,000 readers. “We’ve provided consulting services to more than 2,400 firms throughout the United States and Canada,” Murray adds. Careful Focus The key to that success, according to Murray, is that “we decided to focus on a few areas of the industry for our consulting practice and become real experts in those few areas. We did not want to be generalists. You can’t be the best at everything.” That’s why mergers, acquisitions and valuation of brokerages became the company’s core strengths in consulting. “We mostly referred the rest to others who were far better than we were in those particular areas. In our publications, we began to produce research of our own, and that really separated us from the rest of the pack. As we’ve grown, we’ve been blessed with some of the best people in the industry—people who care about what we are doing and care about the people we serve,” he says. Perhaps most important, says Murray, is that REAL Trends always “played by rules that some “I think what separates us from others don’t choose to play by. The best example many of our competitors is that was in [1999, when Realtor.com offered its IPO, we care about our clients and it offered stock to friends and family. Laurie beyond the work we are doing and I turned them down],” he says. “We couldn’t for them,” says Murray. “It is publish a newsletter and cover them fairly if we important to do excellent, took that type of gratuity. That rule stands today. We don’t own shares in companies that we cover.” competent work. It is equally
important to our clients that we know them at some personal level and care about how our work fits with their companies, dreams, aspirations and goals. Our success, I think, is based on this fact more than any other.”
The Trusted Source All that hard work and dedication to facts and trusted information has paid off. REAL Trends currently has 11 employees and recently started a tech division, helping brokerages navigate the maze of choices out there. “I think REAL Trends continues to be the one company that serves all the various segments, models and brands in the industry in an impartial way, with the most reliable information available,” says Murray. “Our rankings of both brokerage firms and sales agents are now regarded by industry leaders as the most trusted in the industry. What we do had never been done before in this industry. We created the service or research. That has been the most fun part of what we have done.” Lives of Real Estate
Business Leaders Lon Welsh, founder and president Your Castle Real Estate yourcastle.org After eight years serving as a strategy consultant for Deloitte & Touche and then Arthur Andersen, Welsh was downsized. After being laid off, he found himself naturally falling into real estate. “I was an investor myself, and I figured the analysis tools I developed would be useful to others,” he says. That was in 2005. “I had so many clients that I had to hire a team, so I found myself managing five to six real estate professionals,” he says. The brokerage evolved from there. “I thought, why not be a managing broker? So I opened Your Castle Real Estate (in Denver) in 2006,” he says. His focus at the time was primarily working with investors who found his price change map tool, which breaks down market statistics by neighborhood, especially useful. However, he had an epiphany: “Owner occupants were [similar to] investors, and with some marketing changes, the tools I built would be applicable to a whole new audience.” He was right. The brokerage thrived and has expanded to six offices and 230 real estate professionals in eight short years. “I felt that I needed to get intimate with my target clients. So I defined an ideal demographic and found a way to deliver a solution to their problems,” says Welsh. “I did that in recruiting, as well. My objective was to listen to real estate professionals and find out what needs they had that weren’t being met. It’s Strategy 101.” Quick Growth What exactly did Welsh do to facilitate that growth? First, because of his corporate background, he built tools, such as the price change map, that no one had ever done before. “I also developed a hot sheet,” he explains. “You enter an address and get an estimate of the value of the property. Years ago, that was a novel idea. Each morning, we would run all the new listings through our automated appraisal program to reveal which new listings were the best values,” he says. That system has evolved, and now, says Welsh, “We’ve developed a real estate valuation engine: give it an address, and it will tell you what the property is worth. Unlike Zillow, it’s based on sold comps from the MLS, which is what a licensed appraiser uses to value a home. We use this technology to develop price opinions for every active listing on the market, and we can determine which are overpriced and which I pull a lot of 12-hour represent excellent values for our clients.”
days. The secret is that you just have to work really hard. — Lon Welsh
Lives of Real Estate
Educating Others Perhaps Welsh’s true game changer, however, was the way he built his team. “When you start a brokerage, it’s just you, and you have to attract a team of managing brokers, sales associates and administrators. Finding
GameChanging Strategy “I came into real estate as an outsider after being a strategy consultant for eight years,” says Welsh. “There’s an advantage that comes from being an outsider to the industry. I need to keep that perspective. There’s an unbelievable wealth of experience that comes from being in the business so long, but it cuts against you as much as it helps you out. Sometimes you can’t evolve as fast as you need to, and I don’t want to let that happen to me.”
outstanding talent takes a lot of practice. We’re successful only because of the team we have.” It’s a team that was built on a foundation of education, he says. Welsh wrote several books on succeeding in real estate and then offered free seminars to local real estate professionals. “I held them at several Association of Realtors® offices or at the MLS. My real estate trends presentations explained what was driving the behavior of consumers and how to take advantage of each phase of the economic cycle,” he says. By publishing the books and doing the seminars, he got in front of hundreds of local real estate professionals who wanted help redesigning their business plans and restarting their careers—preferably at Your Castle Real Estate. Publishing books and doing seminars also allowed him “to raise the level of professionalism by helping all agents get a better command of the market and what drives it, and to provide them a way to explain it to the consumer so that the consumer can take advantage of it,” he says. “We talked to a lot of Realtors about their frustrations with the market. Those frustrations change every nine months or so. By listening to them, we were able to develop classes on how to solve those problems and handle the frustrations.” Welsh has since written seven books. His third book, “Unlocked: Revealing the Eight Secrets of Highly Efficient Sales Professionals” (authored by Darice Johnston, Lon Welsh, Drew Shope and Bruce Gardner), has spurred Welsh to develop companion workshops on each secret to provide sales associates with the keys to efficiency. Over the years, says Welsh, “the tools just keep getting better. We’ve written a couple books about agent production and three books about investing in Denver real estate.” In addition, his focus stays strong. “We work with both investors and owner occupants. In 2010, owner occupants in our market weren’t really buying; now they are. Being able to serve multiple customer segments is a nice hedge against the overall market cycle.” Lives of Real Estate
The Making of
Ever wonder what goes into writing and publishing a book? LORE Magazine interviewed the three authors, Lon Welsh, founder of Your Castle Real Estate in Denver; Lorne C. Wallace, CEO of Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies in Cambridge, Canada, and Steve Murray, founder of REAL Trends in Denver, to find out how the book was born.
women in this business believe that no matter what is happening, they’ll figure out a solution. They know their business may look different 10 years from now.
LORE: What surprised you the most? Wallace: Not much surprised me. We’re so deep in the forest at Lone Wolf that we saw a lot of this coming. I guess the one thing that surprised me is that the old saying is true—“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Real estate is still a communication business. It’s about the personal relationships.
Murray: It was a challenge to get it done in the timeframe we set for ourselves. We wanted it printed by the May 2014 Gathering of Eagles conference. As I recall, I wrote the first draft during late December 2013. By January, we had completed the survey of 6,000 top-producing brokers and agents. The Harris Interactive consumer study was done by early February. We went through six versions of the book after that. This isn’t an easy process. You don’t just sit down in a weekend and write a book. L
Welsh: When we researched the Facilitator versus Counselor trends, I got a sense of where the market is going. That helped me crystallize my vision for my brokerage. Dan Elsea (president of LORE: How did the idea come about? Real Estate One), in Michigan, laid his ideas out in Welsh: I’m in Steve’s Leadership Council CEO such a clear, concise way that it really gave us the group, and we were brainstorming about how the framework for Chapter 1. I was also surprised by industry would evolve. He and I decided it would the changes in consumer behavior based on be a good book. Then, we pulled Lorne into it for generation. I had foreseen some of it, but not all. the data side. LORE: What was the hardest part of writing the Murray: We tossed around a trends book and book? talked about making it wild and crazy. But there Welsh: I had to take a week and a half off from are others who write that type of book. So we work and go off site to review 15 years of decided to interview people to get their ideas about National Association of Realtors® reports and the future. Then, as we were talking over lunch REAL Trends reports. There’s a lot of tedium that about what’s on brokers’ and agents’ minds, we comes from going through 50 hours of one-on-one realized that that should be the thrust of the book. interviews and mapping it all out so that we could We then picked six to eight key areas. We wanted to flush out the book. That was my role. address those concerns and offer solutions. We wanted it to be useful to agents and brokers. We did Wallace: I played devil’s advocate to the other a lot of research. Lorne came up with the concept of two. I think what we do in the industry is really a consumer study and helped underwrite it. important. It’s not a simple business, and it can’t be broken down into numbers and data. The Wallace: Steve and Lon brought the idea to me, challenge to me was interpreting the data while and we bounced ideas off each other. I helped them making it personal as well. I wanted to help pull together a lot of data and make sense of it. people connect to it personally.
Murray: I was surprised, when doing our 50-plus interviews of brokerage leaders, that the men and 14
Lives of Real Estate
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Thereâ€™s more to Realogy Chief Accounting Officer Dea Benson than her nose for numbers. 16
Lives of Real Estate
hile many know Dea Benson for her pivotal role in Realogy’s $1.2 billion initial public offering in 2012, most don’t know the type of caring and compassion she’s exhibited through her charitable work. The senior vice president and chief accounting officer believes that service in the local community is a vital part of her role within Realogy Holdings Corp. That’s not surprising once you hear about her background. “I was a nurse for 10 years before getting into accounting,” says Benson. “At 20-something, I was ambitious and loved nursing, but I was never going to be promoted to doctor,” she laughs. “I went back to business school on a whim.” Early Accounting Days From there, she worked in finance and accounting roles in several companies, including chief accounting officer of Genius Products Inc., an independent home entertainment distributor. From 1995 through 2006, Benson held various positions with DreamWorks SKG/Paramount Pictures, including four years as controller of DreamWorks SKG. After Paramount’s acquisition of DreamWorks SKG in 2005, she held the role of divisional CFO of the Worldwide Home Entertainment division of Paramount Pictures. She joined Realogy in 2008. While Benson hasn’t practiced nursing in 30 years, that career prepared her for the work she’s doing for both Realogy Cares, the headquarters chapter of the Realogy Charitable Foundation and the American Red Cross. “It’s amazing how much I
Dea Benson (far right) along with other Realogy senior executives and board members, at the New York Stock Exchange bell podium for Realogy’s IPO on Oct. 11, 2012.
Lives of Real Estate
Profile still use that nursing experience. The Red Cross combined my two passions: business and healthcare,” she says. Before working for the Red Cross, however, Benson worked with Realogy’s charitable foundation. Realogy Cares “I was new to New Jersey when I took the job at Realogy. I had done some philanthropy work in California and wanted to re-establish that work here,” says Benson. That’s why she immediately thrust herself into working with Realogy Cares, the organization’s charitable foundation. “When I came to Realogy, the company was very strapped for money. I’m a big believer in corporate social responsibility, so we encouraged Realogy executives to support the charitable foundation by giving back in the community. From 2011 to 2012, Benson served as the executive chair of Realogy Cares. During that time, the foundation raised and distributed $128,800 directly to the company’s 92 impacted employees, brokers and sales associates who applied for assistance, and also donated $60,000 to the American Red Cross general fund for Hurricane Sandy Relief, which included a matching donation of $25,000 from Realogy.
In your career, your greatest strengths are your greatest weaknesses. What makes me good is that I’m not afraid to make decisions based on imperfect information. The flip side is those decisions may not always be perfect.”
Seeing Red Through Realogy Cares, Benson found her true charitable passion in the American Red Cross. “A college friend of mine was serving on the board of the American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey. We all know what an amazing job the Red Cross does for disaster relief but many don’t realize what it does in the local community,” she says. It was this aspect that fascinated Benson. “If there’s a fire and it’s 3 a.m., the volunteers go out immediately and hand out housing and clothing vouchers to those in need. Serving for the Red Cross has become a passion for me more because of the local efforts,” says Benson, who served on the board of directors in 2010 and was the treasurer for the past three years. “The Red Cross recently centralized its — Dea Benson financial functions, and that’s a great benefit. They’re not spending a lot of money locally on creating financial statements and are, instead, focused on relief efforts and fund raising,” she says. That’s important, especially to Benson, who was involved in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort as a board member. Relief efforts for Hurricane Sandy mark the largest U.S. operation by the Red Cross in more than five years, and through the end of November 2013, the Red Cross had spent or made commitments to spend 92 percent of the donations for Sandy, or about $285 million of the $309 million in Sandy donations. Benson is currently serving on the Red Cross board governance committee, helping recruit new board members and actively raising funds.
Jersey’s Best In January 2014, Benson was named one of New Jersey’s Best 50 Women in Business by NJBIZ, a New Jersey business publication. The award recognizes women business leaders who are influential in their companies, industries and communities—women who are helping shape the economic future of 18
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New Jersey. “Dea has made considerable contributions as an executive officer of our company and in the community as well,” said Richard A. Smith, Realogy’s chairman, chief executive officer and president. “We are fortunate to have someone of her character and integrity representing Realogy, and we are proud of her accomplishments.” Those accomplishments are many. A certified public accountant, Benson has overseen all corporate accounting and financial reporting functions across Realogy and its business units since she joined the company in 2008. As chief accounting officer, she played a pivotal role in Realogy’s $1.2 billion initial public offering in 2012. Her role was recently expanded to include direct oversight and management responsibility for Realogy’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) analysis and review process, a cross-functional initiative spanning all units of the company. Working closely with the audit committee of the Realogy board of directors, Benson has initiated positive changes to business processes that have resulted in numerous best-practice improvements to the company’s already strong financial controls environment. Behind the IPO Despite her many accolades, Benson is most proud of “this company’s turnaround. I came in 2008 and Realogy had just been purchased in a leverage buyout that added a heavy debt burden Benson (right) and Realogy Chairman and CEO Richard Smith (left) presenting a check to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy Relief. in the midst of market downturn,” she says. “The next few years took every bit of effort from senior team to ensure we provided good service to customers and clients, but were also able to meet investor and credit obligations. To go from counting every penny to the third-largest IPO in 2012 since Facebook was amazing. We raised $1.2 billion, and I was a key member of the team that contributed to the success of that IPO.” In her rare private time, Benson loves to hike, “even though I’m terrible at it.” She also enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends. “That re-energizes me,” she says. “I recently went on a trip to Eastern Europe and really loved Prague and Vienna. I also went on a work trip to China and was able to sneak away a few days ahead of time to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City,” she says. With an impressive list of accomplishments behind her, Benson isn’t one to rest on her laurels. “I look forward to having more time to get involved with the American Red Cross on a daily basis. I’m inspired by people who have faced huge challenges and have overcome them,” she says. “They remind me to keep moving forward.” L Lives of Real Estate
*Name changed. In the heart of country music, Gary Ashton is snaring business and moving to his own beat.
Lives of Real Estate
hen Gary Ashton, now team leader of The Ashton Real Estate Group of RE/MAX Elite in Nashville, Tenn., was a young child, he liked to make a lot of noise. “I started banging on pots and pans and was just a typical kid who had a fascination with making noise,” he laughs. That fascination turned into a passion—playing the drums. “I think my parents could see it wasn’t a passing fad, so they bought me a kids’ drum kit when I was about 5 or 6 years old,” says Ashton. For most kids, the thrill of making noise slowly wanes. Not for Ashton, who started drum lessons at age 12 and got his first real drum set soon thereafter. “I worked at a summer job in a factory at age 14 and spent all my money on a brand-new drum kit,” he says. In high school in Leeds, England, Ashton played with some local bands and lingered around local recording studios. “I would hang out in the studios, and if they needed a drummer, I was there. I met some people who were really good and we started a band,” he says. The band, Officer Dibble, had the same management as 1970s-1980s singer/ songwriter Chris de Burgh, who is famous for his 1980s hit, “The Lady in Red.” As that band became more successful, management suggested they change the name to The Big Picture. “That band opened up for Tears for Fears and Chris de Burgh. I was in my 20s then; it was around 1989,” says Ashton. An Expat in Florida In 1990, Ashton moved to Clearwater, where his family owned a hotel. “We sold some mom-and-pop properties in Leeds. We wanted to buy a hotel/motel in a touristy place, but each time we found something appealing, there were problems, something wasn’t quite right,” he says. Then, while paging through a national newspaper, Ashton saw a hotel for sale in Florida. “We sold everything in England and arrived in Florida on Sept. 6, 1990, right before the Gulf War,” he says. For Ashton, his brother, Martin, and his parents, Dorothy and Barry, it was a good move. “There were quite a few ex-pats and a great music scene in Clearwater,” he says. Ashton soon got to work on his music, meeting some local Clearwater musicians. “I had a CD that got heard by Rob Reynolds of The Mavericks, a country music band founded in Miami, that was very popular in Europe. He encouraged me to move to Nashville,” says Ashton. Before that, he was not part of the country music world; however, he decided to take the leap, bought a house in Nashville and had it renovated. “My idea was to focus on music but to buy some investment properties,” he says. “I figured I could do real estate two to three hours a week, make lots of money and have free time for my music.” However, he says, “It turned out that the real estate took over. When it comes to music, I’m good, but when you get to Nashville, there are a lot of good people. Plus, I don’t read music so that’s a setback. In Nashville you have to be able to move from band to band and read music.”
Top: Ashton’s team at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans football team Bottom: Ashton left his music career behind to become a top-producing real estate professional.
Lives of Real Estate
Music Man A Real Estate Career Emerges Ashton earned his real estate license in 2001. His 51-person team is ranked No. 27 in transaction sides in this year’s REAL Trends/ The Thousand as advertised in The Wall Street Journal. “I’m focused on a strong Internet presence and serving as the official real estate team of the Tennessee Titans football team,” says Ashton, who is a member of The Fellowship of Realty Professionals, an elite membership club for top-producing sales associates. “The challenge is to continue to ensure that agents have enough leads and business to keep the hungry mouths fed. The way you get business is through the Internet, specifically Google, which is known for changing algorithms quite often. So I’m constantly creating local content and adapting to what Google wants,” he says. First and 10 As for the Titans, “In 2007, I met Susan Reinfeldt (wife of Mike Reinfeldt, senior executive vice president and CEO of the Titans). She came to my website, so I called her and she asked questions about homes and schools. She made no mention of the Titans, just that her husband was taking a job here,” says Ashton. “We built a great relationship. I helped her find a home. Unfortunately, the Titans had just signed a deal with another real estate company to become the official Realtor® of the team. Once that agreement ended, Mike signed me,” he says. (It’s actually a sponsorship, according to Ashton.) “It allows me to say we’re the official real estate team of the Titans, and it opens the doors into the Titans organization. We’re put in front of people to buy and sell homes. We’ve become more than a sponsor; we’re an integral part of the organization,” says Ashton, who notes that it’s a small percentage of his business, but a great opportunity. According to Ashton, “Music is just a fun lifestyle, it’s creative and you don’t have a 9-to-5 job. It’s continually changing, and you meet so many different people.” Whether playing drums or practicing real estate, one thing is clear—Ashton puts his all into it. L
Lives of Real Estate
As the official Realtor® for the Tennessee Titans football team, Ashton enjoys sponsoring tailgate parties, such as the one above, for the home games.
This Old House
What started as a remodeling hobby has turned into a full-blown obsession for this agent and her husband.
endy Santantonio, a sales associate with McEnearney Associates Inc. in Alexandria, Va., has always been interested in historic homes. “I spent 15 years in nonprofit marketing and event management, and real estate has always been a hobby. At that time, my husband and I went to open houses every week,” says Santantonio, who decided to get her real estate license in 2012. Loving Care Santantonio and her husband, Alex Santantonio, self-described “old-home junkies,” finally found a house they wanted to turn into a home in 2003, when they bought an 1880s fixer-upper row house in Old Town Alexandria. “We wanted to live in an historic district, so we scraped together as much money as we could and bought the biggest house in the best location we could afford,” she says. “It was a little sad and needed a lot of work, so we’ve been spending the last decade rejuvenating the home. We never rip out anything that’s original. We preserve and restore,” she says. Since then, they have been transforming their home into one that offers modern conveniences, yet stays true to it’s 1880s roots. From window restoration to plaster repairs to salvaged flooring, there isn’t much this couple hasn’t done. “We introduced whole house audio and some other modern conveniences,” she says. “We thought [the renovation] would be a three-year project,” she laughs, “but now we’re redoing some of the things we’d already done.” And it’s all documented on the couple’s blog, “Old Town Home,” which tracks their DIY adventures and various home improvement projects. Wendy Santantonio finds that many of her customers read the blog to get ideas for their own projects. Bonding over this love of historic preservation, she notes, is essential to her success as an agent as her clients come to depend on her expertise in restoration as much as her knowledge of the real estate market. “Some 95 percent of my business is in Alexandria, but it’s not all historic homes. I know what the area
Lives of Real Estate
has to offer, plus with my remodeling and design background, I have first-hand experience that I can draw from to help buyers see past that outdated bathroom,” she says. “I help them paint the picture of what the house could be, and that excites buyers.” The blog is where Wendy Santantonio highlights what she loves about Alexandria. “The blog is a good mix of historic home information, our own personal renovation journey, decorating tips, Old Town Alexandria, highlights of historic homes in the area and more,” she says. Project Around the House The Santantonios are currently working on renovating the master bathroom. “We inherited a 1980s-style bathroom that included a giant Jacuzzi tub and what looked like kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t our taste, so we’re working to take that 1980s element out and introduce some historic elements such as Carrara hexagon-shaped marble floors and subway tile in the shower,” says Wendy Santantonio. “We have a salvaged clawfoot tub that has been sitting in our basement for 10 years. Now, we can finally use it.” Lest you think that Alex Santantonio is the one with the remodeling expertise, think again. “My husband is a computer programmer. For a couple summers while he was in college, he worked as a contractor’s apprentice and did some historic window restoration,” says Wendy Santantonio. “We do most of the renovation work
Lost Treasure You’ve heard the stories of homeowners finding hidden cash or gold in the walls of historic homes, right? So far, the Santantonios haven’t found any real treasure, but they’re hopeful. “We’re still keeping our fingers crossed,” laughs Wendy. “We would love to find photos of the home back in the early 1900s. During the pond project, the rain filtered the dirt pile, and we found some old marbles and shards of china.” In the house, they’ve found remnants of old newspapers, a sliver of a very old photo and a young girl’s beaded bracelet. Lives of Real Estate
on our own. The blog is a fun way to connect and meet people from all over the world. It’s turned out to be a valuable marketing tool for my real estate business as well.” She finds that people interested in remodeling can relate to her experiences. “None of our projects goes as planned. There’s always that moment mid-project where things are a complete mess. The worst day we had was when we uncovered some structural damage. We had been in the house for a couple years at that point, and it was horrifying to discover.” Through it all, the triumphs have made it all worthwhile, though. “In this short time, we consider ourselves fortunate to have met so many fellow DIY and design enthusiasts, and have even been lucky enough to have been featured on “Apartment Therapy” and in Old House Journal, Northern Virginia Magazine and the Washington Post Express. To read more about the Santantonios’ remodeling adventures, go to their blog, “Old Town Home.” L 24
Lives of Real Estate
Anyone who’s ever taken on a large remodeling project knows that Murphy’s Law prevails: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. On top of the structural damage that cost the Santantonios a fortune to repair several years ago, they have had several smaller mishaps. A few years ago, the Santantonios decided to install a garden pond in the backyard. “We bought a preformed pond liner and spent a couple weekends digging up tree roots and bricks,” says Wendy. “We laid the pond liner in the spot, went to bed and overnight we had a torrential downpour. We woke up to find the backyard flooded and the pond liner sitting all the way across the lawn. Why didn’t we just fill it before we went to bed?”
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