Never Say Never

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2006

As a college grad 11 years ago, Drayton Saunders told himself there were three things he'd never do: "I'd never work in real estate, I'd never work for my mother and I'd never live in Sarasota," he says.

But now that Drayton, 34, has violated his "three nevers," he couldn't be happier.

As the vice president of MSC Title, a subsidiary of Michael Saunders & Company, he handles the company's five-year-old title and mortgage division. But he's not the stereotypical only child who grew up thinking he would inherit the family business. Instead, he ran from it-all the way to another continent.

Drayton's journey from philosophy major at Colgate College in upstate New York to real estate executive took him to South America, where he helped build houses and later introduced Chileans to New York-style bagels. Four years into his job as MSC's vice president, he's gradually taking over the responsibilities of the real estate powerhouse he'll run some day when his mother, real estate icon Michael Saunders, retires-a time he says isn't coming any time soon. Michael Saunders' empire includes 16 local offices with $1.8 billion in sales ($53 million in gross revenue) last year.

Drayton's favorite haunt is the funky Metro Coffee & Wine on Osprey Avenue because it reminds him of the coffee shop he built in Santiago-a place with couches and espresso, where friendships develop. At an after-lunch meeting, he orders a latte with two shots of espresso; when it's not to his liking, he sends it back. "I'm still picky about my coffee," Drayton says. Dressed in a well-tailored navy suit, he checks his cell phone quickly before turning it off and giving a reporter his full attention.

In contrast to his mother's cool professionalism, outgoing assertiveness and ability to control a room as soon as she walks in, with her trademark scarf draped over one shoulder, Drayton is more contemplative and understated, always willing to take a wry view of himself and the world. At a holiday party, Michael once introduced him by his full name-Drayton Saunders. After taking the microphone, Drayton quipped, "I'm so glad you've given everyone my name; they might have thought I was someone else."

But a philosophy major? Bagels in Chile?

"I love philosophy-it's the learning of learning," Drayton says. "It's about thought processes. It's self questioning, valuable."

Drayton grew up in Sarasota, and when he was a teen his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Seattle. After he finished college in 1995, he realized philosophy wasn't going to put bread on the table. "I grew up with too many entrepreneurs," he says. "I wanted to be self sufficient in business and have a better earning potential."

He knew Spanish, had enjoyed the two months he spent as a college-student volunteer in rural Costa Rica building houses for teachers, and decided to go to Santiago, Chile, because he heard it was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place.

His mother wasn't too keen on the idea.

"I was floored when he said Chile," she says. "My idea was that he'd go to Miami to learn business Spanish."

With few business connections, Drayton couldn't find a job, and, taking the path the unemployed often do, opened his own business. He saw a franchise bakery, Au Bon Pain, McDonald's and other chains doing well, but opted to start an independent from scratch. "I built a place where unemployed gringos like me would like to hang out," Drayton recalls.

Chile is a bread-oriented country, and they like New York, he reasoned-however, bagels were alien. "They thought they were doughnuts," Drayton says. So he spent a lot of time explaining the product, creating a need and, in the process, got an education himself. "I didn't know anything about the food service business," he says. "Getting off the ground is the easy part."

He ran into obstacles: he didn't know about inventory control or how to manage people. "Three months after we opened, there was a recession, drought and then power outages," Drayton says. He sent a worker to Argentina to buy generators. That got the ovens working, but it wasn't enough power for lights, so Drayton purchased candles and marketed café ambiance. Then employees stole his candles and, a few times, money out of the cash register.

There was also the Chilean penchant for super-fresh bread. Instead of buying a dozen bagels, as people do in the U.S., Chileans purchased them one or two at a time. To increase volume, Saunders approached airlines and persuaded them to buy bagels, but they also wanted croissants and other baked goods. He had to buy more equipment and then figure out how to standardize the products. One of his low points came when he had to stay up for 40 hours straight to get all his orders ready. "It taught me the value of worst-case planning," he says.

Eventually, he opened a second store and a wholesale bakery. He landed grocery store accounts and started cross-marketing his bagels with Philadelphia cream cheese.

But after four years, Saunders was bagel weary.

Meanwhile, his mother, a silent and uninvolved investor in his New York Bagel business, was thinking about her future. "Every parent who has started a business wants to leave a legacy to someone with commitment and passion," she says. "I could see he had all of that. And after bagels in Chile, real estate in Florida is a cake walk."

During a visit to Sarasota in 2001, Drayton recalls his mother sitting him down for a talk. "She said, 'Are you ever going to come back?'" he recalled. "I never expected that question."

The answer was yes. "I was ready to live in a community after living a foreign country," Drayton says. "I knew I'd enjoy a company that was well run, and I wasn't going to have to learn by trial and error."

A year later, Drayton moved to Sarasota and joined Michael Saunders & Company, selling the bagel business about six months afterward.

Drayton carved his niche in the mortgage business and got to know the company's operations. Since then, he has also taken a leading role in online marketing and technology and gradually gotten involved in the rest of the company, working by his mother's side. The mortgage company has grown from four to 12 employees since 2002 and had $200 million in loans last year.

He also got involved in the community and recently became chairman of the Sarasota Young Professionals Group, where he's forged most of his close friendships.

Michael Saunders, he says, is still very much in charge. For now, his vision is her vision. They will "continue to focus on developing the Caribbean market" and building on the strengths of 30 years in this southwest Florida, he says.

Just as Drayton had to sell the concept of bagels to the Chileans, he has had to sell himself to the business community as a successor to his mother.

It's not something the philosophy major worries about very much.

"It'll be a slow, imperceptible transition," he says.

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