Ask The CEO

By Molly Sinclair McCartney December 31, 2009

When Michael Saunders went to Palmer Bank in 1976 to ask for a $5,000 loan to start her real estate business, "They said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but you are a woman, and you work on commission,’" she remembers. Saunders told the story to a business acquaintance, who insisted they return to the same bank, where he co-signed for the loan. Saunders used the money to open her first office on St. Armands Circle. Today she presides over a real estate empire that employs 660 people in 17 offices from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor and offers mortgage, title and asset management services. The company ranks as the 73rd largest brokerage in the nation in sales volume ($1.17 billion in 2008), according to the 2009 Power Broker Report. In October, Saunders received the Clyde Nixon Business Leadership Award, given by Sarasota’s Economic Development Corporation to an individual who exhibits outstanding values and business leadership.

Characterize today’s housing market. You have to look at each segment. Under $300,000, we have definitely bottomed out. Everything $300,000 to $400,000 is quickly stabilizing. As you go over $400,000, it’s spotty. With the $1 million to $2 million, it’s very difficult to find great inventory. Over $2 million, we still have a difficult market. Loans are not as easy to get as before, but probably 60 percent of our buyers pay cash.

What about commercial? It always lags residential. We will still see some serious decline and foreclosures in the commercial market.

What has happened to you since the peak? Since 2005-06, we have reduced staff to 120, down from 180. Many of them were in the new homes division, where the market has been hardest hit. We eliminated unneeded positions, and we asked those who remain to do more.

And your sale associates? The number is constant, about 540. But any negativity that existed is gone. By that, I mean people who were not positive. You need positive energy today. One negative voice can be a cancer in a company. This is our fourth year in a challenging market, and it is not for wimps; it is for someone who faces each day with an enthusiastic, can-do attitude. We have replaced about 150 agents who were negative or non-producing with 150 top-producing agents recruited from our competitors.

Lessons learned? We did not correct and make necessary cuts soon enough. When the market began stalling, we thought it would be short-lived. It wasn’t. When that became evident, we decided to reinvent ourselves to deal with the hand we had been dealt. We began working on foreclosed properties and started a short sales division. We invested in research and technology so we could give our agents more tools to help consumers. But I probably didn’t begin soon enough to do the things we needed to do to get through this.

Forces that shaped you? My family and the nuns at Tampa’s Academy of Holy Names, where I went to school. Also, my guardian angel and mentor, Siggy Levy, [the shopping center developer] who co-signed the $5,000 loan I needed to start my business.

The hardest part of your job? The easiest? The hardest part has been to keep agents motivated, proactive and moving in the right direction. The easiest is waking up every morning and coming to a job that I can embrace with passion.

Where do you want to be in five years? I don’t think I see retirement ever in my future. My son, Drayton, who is the future of this company, and I and our management team have created a strategic plan to continue to grow our

market share.

Explain your name. I was named after the English poet Michael Drayton, Shakespeare’s friend. My parents must have thought that if they gave me a man’s name I would grow up and support myself. And it did help early in my career. It wasn’t easy for a woman then. But once I got my foot in the door, I just didn’t take it out.

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