Green Power

Photography by Ted Mase By Molly McCartney December 1, 2010

Judy Green, who came out of retirement in late 2008 to launch the Sarasota-based Signature Sotheby’s Realty, used to say, “We are just a baby company starting out.”

But no longer. In a surprise mid-November announce-ment that has the Southwest Florida real estate market still buzzing, Green, 60, has struck a deal with Premier Properties of Southwest Florida, a longtime and well-known luxury real estate company in Naples, that puts her in charge of that company as well as her own Signature Sotheby’s. Sales for the combined Signature/Premier companies were $1.3 billion as of Oct. 31, slightly more than Coldwell Banker’s $1.2 billion. Based on those sales, Green is now the largest real estate magnate in Southwest Florida.

She has 350 agents (125 Signature and 225 Premier) working in nine offices, seven of them in Naples, one in Venice and one in Sarasota. And this month she opens another office on Bay Isles, Longboat Key, for a total of 10.

This is only the latest move by the hardworking but ever confident Green to grow her business at a time when real estate sales remain sluggish, foreclosures are common and credit is tight. She says she doesn’t regard this expansion as a risk.

“I know what I’m doing,” she says. In the arrangement she worked out with Scott F. Lutgert, chairman of The Lutgert Companies and founder of the Naples-based Premier Properties, Premier acquires a majority interest in Green’s company from her partners, Donna L. Moore and Richard S. Taylor of Gulf to Bay Sotheby’s International Realty in Boca Grande. In announcing this “long-term strategic move,” Lutgert said that Premier will operate as Premier Sotheby’s International Realty but will continue as a wholly owned subsidiary of The Lutgert Companies.

Green keeps her original ownership interest in Signature, becomes president and chief executive officer of Premier along with Signature and receives a financial package from Premier that she says she is “happy with.”

While some of her competitors have sought to downplay the importance of what Green has accomplished, she is looking at the opportunities that come from combining Signature and Premier. The advantage, she says, is that her agents can now sell in both the Sarasota and Naples market. “This opens doors that were closed before,” she says.

Signature’s elegant 8,000-square-foot headquarters in downtown Sarasota has thick carpets, Mediterranean-style furnishings and a reception area filled with glossy flyers featuring expensive homes.  

Sitting behind her imposing executive desk, Green says she actually had an advantage over her more established competitors—Michael Saunders & Company, Coldwell Banker, Re/Max Alliance and Prudential Palms Realty—when she founded Signature on Nov. 8, 2008.

“I didn’t have to do what a lot of them had to do—scale back, get rid of advertising, fire people, close offices,” she explains. “I didn’t have to do any of that because I started with zero. So from my perspective, it couldn’t have been a better time for me to start a new business. We are always going to need homes to live in, and so we always are going to have buyers. And as long as there is a sale going on, there is opportunity. I live by that, and I am not afraid of what I need to do to make it work.

“I started in a bad market,” she adds. “I didn’t know you couldn’t sell real estate. I just went out and did it.”

Green has an infectious laugh, a warm, engaging style, a reputation for being a good boss and a distinguished record as a real estate executive. She also is known for having a closetful of classic St. John suits in a variety of styles and colors. But most striking is her can-do grit.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., she was the youngest of six children. In 1963, her father decided to move his bakery and his family to Oviedo, a suburb of Orlando. He died eight weeks later. “Mother lost the bakery and got a job to support the family. We all started pitching in,” she says.

Two days after graduating from high school in 1967, she married her high school boyfriend, Rodney Green. She was 17 years old, but the reality that her boyfriend could be shipped to Vietnam convinced both of them to speed up their decision. The couple started a family and also started what quickly became a family construction and real estate business.

“We bought our first lot and built a home that we planned to move into. But somebody came along and wanted to buy it. So we sold the house to them,” she says. “Then we bought two lots and built two houses. We were going to sell one and live in one. But we sold both of them. And that was the beginning. He did the building, and I did the selling.”

Green learned firsthand how to juggle the couple’s three children with the demands of real estate work. “I had one room in my office set up as a playroom,” she says.

In 1993, the Greens sold their company, Charter Realty, to Coldwell Banker. But she continued to manage Charter for four years.  In 1997, Green was asked to move to Sarasota and oversee the Florida operation of Coldwell Banker, which then had 19 offices and 1,100 agents. As president and chief executive officer, Green grew the firm’s annual sales from $3 billon to $24 billion through 28 acquisitions, and the company expanded to 200 offices and 7,500 sales associates.

In 2002, she moved another step up the corporate ladder to become senior vice president with responsibility for Coldwell Banker’s operations in Florida, Texas and Atlanta. In 2004 she moved to New Jersey as a top executive with NRT LLC and later with ERA Franchise Systems, a Realogy Corporation brand.

Green retired in 2008, after 30-plus years in real estate, and moved back to her Siesta Key condo, where she intended to walk the beach, spend time with grandchildren and enjoy her golden years. But within weeks she “got bored,” she says with a laugh.

Suddenly a new opportunity came her way in a phone call from a longtime colleague, Michael R. Good, who asked if she was interested in applying for the Sotheby’s International Realty franchise for Sarasota-Manatee. The previous franchise holder—Sky Sotheby’s—was going bankrupt, and Sotheby’s wanted a new partner in this market. (Sotheby’s has real estate franchise agreements with 190 companies in more than 40 countries. Of that total, 143 franchise companies are in the U.S. and 15 are in Florida.)

Green wasted no time complying with the franchise application requirements, which included setting up a new company and paying a substantial franchise application fee. She won’t say how much but admits, “It was a lot of cash,” and that she understood the risk of putting good money into a shaky market.

“I had done my homework and put together the projections, knowing what I had to do to accomplish my goals financially,” she says. “I knew what that equated to down to the number of transactions, average sales price, number of agents needed to accomplish that. I drive based on that plan.”

Her plan worked. Before the arrangement with Premier, Signature was the fifth-largest luxury residential real estate company in Southwest Florida with an average residential listing of $1.3 million and an average sale price of $500,000. As of Aug. 31, the company’s sales exceeded $225 million, a 75 percent increase over the same period the previous year.

Good, chief executive officer of Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates, is not surprised about Green’s success. “I have worked with Judy and know what she is capable of doing,” he says. “She is one of the outstanding real estate leaders in the country. She is a tremendous builder. She has tremendous people skills. I knew she would be great.”

Green and her husband recently moved into a Lakewood Ranch home with a yard, a pool and more space than they had in their Siesta Key condo. But her focus continues to be on her business and the future. “We are moving very fast,” she says. “I have done nothing but real estate since 1978, and through the years, if I am going to do something, I will do it right and grow it by putting together the right team, driving it, giving customers good quality service and staying on track.”


Million-Dollar Market

Green talks luxury real estate.

How long before the region’s luxury inventory ($1 million plus) is absorbed? Approximately three years. There are currently 886 homes over $1 million on the market in Sarasota and Manatee.  In the last 12 months, 289 homes sold for over $1 million.

Where are these buyers coming from? The Northeast, the Midwest, Canada and Western Europe.  They have often been visiting for years and have recognized values and taken action.

Are luxury buyers being more frugal these days? A few years ago, buyers wanted homes that were “impressive.” Today, they want homes that are livable. That looks a little different for everyone, but customers are certainly looking at the total cost of ownership in their purchasing decision.  Does this home need renovations?  What are the HOA fees?  Do I need to join a separate country club?  What are the utility costs? 

Are they paying cash? Over 50 percent of our listings that sold in the past 12 months were cash transactions.  Market wide, 65 percent of transactions over $1 million were cash.

Did the oil spill slow sales? It did. Showings dropped off dramatically and several major waterfront contracts fell through. Luckily it’s behind us, and buyers are back.

What trends do you see in luxury real estate? People are tired of rooms they never use—the formal living room, the sitting room off the master suite.  Two-story rooms that need to be heated and cooled are on their way out, too.  We’re seeing buyers opt for more outdoor living areas, and mixed-use buildings will be incredibly popular.  The proposed expansion at the Longboat Key Club, for example, includes condominiums and a new hotel sharing the same building—very similar to The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.  This makes so much sense—a buyer can opt for a lavishly appointed, smaller home and have guest rooms just an elevator ride away.

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