What I've Learned

How Loyalty and Thousands of Potholders Helped Build a Real Estate Empire

Merle Whitehead created RealtyUSA, the largest independent real estate company in New York.

By David Hackett July 19, 2017 Published in the July-August 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Merle whitehead ojdtlu

Merle Whitehead

At the age of 18, Merle Whitehead entered the real estate business in Buffalo, New York, armed with a high school degree, a couple years of experience selling men’s clothing and a full tank of ambition.

Over the next 45 years, Whitehead, putting up to 60,000 miles a year on his car, drove himself to create RealtyUSA, the largest independent real estate company in New York and one of the largest in the nation. He also built one of the region’s biggest mortgage banks, 1st Priority Mortgage.

RealtyUSA and 1st Priority Mortgage were acquired last year by Howard Hanna Real Estate Services of Pittsburgh in the largest private family real estate company sale in history. RealtyUSA retains its brand, with Whitehead as chairman of the combined operations in New York. 

Now a seasonal resident of Casey Key, Whitehead, 65, shared the challenges and philosophies that shaped his career.


“I grew up in Buffalo in one of those Leave it to Beaver families. My father was a steelworker and my mother was a homemaker who didn’t drive. She’d be waiting for my father in a dress when he came home from work. When I was 16, I started working at a men’s clothing store. But it occurred to me: If I was going to work on commission, what was the biggest thing I could sell? That led me to real estate.”

“Because I was so young, I had to be proactive. My business partners and I bought thousands of potholders for 20 cents each and we went door-to-door every afternoon in the early 1970s handing out the potholders and introducing ourselves. We targeted the working, middle-class neighborhoods because we felt they would give us more of a chance. It might not work today, but it sure did then. People would tell us, ‘My sister is looking for a home or my parents are thinking of moving.’ We built connections that lasted for years.”

“I was the first guy in the state to go in multiple cities. It was much more provincial then, and people told me that Albany would never accept a company from Buffalo. But, of course, that proved all wrong. I was fortunate later to have breakfast with Warren Buffett, who told me that in the early days of the automobile there were 59 manufacturers that eventually went down to three. Mr. Buffett predicted the same consolidation would happen in the real estate business.”

“One thing I learned as we grew was in talking to banks, always under-promise and over-deliver. One year, I told them I expected a 6 percent increase in sales volume and came in at 4 percent, which wasn’t bad, but the bank was disappointed. From that day on, I tried to surprise to the upside.”

“I’ve run 34 marathons, including Boston a couple of times. Training for a marathon requires the same mindset as working to be successful in business. If you set your goals every day and follow through with discipline, you’ll be ready for the day when you find yourself at the starting line.”

“The most challenging period I’ve faced was in 2009. I’d weathered downturns before but this was the first time that I had ever seen bankers scared. We lost $1 million a month in January, February, March and April. I took out a $4-million, five-year loan to clear my lines of credit and that helped me get through it. I got that loan, at a time when banks were hardly lending, because I’ve been with the same bank for 25 years. I’ve had the same attorney for 40 years, the same CPA for 30 years. My wife, Jan, and I have been married for 48 years. I’m a big believer in building long-term relationships and loyalty.”

“For 25 years, our company has used psychological testing as a big piece in hiring for our executive team. We use AVA (Activity Vector Analysis). At first, I had the perverse opinion that everyone should be like me. Then, I realized that was a mistake. People with different strengths complement one another. One characteristic we look for is aggressiveness. I was speaking to a group once and asked how many wanted an aggressive Realtor. Nobody raised their hands. Then I asked them if they were buying a house priced at $180,000 and offering $160,000 whether they would like to have a low-aggressive agent meekly presenting their offer? They got my point. When you combine someone who is aggressive and coachable, you have the chance for a great employee.”

“I do not work out of our corporate headquarters in Orchard Park, New York. I don’t want the CFO talking to me for 20 minutes about something he’s already decided to do. I also hate any signs of arrogance. The branch office I work out of has limited parking so I park my car down the block and walk in. I’ll shovel snow or pick up wrappers around the building. I’ve always believed that everyone is vitally important. To get your paycheck, no one is as important as the CFO. To have a nice workplace, thank the cleaning staff. So many places today treat employees as if they’re disposable and that’s just not our culture. The example starts at the top.” 

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