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Business Observer Thursday, May 23, 2019 3 months ago

Top Entrepreneurs: Founder, CEO of real estate empire built company with focus on values, customer service

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Michael Saunders overcame a mountain of obstacles — including obtaining a $5,000 loan — to grow her real estate firm. Her laser focus on the company’s core values is paramount.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Because of her name, people who hadn’t met Michael Saunders used to mistake her for a boy.

She got a draft notice.

She was placed in a boy’s dorm at Florida State University.

Later, when she called to set up business meetings, she was treated like she was the secretary making an appointment for a Mr. Michael Saunders.

“I just let it roll until I got there,” Saunders says. “The name would get me in the door. And then, once I got in the door, I never took my foot out.”

The result of that determination? Since starting real estate brokerage Michael Saunders & Co. in 1976, she’s built a company known throughout the region for being the firm of choice for everything from homes in golf course communities to new condo tower units to multimillion dollar luxury listings. The firm did $79 million in revenue in 2018 off sales volume of $2.79 billion. 

Saunders, 76, took the challenge of being a female business owner in the 1970s as just that — a challenge. Over the following decades she built a business that focused on values and raised the bar for how the industry operated in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. 

Jeff LaHurd, author of several books about Sarasota’s history, has known Michael Saunders since the 1970s and like many, admires her sustained success. Saunders, he says, is at the top of the contemporary list of people in real estate who have made Sarasota what it is today. “She’s really helped to transform Sarasota into what it’s become,” LaHurd says. “She’s just like the quintessential success story in Sarasota.”

Never give up

Saunders' path to today's real estate giant took a few curves in the early days. Before she launched the firm, she was a history teacher at Manatee High School and a probation and parole officer, working with juveniles. 

She also worked for another real estate firm in Sarasota before going off on her own — wanting to do better, she says, than mismatched chairs and photographs of properties yellowing in the sun.

When Saunders went to the bank to get a loan to start her real estate firm, she was told she couldn’t get one as a woman. A man would have to co-sign it. It wasn’t the only challenge she faced as a woman in the business world of the 1970s, but it was a significant one.

“I think the big eye opener was not being able to get a $5,000 loan,” Saunders says. “That really said, 'whoa, you are in for something.’ Because when you were a social worker or a school teacher, you weren't really bucking the establishment so much, but when you started your own company, most of the companies were owned and run by men.”

Developer and client Siggy Levy agreed to co-sign the loan for her, and it was a challenge Saunders bulldozed her way around. “I never rung my hands or burned my bras and said ‘woe is me, ain't it awful I'm a woman,’” she says. “I just pulled it together and never gave up and it all worked out.”

‘Be different’

Saunders says she didn’t want to create a real estate firm that represented the status quo. She wanted to build something different.

“Real estate was really an industry that hadn't come into its own, let's say that,” Saunders says. “It was not viewed as a professional industry that someone would choose the profession of real estate. So you weren't looked at like a doctor or an attorney, although you were helping people make the most important decisions in their lives.”

Saunders wanted to run a firm where standards were high and expectations were exceeded, she says. “So after working for this company on St. Armands and in the middle of mismatched chairs and desks and photographs Scotch taped to the windows that were turning yellow and curly, I thought, I can do this,” she says. “I can make it. I can make it be different.”

In the early days, Saunders says she studied good examples, from store interiors to print advertisements, to guide the path Michael Saunders & Co. would take. “When I commit to something, I become a student of it,” she says. “When I went to New York, I would study great looking shops.”

She examined magazines, too, noticing the elements of effective print advertisements — style, white space, good photography and great copy. “I thought that whether they were selling or buying," she says, "we needed to represent those properties in a much more sophisticated way and give them a more glamorous platform, no matter what their price was.”

Saunders also made a key decision early, to specialize in what she knew best: waterfront property.

She had grown up on Longboat Key — a “sand-in-her-shoes girl,” as her son, Drayton Saunders, who joined the company in 2003 and now serves as president, says.

Soon the company’s focus on waterfront property expanded, driven by customer demand. Michael Saunders says clients said things like, “We bought from you on Longboat Key, but my parents want to buy in The Meadows. You've got to help us. We trust you.”

That taught Saunders a key lesson: going beyond a market specialty required trust above all else. “So really this is a relationship business,” she says. “That's really what it's about. Yes, you need to know contracts and you need to know the market and you need to know technology and you need to know a lot of things. But if you can't form trusted relationships, then this is not the business for you.”

As she continued to grew Michael Saunders & Co., some important entrepreneurial building blocks became clear. The list includes having a vision that could be articulated; developing a solid set of values; creating striking marketing pieces; and opening offices in key locations.

“My vision was about creating incredible experiences for the customer,” she says. “So the customer was always at the forefront.”

Saunders wanted the advertisements the company created to be different. One early ad took inspiration from The New Yorker magazine cartoons. Another was done in the style of a poster. “It was just standing out,” Saunders says. “And so I would say marketing was the first thing that made people's heads turn.”

Core four 

Saunders also wanted the firm to be led by strong values, of which the company chose four: integrity, excellence, mutual profitability and communication.

“Of course, integrity was the first and that was all about the relationships based on trust,” Saunders says. “And then it was excellence.” The firm’s commitment to excellence, from advertising to the way offices looked to how employees dressed, was noticed and helped it stand out.

Mutual profitability is the concept that without resources to grow and prosper, the company couldn’t be in business. Saunders says, “So when a consumer wants us to cut a commission or an agent wants more commission, it's easy to say, ‘We have these values, and one is mutual profitability. So I'd love to do that for you, but if I did it for you, I'd have to do it for everyone. And if I did it for everyone, we wouldn't have the money to operate a company that you expect us to operate.’”

The final value is communication, but Saunders says it’s not the least. “I would say the hardest of those to really keep your eye on is communication.” With so many different ways to communicate, she says finding the right method is crucial.

The values are posted in the firm’s offices and printed out for employees. Michael Saunders says, “If you believe in something and commit to it and have like-minded people do the same thing, pretty soon it's like a snowball effect.”

As one of those like-minded people, Drayton Saunders says his mother has taught him the importance of working with passion. "As I walk in every day," he says, "I love what I do.”

Despite the various demands of running a successful business that spans three counties, he also says she combines that passion with a laser level of concentration. She has a “discipline of focus” rare in the 21st century, he says, adding he’s often observed his mother totally devoted to the person in front of her.

‘Make it better’

Devotion is a Saunders hallmark going back to her father, Francis "Frank" Mayers, who told her to dream impossible dreams — and be prepared to pay the price to make them come true.

The price, she says, is hard work. “It's being late for dinner, canceling vacations because a big transaction is at risk,” she says. “Kind of putting others before yourself. But it was really the price of hard work, never giving up, being persistent and persevering, focusing and wanting it more than you wanted anything.”

“If you believe in something and commit to it and have like-minded people do the same thing, pretty soon it's like a snowball effect.” — Michael Saunders, founder and CEO, Michael Saunders & Co.

Saunders says she thinks Michael Saunders & Co. will continue to grow judiciously and expand its market share and reach. “The company is in a good place, and I'm here and don't intend to go anywhere,” she says. “You don't retire from passion.”

If the company decided to expand into new territories, Saunders would want to make sure it had enough bandwidth in leadership and divisional strength to manage it well. “We're so deeply rooted in the three counties (and) there are still more opportunities here,” she says. “So I don't think you need to be everywhere. You just need to be in the right places.”

Throughout the years, Drayton Saunders says his mother has worked to create a company that’s always improving.

“It is tempting in business to kind of say, ‘we have our path, we’re charting it,’” Drayton Saunders says. But sometimes, it can be important to back up the bus, he adds. “You might realize you have to go backward to go forward.”

The other day, he says they were working on some brand work on deadline for a publication when Michael Saunders decided the idea wasn’t right. “It was just saying, ‘Instead of rushing, we’re going to wait, miss the deadline, back up and make sure we’re all on the same page,’” he says. “That takes discipline. Instead of just moving on, backing up to go forward.”

Going forward, with four decades of success behind her, continues to drive Michael Saunders. “We're here 40 years later because of the people,” she says. “It's just getting the right people who want to wake up, as Drayton and I do, with the idea, ‘What can we do today to make it better?’”

Read the stories behind the Business Observer's 2019 Top Entrepreneurs: 

Top Entrepreneurs: A life's passion doesn't come without sacrifices 

Top Entrepreneurs: Family business patriarch's big risks have paid off 

Top Entrepreneurs: Hardware store chain president adopts a Wynn-ing formula

Top Entrepreneurs: Cybersecurity guru defies conventional wisdom 

Top Entrepreneurs: CEO grows boat club business, expands into other vehicles

Top Entrepreneurs: Glass company shines in grabbing market share 

Top Entrepreneurs: Ex-attorney cleans up with disruptive approach to business 

Top Entrepreneurs: Ice cream company owner scoops out winning formula

Top Entrepreneurs: Roofing component manufacturer's growth is no flash in the pan

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