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No surprises

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:15 a.m. April 19, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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Business: Michael Saunders & Co., Sarasota; 24 offices on the Gulf Coast.

Generations: Michael Saunders, founder and CEO, mother; Drayton Saunders, president, son.

Succession Plan: Michael Saunders, who turned a $5,000 loan from a client in 1976 into one of the largest realty firms in Florida, began to think about succession in the late 1990s.

Back then, just like today, Saunders had no intention of getting out of real estate any time soon.

“I'm still passionate about what I do,” says Saunders, who travels across the country and worldwide to speak at real estate industry gatherings and conferences, in addition to running a firm with $2 billion in 2012 sales volume and more than 550 agents. “I can't wait to get up in the morning and get to work.”

But Saunders knew she had to start thinking about who would take over the business someday. She realized she basically had three choices: sell the firm to a national entity, bring on a business partner or pass it on to relative.

She chose the most familiar, and familial: Her son, Drayton Saunders. “I think anyone who builds a business wants to create a legacy,” says Saunders. “I feel so fortunate that I will be able to carry on a legacy with my son.”

Drayton Saunders joined the firm in 2003. But he took a somewhat unusual detour before he came home to the business, when, after college, he spent eight years in Santiago, Chile. He opened and ran a bagel-coffee shop there, following a passion for Latin America.

The homecoming has been a big learning curve for Drayton Saunders. In fact, the past decade at Michael Saunders & Co. has been, in some ways, like a 10-year apprenticeship for the founder's son. The first five years, says Drayton Saunders, were mostly dedicated to learning the company culture and becoming immersed in the local civic and business community. He also ran high-volume sales offices in Venice and Longboat Key.

The last five years, however, have shifted to more of a company-wide operations role. That's the role where Drayton Saunders learned how to survive a blistering economic downturn that saw sales volume drop from $3 billion to $1 billion, and, more recently climb back to $2 billion. “As painful as it has been to go through it,” Drayton Saunders says, “it really taught me how to run a business.”

The transition plan, meanwhile, says Michael Saunders, is transparent. While there's no set date for Michael Saunders to retire, the firm's agents and employees know the plan is for Drayton Saunders to take over the business someday.

To prepare, the mother-son team has worked for several years with Mike Staver, a Fernandina Beach-based leadership consultant with a nationwide client list. Michael Saunders has also brought in various strategy and business planning firms over the years for more succession guidance. “We have tapped into many resources,” says Michael Saunders, “to make sure we aren't missing anything.”


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