When she was little, Nancy Surak played with Barbie dolls in her backyard the way many girls do.
But in Surak's games, the Barbies weren't homemakers, or teachers, or ballet dancers. They got down in the dirt, plotted streets and built things. Surak's dolls were real estate developers.
All grown up, Surak is still playing with dirt — for the past two months as the managing partner for the Tampa area with Land Advisors Organization, a Phoenix-based real estate brokerage firm formed in 1987 that operates in Orlando and nine other states.
Surak joined Land Advisors after a decade working with Bill Eshenbaugh and the Eshenbaugh Land Co., which is widely regarded as one of the top land brokerages along the Gulf Coast.
“I just felt like it was my time to be out front,” she says. “And when Land Advisors came to me, I was very impressed with their technology platform. I have so much respect for Bill Eshenbaugh and I learned a lot. But I needed to find the next piece.”
At Eshenbaugh, Surak excelled as one of the top land brokers in the region -- despite being in a largely male-dominated industry.
In four of the past five years, for instance, Surak has received the Florida Gulfcoast Association of Realtors' “Land Deal of the Year” award voted on by peers, which recognizes especially complex transactions. One award recognized a sale for “Wounded Warrior” housing: the $2.7 million deal took four years to close and was in and out of contract seven times.
While the industry is evolving, Surak's accomplishments have come against a backdrop of gender domination that once stymied equality.
“When I started out, especially, the land business was still very male dominated,” Surak says. “It was a man's world. I would go out to real estate job sites and the supervisors would look at me and treat me like I was a secretary or something. I just had to roll with the punches until I could demonstrate that I had brains.”
Surak has also differentiated herself through versatility.
“She's done a variety of transactions for us, which makes her stand out,” says Christyne Albury, a group vice president in SunTrust Bank's commercial real estate-owned division. “She has depth of experience. Right now she's selling a medical office building for us. Last month it was 100 acres of land. She can handle it all, so she's been a one-stop shop for us. As a consumer, I find that valuable.
“But what really makes Nancy stands out to me is that she's interested in creating business relationships,” Albury added. “She knows the business is full of little deals as well as big deals. What she really focus on, though, is the overall relationship.”
With Land Advisors, Surak is likely to focus more than ever on the role technology and market data can play in real estate sales.
“Accurate information is really critical in this business, especially as it applies to land,” Surak says. “Land brokers tend to feel the coming trends before most people in the business. So the ability to demonstrate or predict trends is really important to clients.
“This organization does a fantastic job of taking raw information and demonstrating it in an effective way for both buyers and sellers,” she says of Land Advisors.
And while many commercial real estate participants fret that with the U.S. in the sixth year of what is typically a seven-year growth cycle the Southwest Florida market may be peaking, Surak is undaunted about her decision to jump to a new company and open a new market for Land Advisors.
“I'm not a gambler,” she says. “I'm a land broker. There's risk in every move. But my best years in this business were when things were bad in the industry overall — around 2010.”
Surak contends, too, that pending demand from millennials aged 18 to 37, an aging U.S. population and investments by equity and hedge funds -- rather than banks — should help the area maintain momentum.
“There are very solid demographics in the Tampa region,” she says. “Affordability is still OK, too, as compared to many places. But what will make or break us, from a commercial real estate perspective, is job creation, and so far, that's gone pretty well.”
She hopes to grow Land Advisors in Tampa into the leading land brokerage firm in the Tampa area by 2020, by adding both people and technology.
“I see no reason we shouldn't be the leading land firm in this market because of the tremendous leadership behind me,” she says. “The folks in Phoenix have great depth and nationwide contacts.”