Growing up in New Orleans, Nancy Surak’s introduction to commercial real estate wasn’t exactly a pleasant one.
When she was a teen, her father, Oliver — though everyone knew him as “Popeye” thanks to a military nickname that stuck — lost a sizeable inheritance to a self-storage development’s capital call.
Undaunted, the railroad worker with just a high-school education advised his daughter to go to graduate school — and then into the commercial real estate business.
The former brought Surak to Florida, for a degree in public relations. The latter would take years to reach fruition, a path that included work at an insurer, a construction company and an engineering firm.
She gravitated to real estate while working in business development in Tampa at the engineering firm. Though hers was technically a desk job, Surak found that what was really satisfying was being out in the field, at job sites, watching the pieces of a development project come together.
“My dad just had a feeling that (commercial real estate) would be right for me,” says Surak, who since October 2015 has been managing broker and senior advisor of the Tampa Bay office of Phoenix-based Land Advisors Organization.
“More importantly, he taught me to not be afraid of failure, which has shaped me into someone who’s not afraid to take risk and a bit of a trailblazer. No one can tell me no when I put my mind to something.”
Surak put her mind to land sales and has blazed trails ever since. In 2005, she joined Eshenbaugh Land Co. in its early years and spent a decade there honing her craft and learning from founder Bill Eshenbaugh, one of the pre-eminent land brokers in the state.
When the economic recession of 2008 hit, the team at Eshenbaugh focused their efforts on bank “real-estate owned” holdings, adding to Surak's knowledge base.
Coming out of the recession, she says she felt a desire to expand even further and prove something to herself.
“When Land Advisors came looking to open a Tampa office, I just felt I had to prove to myself that I could do things by myself.”
Over the past 16 years, she’s participated in land deals valued at nearly $200 million.
In March, the Realtors Land Institute named Surak to its Apex Top 20 National Producers list for 2020, an annual ranking of the top land sales agents nationwide based on verified production.
In so doing, Surak became the first woman ever to crack the Top 20.
“It’s a huge passion of mine to let women know the possibilities in this tremendous industry,” Surak says. “And I think ultimately the industry comes out with a better product if there’s more diversity.”
Awards are nothing new for Surak, though.
In April, the Florida Gulfcoast Commercial Association of Realtors (FGCAR) presented Surak with a trio of top Pinnacle Awards for 2020, including “Overall Deal of the Year” and the highest honor for a land transaction last year and most production by a land broker with a national firm.
The “Overall Deal of the Year” came for her work selling a 32-acre property on East Fowler Avenue in Thonotosassa that had been home to the Big Top Flea Market for more than a quarter century.
The $6.58 million deal was tricky to execute because the sellers, Shaddix Holding Co. of Daytona Beach, didn’t want anyone to know the property was on the market out of a concern that the news would adversely impact its ongoing business. That meant no signs on the site and no email blasts, two staples of modern land deals.
Birmingham, Alabama-based LIV Development closed on the property last December, with plans to develop 292 apartments on the site by the end of next year.
“We work with a lot of different brokers around the country, and Nancy is unique in that she’s very involved in the sales process,” says Tim McEachern, LIV Development’s senior director of development.
“She’s very engaged, and she has a very good sense of engineering and design, and overall what it takes to get a project done,” McEachern adds. “That makes it a lot easier for me, in turn, to do my job, and she also just has this personal interest in seeing that a transaction is pleasing to both sides. That’s a special trait in this business.”
Shaddix, too, was pleased.
“The presentation that she made to us up front was very honest,” says Dianne Wontenay, the company’s CFO. “We had talked to a few other brokers, and we didn’t get that from everyone. We got a lot of pie-in-the-sky figures of what the property was worth, but Nancy backed up everything she told us with data. She was extremely professional and her communication skills were excellent.”
Wontenay adds that Shaddix intends to retain Surak when it’s ready to dispose of another four-acre tract it owns.
In April 2019, Surak captured the same FGCAR Pinnacle Award for selling 1,557 acres in Connerton, a master-planned community in Pasco County. There, Miami-based Lennar Homes acquired the property for $26.54 million, records show.
Surak attributes much of her more recent success to the technical support provided by Land Advisors, which was formed in 1987 and now maintains 27 offices nationwide.
“They provide me with great technical support, which has really helped me,” she says. “A lot of what we do with clients is counseling, and Land Advisors’ mapping system is a real differentiator. No one else has our technical capability.
“They pump a lot of money into generating data and analytics so that I can layer that on to my market expertise to determine true values of properties,” Surak adds. “I can layer all kinds of information onto one place on my computer, and that way, we’re not guessing. A lot of folks in this business still do that, unfortunately, But we have the data to back up our valuations.”
Beyond the data support, Surak says Land Advisors’ colleagues have helped with advice, counsel and strategies.
“I can call anyone of my colleagues around the country and get some solid advice, which in turn helps me to be more efficient, which is really important to me,” she says.
Over the next few years, Surak says she hopes to grow Land Advisors’ presence in the Tampa area by adding agents and capabilities, including possibly a capital division. The company already operates such divisions in Phoenix and Atlanta.
She also expects to expand her territory into Hernando and other tertiary Tampa Bay counties.
“People will continue to move to Florida for all the reasons others have preceded them, so land will long-term hold its value,” Surak says.