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Leadership Matters

Michael Saunders on life and leadership: You can’t ‘retire from passion’

Dynamic mother-son real estate duo share secrets on sustaining a business for five decades in a cutthroat industry.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. November 21, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Michael Saunders founded Michael Saunders & Co. in 1976 and her son, Drayton, joined the firm in 2005.
Michael Saunders founded Michael Saunders & Co. in 1976 and her son, Drayton, joined the firm in 2005.
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  • Manatee-Sarasota
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As Florida real estate pioneer Michael Saunders enters her 80s, she’s both reflective on the past and responsive to future needs and challenges of her eponymous company. She’s energized and enthusiastic, as well as eternally curious about what's next — for the Florida real estate market, the Sarasota-Manatee region and Michael Saunders & Co. 

Saunders talked about that and more on Episode 22 of the Business Observer podcast, From the Corner Office. The episode debuted Nov. 9 and, like all other From the Corner Office episodes, is available on multiple podcast platforms. 

On this episode, I spoke with not only Michael Saunders but her son, Michael Saunders & Co. President Drayton Saunders. “I never dreamed my son would join my business,” Michael Saunders says. “He’s a risk taker and I am extremely conservative but as a team for the past 20 years, it all works.”

Together, the mother-son duo leads one of the largest real estate firms in Florida. The company had $109.5 million in revenue in 2022 off $3.67 billion in sales volume. That sales volume led the company to earn a ranking of No. 77 in the RealTrends survey of the top 500 residential real estate brokerages in the U.S.  The company has more than 650 agents across Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, paired with 150 people in support roles. 

Michael Saunders & Co. also recently accomplished a long-time goal, in consolidating operations into one space. It went from three buildings spread across downtown Sarasota to two floors in the Ellis Building, also downtown, on Main Street and Orange Avenue. The firm occupies a 20,000 square foot space there, home to some 75 employees. “It’s important to be nimble, share ideas and turn around answers to our agents and clients quickly,” Michael Saunders says about the benefits of consolidation. 

Attitude of gratitude

A large portion of the podcast interview focused on leadership, both lessons Michael and Dryaton have learned, and examples. But when interviewing Michael about her career, it’s hard not to talk about her resilient early days, going from a career as a probation officer to starting her own real estate firm. That’s when, in 1976, a bank rejected Saunders for a $5,000 startup loan because she was a woman. “I had to get a male friend to co-sign for me,” Saunders told the Longboat Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer, in 2015. “It was the last time I needed a man's help for anything. The bank is no longer there, and I am.”  

Michael looks back on those days with pride — and gratitude that doing, and earning, everything on her own in the beginning became a lifelong calling card. “I truly am an example,” she says on the podcast. “If you dream it, you believe it. And if you never give up you can do it.”

Other highlights from the podcast include: 

Consistent approach

Michael says her mindset, as opposed to one, or a few tipping points, is a key to the success of the company. “I really think that I don't know how to live life any differently except a value-based life,” she says. “So when I started the company, it was based on solid core values. And in attracting people to join me, those were the first conversations I had…on if our values were aligned. After all, real estate is not about rocket science, you could learn it, but you can't learn values, and you can't learn a positive attitude. So I really began building the company around values. And that foundation to any market has really (allowed us) to be not only competitive, but to survive.”

Flexibility matters

Early on, Michael made a key decision that changed the course of the company. In the beginning, the company “only did waterfront properties,” she says. “We didn't do dry land when I started out. Thank God, I changed that.”

Full circle

Drayton didn’t start out in the business. He worked in Chile for eight years, running a bagel business he launched to fill a gap in the marketplace. While he relished the adventure of that, he also says he learned from a mentor that if “you’re not 100% 200% passionate about what you're doing, it's probably not the career for you.” So when his mom called about him joining the business, he seized the opportunity. “I knew at that point that as much as I loved being entrepreneurial, I was not going to be a bagel maker forever in Chile.

Stay hungry

Drayton says a key lesson he learned from Michael was that in business, “you have to pay attention to what you can control. And there's a lot of things in the business world you can't and you just have to be looking at where do I focus on? What can I control and where can I win? We have pivoted and pivoted and pivoted. I mean, my goodness, the real estate industry changes every year, let alone every market cycle. And so you have to be nimble as a business and look where you can win and win in a way that others don’t think you can.” 

Empower employees 


Good leadership, Michael says, also requires the ability to empower others in the organization to have a role in the company’s future, and success. One example? “I can remember in 1995, when my marketing director came to me and said, 'I need approval of a marketing expenditure of $2,500,” Michael says. “And I said, ‘well, what's that for?’ She said, well, we're going to get a website. I said, ‘what in the world is a website?’ ‘Well, that's something where you put all your properties on it, and people look at them online on their computers.’ I said, ‘Oh, come on, that's a waste of $2,500.’ And she said, ‘no, we need to get the domain name And we will post our property. So I said, OK, ‘if you've researched it and you think that's innovative and where we need to be.’ 

Forward thinking

Drayton says he’s cognizant to take input and advice from his mom, but also forge his own path. “You have to be looking toward the future. And that means at some point, you're going to ask different questions, and you're going to suggest different ideas. And that's really healthy for a generational business. Because if I'm only here to copy and rinse, repeat, then I'm not being very effective as a leader. So you have to be willing to challenge the status quo.”

By George

Another key to being a good leader, says Drayton? Curiosity. “It's very hard to be a good leader if you're not curious, because it sort of drives so many other behaviors. If you're curious, you tend to be a better listener, if you're curious, you tend to explore things outside of your lane. And leaders bring that back to their team.”

Don’t stop

Asked what drives her, even into her 80s, Saunders doesn't hesitate. “Well, I think you can retire from a lot of things, but I don't think you can retire from passion. So real estate really defines me. I am passionate, I wake up every day thinking about how we can make this company just a little bit better. So as long as I have that passion, I don't see retirement anywhere in my near future.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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