Michael Saunders sees Manatee County as future of new home market

mjohnson@bradenton.comMarch 17, 2014 

Michael Saunders is a fan of new-home builders in Manatee County. She sees the county as the future of new home building in the Manatee-Sarasota-Charlotte county region with its recent spate of newly permitted communities. MATT M. JOHNSON/BRADENTON HERALD

MANATEE -- For anyone who thinks Michael Saunders is some out-of-town guy who sells million-dollar beach homes in Sarasota, here are the facts about the area's most prolific real estate mogul.

• Michael Saunders once spilled hot soup in Ted Williams' lap while waiting tables.

• Michael Saunders grew up on the north end of Longboat Key, inside Manatee County.

• Michael Saunders taught at Manatee High School for two years, and later worked seven years as a probation officer for Manatee County's and Florida's juvenile justice systems.

• Michael Saunders' agents and brokers sell 15 times as many homes priced under $400,000 as those priced over $1 million.

• Michael Saunders is a woman.

Misperceptions dispelled, Saunders is a big deal in Gulf Coast residential real estate. Last year, her company sold $2.2 billion in real estate out of 24 offices between Bradenton and Punta Gorda. Michael Saunders & Co. sold more residential real estate in Manatee and Sarasota counties than any other company in 2013, according to real estate statistics company Trendgraphix.

For anyone selling a house in these areas, the sheer size of Saunders' company almost guarantees that one of her agents will stop by for a showing.

More than at any other time in the company's 38-year history, Michael Saunders & Co. is betting its future success on new home building in Manatee County. In 2013, the company sold $515 million in Manatee County. While that's just a third of the company's sales volume in Sarasota County, Saunders said Lakewood Ranch, Parrish, Palmetto, and Bradenton are the growth markets to watch. From her perspective, Manatee County

is making more land available for housing development than Sarasota County.

The trouble is that few homes are actually finished and ready to go to market.

"We're going to be coming into 2014 and we will have zero inventory," said Saunders, the CEO and founder of her eponymous company. "The buyer today wants new, and we haven't built anything new in seven years."

'Good ol'boys network'

Her frustration is the sort that comes out of being a success, meaning it's a good kind to have. In 1976, the year Saunders opened her first office in St. Armands Circle, her biggest concern was getting listings in a real estate market dominated by a "good ol' boy network." She had employees to pay, and she was a relatively new mother at the time.

Saunders' masculine-sounding first name -- both she and her son, Drayton, were named after the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton - didn't hurt her chances, nor did her ability to woo sellers with waterfront property. Her company made its early fortune selling on the keys and barrier islands, and doing it with style. She furnished her first office with an armoire and rugs from her mother's home to differentiate herself from the bare bones offices run by most real estate agents at the time.

The strategy worked, perhaps too well. Almost no one came to her to list a $100,000 house in town.

"In the early days, we said we didn't do dry land," she said.

That changed in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Clients buying high-end homes started asking Saunders to find moderately priced houses for relatives and friends. At first, Saunders referred those requests to other agencies. But when the volume of those requests picked up, she couldn't pass on the income.

Then came the 1990s. When builders began putting up homes in Lakewood Ranch, Saunders opened an office off of State Route 70 near the north end of the development. At the time, the company was selling about $275 million a year.

It was all growth from there, almost. The company had its first billion-dollar year in 2000. Sales hit $2 billion in 2003 and $3 billion in 2005.

But long before home sales listings reached their peak in early 2008, Saunders knew the market and her company were in trouble. About 25,000 homes were on the market in Manatee and Sarasota counties, as sales dropped to $1.2 billion.

Saunders knew it wasn't sustainable, but she said she couldn't do much to slow the market. Her agents had to keep selling to make a living, even if many of those sold properties would end up in foreclosure.

"We did still have commanding market share and were selling most of the properties that were sold then," she said. "Defaults were the problem. Nobody was blameless."

Housing market crash

As the housing market crashed, Saunders company managers had to take pay cuts, while support staff saw their wage levels frozen. When agents left the company, they were not always replaced.

Ownership paid, too. Saunders and her son, Drayton -- who joined the family-owned company as president in 2003 -- took money out of personal savings to keep the company afloat.

Saunders did make some strategic hires during the downturn. In 2006, she hired Prudential and Coldwell Banker NRT veteran Gloria Weed when she didn't even have a position for her in the company. She later assigned Weed to run the company's largest office, the 13,500-square-foot Lakewood Ranch location.

Having worked the better part of 18 years in the Manatee-area market for Saunders' corporate competitors, Weed said she was keen to get on with what she saw as the most aggressive local agency in the county's biggest growth area.

"It was very difficult to compete with Michael," Weed said. "It was the way she did business. Her agents were better trained, better dressed, and more professional."

Lakewood Ranch developer Pat Neal has known Saunders longer than almost anyone in the housing business. He met her in 1970 in a Sarasota grocery store he built two blocks from her family's property.

Since then, Saunders agents have sold many of his homes. Approximately 60 percent of Neal Communities homes are sold by real estate agents.

"We have dealt more over the years with Michael Saunders than any other broker, and we liked the experience," Neal said.

That contact has made an impression. Neal is using Michael Saunders & Co. to sell his personal residence, a condo on Hudson Bayou in Sarasota listed for $2 million. He said the 30-page listing document prepared for the sale is the "best, most detailed" he's ever seen.

"That would be typical of Michael in her search for perfection," Neal said.

Promoting female managers

Today, Saunders operates in a very different real estate market. Only about 7,500 homes were on the Manatee-Sarasota market at the start of the year, and sales are picking up. Michael Saunders & Company also diversified, reopening a rental property management division in 2008, five years after it sold out of that business. The company also offers mortgage, title, and relocation services.

Who Saunders is today is informed by her past. A Sarasota resident, she said because of her historic family ties and her time working in the county she still thinks of herself as "a Manatee County girl." She's also a fan of giving her female employees a leg up: Both her Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch offices are run by female managers, as are the majority of her offices.

Other things don't change. The tall septuagenarian, who almost always appears publicly in her signature dress boots, pencil skirt, jacket and scarf, has no intention of leaving the business soon. She travels nationally to speak to at real estate industry conferences, and continues to mentor her own employees.

And when she talks in the patient, intense tone of a high school teacher turned probation officer and real estate agent, people do listen. Especially when it comes avoiding the mistakes of the housing collapse.

"My fervent hope is nobody forgets," she said.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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