After apologies for growing up in rural Montana, after a little cursing, after a few cigarettes, Mary Bell Grempler gets down to business: She explains how despite a bitter divorce filled with affidavits, accusations and even an assault charge, she can still run Grempler Realty Inc. with her ex-husband Donald.
"We're live and let live, but let's make sure the company is OK," says Ms. Grempler, who is the chairman of the board. "Actually, since we divorced, we're much better business partners. We both realize that the company is our main family."
In many ways, it is. Their eldest son, Donald Robert, or "DR," is president, their daughter-in-law Marci is a top agent, and until recently their youngest son, James, was in management.
But the family she refers to is actually much larger than that. It's an extended clan of employees and agents -- nearly 1,000 in all -- in 15 offices across the state who will help Grempler earn a projected $500 million in sales this year and make it one of the area's biggest real-estate companies.
It's both poignant and ironic to hear Ms. Grempler speak of family, particularly since she has known difficult times with her own. After 30 years of marriage, she and her husband separated in 1983, divorcing eight years later. Before they finished divvying up who got the Mercedes and the condo in St. Croix, she was charged with assault during a confrontation with her husband and his girlfriend at the Greenspring Racquet Club. The case was never prosecuted, though.
Despite working together, she and her son Donald "don't get along very well," he says. And during closed-door family meetings, employees say the shouting is sometimes heard down the hall.
But know this about her: Mary Bell Grempler is a survivor. Growing up as one of eight children born to a railroad conductor and housewife, she learned early on that being scrappy was the way to get by.
"If I had been educated in the proper girl's fashion, I probably wouldn't have done half the things I did. But since I didn't know any better, I did them and found out later, 'Gee, if you're a girl you weren't supposed to do that,' " she says.
At 62, she still maintains that same philosophy. She still dons a bikini, mows her own 6 1/2 -acre lawn and throws talked-about parties at Villa Vista, her seven-bedroom estate in Stevenson. During one party held in her honor last month, guests wished her a happy birthday with a male stripper. He arrived dressed as a policeman.
"It was wonderful," she says. "His name was Officer Buns. . . . I like buns."
She's part siren, part steamroller. In her, Mae West meets Annie Oakley. During a photo session, Ms. Grempler, a size 4, shows a little thigh -- well-toned from playing tennis on her backyard court -- and then utters one word that immediately makes her smile: "sex."
On a gray afternoon, she looks as if she stepped out of a Crayola eight-pack. The bright primary colors -- green dress, blue jacket and orange-colored nails -- suit the unretiring Mary Bell Grempler, who calls herself "mother superior" around her Towson office.
Employees sometimes use other names. She's been known to criticize them publicly, then call them an hour later to apologize, says her assistant, Meredith Wescott, who has been with the company for 20 years.
"She's very intimidating at times," she says. "If you don't perform like she wants you to perform, you'll get one of these: I TOLD YOU I WANTED THAT! I used to break down and cry at my desk. . . . She can be hardheaded. She can get mad at one person and take it out on everyone."
For her part, Ms. Grempler says being candid is how she prefers to do business.
"I don't sugar-coat things. I'm very upfront about the way I see something. Whether it's correct or not is another story," she says.
One person who disagrees is her son Donald. Last year, he became president of the company. It's been a rocky transition by nearly all accounts.
"She doesn't want to step down, get out of the way," he says.
Her ex-husband offers another assessment: "She relates giving up the reins with aging. By not giving them up, she continues her youth."
Relinquishing control of the business she created more than 30 years ago has been "awful," she says, but she's committed to making sure Grempler stays in the family.
Even she acknowledges, though, that she's been slow to react at times. Only last year did Grempler begin advertising on television, a tool that other companies have been using for years.
Once considered the No. 1 real-estate business in Maryland, Grempler is now behind O'Conor, Piper & Flynn and Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., she says. In addition, the shaky economy and the influx of national real-estate chains continue to hurt business.
"I call people who come into real estate from out of town carpetbaggers. And they really are. I mean Long & Foster, Coldwell Banker, Prudential. . . . I think real estate, of all the industries, should belong to the ground and the county it exists in," she says.