Gritty Joan Ryder bucks the trend toward consolidation -- and succeeds a Small Broker Makes it Big

October 24, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Joan Ryder has a gym in her basement, but no time to work out. She has a sauna, too, but no time to relax. Her brick mansion in Fallston overlooks 35 acres of fields, forests, chickens, geese, four cows and three Rottweilers. But she rarely finds time to stroll the grounds.

Instead you'll find the 46-year-old in the formally decorated offices of Joan Ryder & Associates most days and late into the evenings.

In real estate circles, she's known as a "bird-dogger," someone who jumps on a lead -- even the long shots -- with a single-mindedness that borders on obsession, and, more often than most, lands the sale. The quest has kept her up nights, forever searching for ways to beat the odds -- outthink, outrun, outmaneuver the competition. Her perseverance has paid off.

While other small, independent agencies have gone the way of mergers and buyouts, Joan Ryder & Associates runs steady with the big names in Harford County, O'Conor Piper & Flynn, Long & Foster, even the merged Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc.

Just two years ago, at the bottom of a severe down market, Ms. Ryder left Prudential Preferred Properties' Harford County office -- where she'd ranked first in sales for 10 years -- and opened the agency she'd dreamed of for more than a decade.

Her 27-agent firm, which works out of a stone building she owns in Bel Air, has grown since then into one of the top four in Harford County. Sales topped $70 million in her first year, and one agency offered to buy her out. In September, Joan Ryder & Associates had more settled sales, 43, than any single office in the county, and second only to O'Conor Piper & Flynn's 49 settled sales from two offices.

"Joan is bucking a trend -- the trend is for smaller companies to be consolidated," said Bob Head, manager of O'Conor Piper & Flynn's Bel Air/Abingdon office. "As a single office, they do very well, though Joan did well as an agent -- as much business as some small offices in Harford County."

Mick Curtis, office manager of Long & Foster in Bel Air, says Ms. Ryder's speedy rise as a broker comes largely from building name recognition as an agent. It's likely that anyone living or working in Harford County at least knows her name.

"No matter where you looked in Harford County, you saw the name Joan Ryder," says Bonnie J. O'Brien, marketing director for the Harvard Title Corp. in Baltimore. "It prompted people to say, 'Who . . . is she?' "

Ms. O'Brien was working in Harford County as a loan officer for a mortgage lender when she met Ms. Ryder. She recalled Ms. Ryder as an imposing woman who demanded perfection from herself and others and reeled off seemingly encyclopedic real estate facts. She intimidated other loan officers. But Ms. O'Brien discovered behind the hard exterior a generous soul who went to great lengths to encourage her in her career.

When Ms. Ryder left Prudential "it took a lot of guts," Ms. O'Brien says. "It was more than gutsy. It was really a bad time to do it. She'd always been very successful but had no management skills. What made her think she could manage 30 or 40 agents? But when she makes a commitment she makes it work."

It works, Ms. Ryder says, because she has cut through the red tape that inevitably comes in a big company. Smaller, she says, is more personal, more efficient, more human. And though she hopes to open a second office in Baltimore County after five years, she says expansion will stop there.

"If you want to do business right, you have to be involved in it," says Ms. Ryder, who in a typical day acts as broker, manager and bookkeeper, writes listing ads, oversees her advertising magazine and leads seminars for her agents. "I know every listing we have. If the seller or buyer has a problem, there's no red tape to me."

Friends say she's a time-management expert, leaving to others those chores she knows she'll never do. As an agent, she hired her own secretary. A maid keeps her 7,000-square-foot house spotless. At night, she's usually too worn out to cook, but her husband of two years, Roland Buitron, gladly takes on that task.

She thrives on her role as teacher, training new agents and running weekly sessions based on her own peaks and valleys as an agent. She tells them, "I've had my foot slammed in the door. If you're cold calling, people will scream at you. But taking that rejection makes you stronger."

To cut costs, she installed an art department in her office basement and produces her own 44-page, monthly advertising magazine. She distributes 20,000 copies by mail and on racks.

Once she sells someone a house, she fully expects to sell him his next one, or at least to sell to one of his relatives.

She keeps in touch with phone calls and Christmas cards.

Give customers what they want, she says, and what you want will come.

She told herself that as an agent and broker and now drums it into her agents, along with high expectations of professionalism in an occupation many consider one step above used-car salesman.

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