Realtor who rose to the top faces her toughest test ON HER OWN

June 04, 1995|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

At 54, Carole A. Greenwald-Ryan can still hear her father's stock reply to her childhood stubbornness, to complaints of "I can't!"

"My father always said, 'Don't ever say you can't do something.'

For the president of The Prudential Preferred Properties in Baltimore, that exhortation steeled her at age 11 when she found herself the only girl on the golf course, as a young mother of three trying to sell real estate without a car, and as a 35-year-old divorcee sitting among teen-agers in her first college classes. Her father's words also guided her during a job interview 15 years ago, when she bluntly told the president of a real estate company she would like his job.

Today, the feisty mother of five and grandmother of yet another five drives a two-seater Cadillac convertible, holds a degree in psychology, and, essentially, has the job she'd told her interviewer she was after. No one has managed to bully her off the golf course either. She and her husband of seven years, Thomas L. Ryan, who live in Ellicott City, retreat to the links in a West Virginia golf community on many a weekend.

In a ferociously competitive industry, Ms. Greenwald-Ryan has risen to the top of the fourth-largest real estate company in metropolitan Baltimore while earning the respect of employees and competitors alike. Since 1990, she has led Prudential's Baltimore division, and recently she became its sole owner as part of a corporate reorganization. But now she faces the toughest test of her determination.

Over the past few years, the weakened economy and a slowdown in home sales has forced Ms. Greenwald-Ryan to slash expenses. Like many other local real estate brokers, she has closed offices, laid off staff, and cut advertising and office support. Such measures have kept the company profitable, she says, but they have prompted dozens of agents to jump what they fear may be a sinking ship.

"The image, the clout -- it is definitely a shrinking violet," said one former agent who left Prudential in April after seven years. "If the company is doing all of these cutbacks and not providing the proper services to expose the listings, you need to seek shelter elsewhere."

Because of the restructuring, the company has fallen behind by $250,000 on agents' commissions and vendors fees. Ms. Greenwald-Ryan has assured agents the delays are temporary and the commissions will be on track by the middle of this month.

But to some of the 50 agents and managers who left Prudential's two Towson-area offices in April, the cutbacks point to a company losing presence in the Baltimore region.

"They have pulled out of markets that were viable markets," says Chris Coile, president of Champion Realty in Anne Arundel County. "You can't shrink your business, or you lose market share, you lose agents and you lose economies of scale."

Even competitors agree that it has become more difficult to balance cuts in expenses in a poor market with agents' happiness.

"Whenever you cut back, you will upset some people," said D. R. Grempler, president of Towson-based Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction out there, and they tend to blame the companies."

But Ms. Greenwald-Ryan defends her decisions as defensive moves in a slow economy, with home values stagnating, administrative costs rising and agents claiming greater shares of commissions.

"The company that does the prudent thing, such as adjusting, does not make the sales associates very happy," she said. "If the economy is bad, the agents say 'don't consolidate, that shows weakness, don't cut back advertising.' The truth is, it's the company that doesn't do the prudent thing that ends up closing its door or selling."

She says she has no intention of doing either. On May 5, she became the owner of the Baltimore division of a franchise she and four partners bought five years ago. The restructuring spun the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia divisions into separate companies. And last week, the Washington company was gobbled up by a larger competitor.

She has spent the past several weeks working through divisions of settlement transactions, assets and liabilities among the companies and traveling to her 12 branch offices.

"It's easier to get a divorce than split up a company," she said. "It's an emotional, stressful time for everyone."

She was greeted with an outward show of support when she visited the Towson branch on Bellona Avenue last month. Standing at the head of a conference table before remaining agents and managers, she was dressed in a vibrant green and pink jacket with gold charms dangling from her wrist. Ms. Greenwald-Ryan had given the talk earlier in the day in Harford County and would repeat it in Anne Arundel, about making newly independent companies more profitable and responsive to local markets.

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