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Riches in Niches

Cecil Powell
From cowboys to grocery shoppers, these real estate sales associates show how their unique niches boost their business.

One sales associate strolls the aisles of her local supermarket to fill her customer pipeline, another uses his status as a boat captain to help sell waterfront properties and yet another relies on past experience in equestrian circles as a way to find new clients and customers—so much so that he’s been called “The Cowboy Real Estate Associate.”

What do these sales associate have in common? They’re among the many associates with a unique niche that helps bring in anywhere from 5 to 50 percent of their annual property sales.

Whether working with deaf clients who need help communicating or networking with a rowdy group of college football fans, these associates have uncovered innovative ways to bring in business. 

Giddy Up!
When Cecil Powell pulls up to a home in his GMC 3500 pickup with dual wheels, people sit up and take notice. And when he jumps down from the truck, wearing a Western hat, and starts talking horses and farmland, they know this sales associate, with American Gold Realty Inc. in Marianna, not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk.

Around horses since he was 16 years old, Powell has owned and raised the animals all his life. Four years ago, he decided to get into the real estate profession, with a focus on selling properties that can accommodate equines. He screen-printed his company logo on the back window of his truck, bracketed a Western hat to the dashboard and started advertising his services in horse-related magazines, such as American Quarter Horse Journal and Horse and Rider.

Powell, who sold more than $5 million in properties last year, puts out cards at horse-related events (such as horse shows held at the Marianna Fairgrounds) and tapped his American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) membership for referrals. “We’ve gotten several calls through the association,” says Powell, “from people who are hunting for properties that can accommodate horses.”

With about 5 percent of his annual business coming from the horse niche, he isn’t getting rich by donning cowboy hats and going to horse shows, but he is enjoying the way it keeps him in touch with one of his lifelong passions. “I’ve even been nicknamed ‘The Cowboy Realtor®,’” says Powell, who wants to expand the niche further this year, perhaps by changing his “suit-and-tie” business card photo to one that more accurately portrays his ability to find homes that include ample pastureland and are situated near paved roads.
 
“I love horses, and I love talking to people who have an interest in horses,” says Powell. “I also know what they’re looking for, so when the opportunity comes up to help them get a place that accommodates both the people and their animals, it can be a lot of fun.”

Attention, Shoppers!
Where many shoppers stand in line at the checkout counter with bored, impatient looks on their faces, Karen Swinson pulls out her ear-to-ear smile and gets ready to do some networking. “Publix is my favorite networking place,” says Swinson, a sales associate with RE/MAX Specialists in Orange Park. “I’m kind of like the Barbara Walters of the supermarket, interviewing people and asking for their business, passing out my business cards, while we decide which tomatoes to buy.”

The niche has been both easy and fun for Swinson, who’s been in real estate for 14 years and sold $6 million in properties last year. Along the way, she says, she’s met some “really cool people” who’ve bought and sold homes through her. What started as simply talking to people at Albertsons or CVS has turned into a viable way for Swinson to find clients and customers. Through the chitchatting, for example, she may learn that someone’s aunt is looking for a home, or that someone else is ready to sell his or her home.

“I hand them my card,” says Swinson, a cancer survivor who focuses on being honest, positive and smiley throughout the interaction. “I have a lot of interesting stories to tell about my life,” says Swinson, who estimates that 25 percent of her annual sales come from retail store networking. 

Ears to Ya
After learning sign language 13 years ago in order to interpret church services for deaf parishioners, Nancy Smith, a broker-associate with Keller Williams of the Palm Beaches, began seeing a real need for a sales associate who could not only educate deaf buyers on the fine points of buying real estate, but also serve as a translator during the transaction itself.

Smith, who’s been in real estate since 1972, estimates that about 15 percent of her $18.5 million in sales last year came from working with deaf customers. “I have about 50 deaf [buyers, sellers and prospects] who trust me,” says Smith, who handles much of the communication with those customers and clients via e-mail and personal digital assistant (PDA). She says most of her business comes through referral.

“The fact that someone trustworthy is able to help them buy homes has spread like wildfire,” says Smith, who advertises her services in local newsletters that target the deaf community. In the ads, Smith holds up the “hand sign” and lets readers know that she can interpret and sign.

The niche isn’t without its challenges. For starters, doing typical things like “calling ahead to say you’re going to be late” isn’t always an option, according to Smith, who finds herself having to be more precise and thorough about directions and timeframes when working with clients and customers who can’t hear.

Challenges aside, Smith says being able to help deaf people buy and sell homes has been very fulfilling. “It’s added a whole new dimension to my business,” she says.

A Pickin’ and a Sellin’
When the band “Almost Bluegrass” hits the stage every Friday night, the enthusiastic crowd starts tapping feet and clapping hands to the infectious beat. And as Karen Donovan plays her guitar, banjo, fiddle or stand-up bass for the crowd, she knows that there’s a good chance that at least one of the audience members will turn into a real estate customer down the road.

That’s because the jams take place right at the offices of Largo Donovan Home Sales Inc., as part of a weekly bluegrass gospel concert. In real estate for 25 years and the company’s broker-owner, Donovan closed 30 transactions in 2006. “We’ve always loved music,” says Donovan, whose husband, Joe, plays in the band with her and works part time in the office. The pair also performs for charities at local functions, festivals and clubs. “It’s mainly for fun,” she says.

Over the years, the hobby has turned into a source of business for Donovan, whose business card includes a photo of her playing an instrument. As she starts to “talk bluegrass” with the audience or musicians, Donovan mentions that she’s a real estate professional. “There’s been more than one occasion when I was playing music with someone,” she says, “only to find out that they had a house that they needed to sell.”

Donovan uses a weekly newsletter that she sends to her sphere of influence to advertise the weekly concerts, using lines like “Maybe, after enjoying an evening of bluegrass, you’d also like to ask a real estate question or two.” The results have been positive, as Donovan often finds herself “sitting and chatting” with audience members after the show.

“It works out great,” says Donovan, who estimates that about 25 percent of her annual business is generated through her musical niche, which also includes a free bluegrass concert for new homebuyers’ housewarming parties. “A lot of people take us up on that offer,” she adds.

To sales associates looking to emulate the success of these seven professionals who’ve found niches through their own passions and life experiences, Donovan says the key is to go after something that you’re really interested in.

“People know when you’re sincere and when you’re doing something that you love,” she says. “I hear a lot of advice being thrown around like ‘Get involved with a volunteer organization’ or ‘Attend this event’ to find business, but I’ve found that if you stick with something that you love, and that you can have fun with, it will work.”

Ahoy, Matey!
A yacht captain at heart, Anthony Sparacino has managed to combine his love of the water and boating with a successful real estate career. In real estate since September 2006, this sales associate with Century 21 Shaw in Riverview relies on his 24-foot Sea Ray and 100-ton captain’s license to entice homebuyers to buy property along the waterfront, where he works.

“I really [know] waterfront property and wanted to incorporate my maritime background with real estate sales,” says Sparacino, who promotes his boating and captaining experience on his Web site—www.tampa waterfront.org. Through his “Buy the Boat” program, Sparacino offers customers tours of the waterfront side of shoreline homes.

Sparacino says combining boating with waterfront property sales has worked well so far. He’s paid for booth space at the Central Florida Boat Show in Orlando, where he pitches the “Buy the Boat” concept to potential customers as a way to generate sales.

Sparacino, who is usually the only real estate sales associate exhibiting at the shows, has signed up several waterfront listings as a result. “I’m there to pitch the properties that are available, and educate the typical boat owner about how they can save money [on marina fees] by buying a house on the water.”

Sparacino says the niche is showing potential in the current market, in which high-end waterfront homes are languishing on the market. “When sellers complain that their homes aren’t selling, I tell them that they’re just not marketing them the right way,” says Sparacino. 

Go, Trojans!
One wouldn’t typically see a rowdy football crowd as a potential source of business, but for Jaime Manson, a group of University of Southern California alumni has become just that. In residential real estate for about a year, this sales associate with Kelly Price and Co. in Winter Park says she and her husband, Brian, (a USC graduate) get together with a group of 25 to 50 Trojan fans at a local sports bar to watch the games, which aren’t aired on traditional television in the area.

“We meet and watch the games together every Saturday during college football season,” says Manson. “We have a big room, and we all wear our USC stuff.” Manson, whose husband is the “Webmaster” for the events, has an inside track with the attendees. For example, she sends out postcard reminders for the games, and puts her company name and phone number on them. Her broker pays for half of the postage for the mailings, which have resulted in several sales for Manson.

“A lot of the people who come to the games live close by,” says Manson. And while networking with friends, old college buddies and football fans can be challenging (particularly because many times it’s the “same crowd” every weekend), she says she plans to continue working her unique niche when football season starts again in the fall. “It’s been a great source of business for me.”

For The Dogs!
Connie Johnson is doggone glad that she sold $11 million in 2006. But, this sales associate with RE/MAX ACR Elite Group Inc., in Brandon isn’t just selling property, she’s selling property to a niche market that she’s worked in for the last 15 years. Involved in a sport known as “police dog competitions,” Johnson trains search and rescue dogs, and also handles advanced obedience and personal protection training.

“I own a training facility,” says Johnson, who estimates that 80 percent of her annual business is generated through the not-for-profit club, for which she serves as president and training director. Johnson took up the niche after showing property to another dog-training enthusiast who was looking to build a facility in the Tampa Bay area. “We stood in our own pasture with him one day and realized that our property would be the perfect place for it,” says Johnson.

“With that, people from all over the world began coming to my property to train,” recalls Johnson, who in 2000 was picked to represent the United States on a world team, which competed in Switzerland. “I started meeting a lot of good people. I also started traveling to competitions nationwide.”

Johnson estimates that along the way she’s sold 10 to 15 properties sight unseen, based on the fact that she’s so closely in touch with her clients’ needs. “They basically need a facility for their animals, rather than living quarters for themselves,” says Johnson, who often has to help buyers navigate zoning laws during purchases, due to the size and/or volume of dogs being trained on the properties.

She receives a high number of referrals as a result of the successful deals that come through her involvement with the dog sport. “I haven’t looked for business in at least 10 years.” 

Bridget McCrea is a Clearwater-based freelance writer.