Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 2, 2006.
Ebby Halliday, the grande dame of residential real estate in North Texas, turned 95 in March, but she has no intention of slowing down. She answers her own phone, drives her Cadillac to work every day and still puts in a nine-hour workday.
Her full schedule is part of her three-pronged approach to longevity.
“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t retire,” Halliday said at her giant birthday party last month.
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Many people know her name from the for-sale signs in their neighborhoods. But to many others, she is a trailblazer who opened doors for women in real estate.
Halliday started her business more than 60 years ago, at a time when women were seen as “ladies who showed houses” and almost never owned their own businesses, said Gary Krysler, executive vice president at the Women’s Council of Realtors in Chicago. They might have been compensated with a bottle of wine, but not a commission check, Krysler said.
But by 1957, Halliday was president of the 1,500-member Women’s Council of Realtors. Today, she heads one of the largest real estate brokerages in the country with 27 branch offices and $4.7 billion in sales in 2005.
Also in 2005, her agents closed on almost 20,000 homes. In terms of closings, Ebby Halliday Realtors was the nation’s 23rd-largest residential real estate brokerage in the nation, according to the latest figures from RealTrends, a Colorado-based real estate data firm.
Halliday is one of the first recipients of the National Association of Realtors’ highest award, the Distinguished Service Award, in 1979.
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t retire.
Ebby Halliday on her longevity
“She was probably on the forefront of women in the real estate industry. In some states, women weren’t allowed to own businesses,” said Linda McMahon, executive in charge of the award. “She was the first at many things, for sure.”
Halliday’s popularity is hard to miss. There were almost 2,000 people at her birthday bash last month, and many who couldn’t make it — such as President Bush and dignitaries from Spain and Norway — sent their congratulations.
Halliday still helps callers with their transactions and passes out a business card. Sometimes she will even play the ukulele — she learned to play the instrument in high school — tickling listeners with a short song about changes in real estate:
“Happy days are here again
Interest rates are down again
It’s a seller’s market once again
Happy days are here again”
From hats to houses
It’s always been a seller’s market for Halliday. As a Kansas farm girl, she rode her pony to sell tins of Cloverine brand salve to neighbors on either side of her family’s 640-acre wheat farm.
She worked during high school in a department store in her hometown of Abilene, Kan., selling back-lace Gossard corsets and ready-to-wear clothing to farm women. Halliday couldn’t get a permanent position because of the town’s poor economy, but she thought a bigger city might offer more opportunities.
She took a bus to Kansas City, Mo., and got a $10-a-week job selling hats for Consolidated Millinery in the basement of the Jones department store. Then she took a job selling hats at a department store in Kansas City. That’s where she got the name that she made famous.
“Your name, Vera Lucille Koch, will never get you anywhere. I’m going to rename you,” Halliday remembers her co-worker telling her. “I never questioned it. I was a country girl in the big city, and she was in charge of the $25 hats.”
Eventually, she was transferred to sell hats in several different cities. In 1938, she got a job at the W.A. Green department store at 1819 Elm St. in Dallas.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she said. But she still had her eyes on opening her own hat shop.
She got the $12,000 she needed to open the shop by investing $1,000 in cotton futures.
The stock tip came from a doctor who removed her tonsils. She had seen him and his nurse talk about stock tips, but when she asked him for his advice, he was reluctant to give it to a woman because “when they lose, they cry,” she said.
“Well, you try me,” she remembers saying.
Halliday eventually hired a designer and in 1945 opened her shop in an old Victorian building at 2603 Fairmount St. in Dallas.
Not long afterward, Halliday’s attention turned from hats to houses. The husband of one of her customers had unsuccessfully tried to sell some concrete houses in the Walnut Hill area and wanted Halliday to work the same sales magic that she had when selling hats.
“They were strongly built – they’re still standing,” Halliday said. Of course, now they are selling for a great deal more than the original price, which was $7,000 for the two-bedroom model and $9,000 for the three-bedroom.
By decorating the houses and hiding the concreteness of them using fresh carpeting, wall coverings and furniture, she sold the houses in about a year.
Then she sold a cornfield near Marsh Lane to George Mixon Sr., who brought in young builders Dave Fox and Ike Jacobs, who later become Fox & Jacobs, one of the nation’s first production home builders.
The more she sold houses, the more she liked it.
“Homeownership is one of the strengths of America,” she said. “And there is certainly more satisfaction in helping a young couple into their first home than in selling them their first hat.”
Secret to success
Halliday easily recalls the names, addresses and businesses that were pivotal in her career. They are all part of her secret to her success in sales, whether she is selling salve to farm workers or houses to corporate executives.
“Make them feel that you are interested in them, and it has to be honest, of course,” Halliday said.
Halliday has also found it important to contribute to charitable programs for children, the arts and higher education.
The benevolence echoes the sentiment of her late husband, Maurice Acers, who was comfortable cracking cases for the FBI as well as being a Rotarian with perfect attendance. At his core was a simple slogan he kept on his desk: “Do something for someone every day.”
Halliday has also contributed thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. Some of her largest contributions have gone to her longtime friend George W. Bush.
Halliday works hard, but she never without the abruptness of a busy executive, said Ginny Shipe, CEO of the Council of Real Estate Brokerage Managers. Halliday was the first inductee into the council’s Hall of Leaders in 2000.
“She’s a legend, but she’s also a real person and she makes a difference in people’s lives,” Shipe said.
“She is just a magical lady,” the National Realtors Association’s McMahon said. “When you’re with her, you want to be with her. She engages everyone.”
Of all of the tables full of awards in her office and the dignitary salutes that fill her volumes of scrapbooks, the one that she considers her finest accomplishment is the Horatio Alger Award she received last year.
The award is given to Americans who have distinguished themselves in their work despite humble beginnings.
She told students she met when receiving the award that the tough times of the Great Depression offered her the opportunity for advancement in life.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to develop a work ethic,” she said in her acceptance speech last year.
“I told the scholars today that I worked like a dog, but acted like a lady.”