By Kevin Hogencamp, Contributing Writer
The distinctly homey vibe at the two-room office Lee Norville daringly opened 30 years ago in his hometown is no accident.
For example, the weekly sales meetings at 1938 Hamilton St. near Avondale always start with a prayer and sometimes end with a group hug.
The meeting agenda calls for the small cadre of Realtors to share kudos, war stories, listing updates and advice.
And birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions are celebrated.
These workmates laugh together and they cry together. Just as families do.
“Everyone here is family,” longtime office manager Cathleen Lee said as the group celebrated sales agent Bart Colbert’s birthday. “That’s the way we like it and it’s always been that way.”
In an industry in which mega-brokerage marketing power seems omnipresent, Norville Realty and many other small Northeast Florida agencies are holding their own.
Norville says he thinks his formula for longevity has been keeping up with technology while maintaining the old-fashioned virtue of caring about customers.
“I think being honest and doing what you say you are going to do is the key — no matter how big or small you are,” he said.
Indeed, it’s Norville’s entrepreneurial spirit and desire for “the freedom to do my own thing” that motivated him to go into business for himself.
Norville’s only gig before branching out on his own was with Watson Realty Corp. He says the company’s founder and chairman, William Watson Jr., is his hero.
“I have great memories of Watson. It was and is a great company,” he said. “I just think people — customers and agents — would rather deal with a small company. There’s nowhere else to go to get answers than right here.”
Other than focusing the bulk of its efforts geographically on the Avondale, Ortega and Riverside areas, Norville figures if his firm specializes in anything, it’s in personalized service and care.
And in taking care of one another.
“I wouldn’t trade what we’ve established here for anything,” he said. “We don’t have layers and layers of management. It’s just us.”
But the real estate business has never been a piece of cake for Norville Realty, especiallly in the early days.
“It started out a lot slower than I anticipated, but we stayed at it and knocked on a lot of doors,” he said.
Following the recent deaths of two longtime sales agents, Norville has eight Realtors on board.
He says he could use a few more. But all-comers need not apply.
“We only want people who are very loyal to each other and, just as importantly, to our customers,” Norville said.
Patrick Middleton, Middleton Realty
Being able to wear what he wants to work isn’t the only reason Patrick Middleton enjoys being his own boss in the real estate industry.
But it certainly helps.
“Here I am in my office, wearing shorts, making my own decisions and taking care of my family,” he said. “I love this independence.”
Middleton jumped into real estate feet-first as a 19-year-old after a close friend, John Vitale, attended what Middleton describes as a “get-rich-quick-in-real-estate seminar.”
“My friend said, ‘We’re going into real estate,’ and I said, ‘That sounds great, but we’d better get our license so we know what we’re doing,’” he said.
The career stuck for Middleton. His friend became a firefighter.
Middleton opened his brokerage in 1995 after about 14 years in the business, mostly under broker and longtime family friend, Al Williams.
“He taught me the ropes,” Middleton said.
And — along with a University of North Florida finance degree — how to make a living as an owner-broker.
Middleton specializes in investment and rental properties in the Arlington area, but is open-minded about nearly any real estate venture.
With six agents under his license, Middleton says his bread-and-butter is the customer base that keeps coming back.
“I got into this business to invest, so that’s kind of the flavor of my business,” he said. “Even when I’m working with buyers, I want to make sure they make a good investment.”
Middleton said a small brokerage’s biggest disadvantage is missing out on the opportunities that large-scale marketing provides.
But he says he’s fared well, nevertheless, because real estate is a relationship-driven business.
Most of Middleton’s new customers learn of him via word-of-mouth.
“I’m very fortunate to have been in Jacksonville all of my life,” he said. “I don’t have to go out and look for business that much.”
Middleton, whose team operates from modest digs on Rogero Road, says he advises agents who start their own brokerages to build their business organically.
“I tell (agents) not to spend money on things like the latest equipment,” he said. “Instead, go out and get the business — create the business — and let that dictate the need to spend money.”