Steve Calta was a young manager for Watson Realty when he gave his boss some advice: The boss was spending money he didn’t have to.
That boss was Bill Watson, founder and owner of the legendary Jacksonville real estate firm.
Watson had just told Calta to pay for a plumbing repair a customer discovered shortly after purchasing a home.
Calta thought they should point out that repairs were part of the price of home ownership. The company was getting a reputation all over town for spending money to fix problems that weren’t its fault, he told his boss.
“Watson just said, ‘Isn’t that great?’” Calta said. “I was trying to educate him, about how people were trying to take advantage of him.”
Watson simply refused to see any of it as a negative.
It’s one of the qualities that has defined Watson during the nearly 50 years he’s spent at the helm of what is today the largest independent brokerage in Florida.
Watson is a man who has always believed he could succeed by working harder than anyone else; who’s relentless in service to his customers; and principled, disciplined and unwilling to be anything but completely constructive, even in the worst circumstances.
As a young agent, he once delayed going to a black-tie affair with his wife to attend an impromptu house closing while dressed in his tuxedo.
There’s another story about how he discovered a customer couldn’t operate his ham radio at his new house because the agent had not checked the covenants thoroughly. Watson bought that house and sold the man and his wife another.
During the 2000s, in the midst of the worst housing crash in a lifetime, Watson came in every day saying, “It’s a great day to be in real estate.”
Watson has 42 offices and 1,200 agents.
It’s been a stunning success for the real estate tycoon who almost lost his first deal over $2.50.
Today an empire
Watson Realty Corp. is nothing less than a real estate empire, with bold red, white and blue signs standing above 42 offices that stretch from Orlando to St. Marys. The company, which started in 1965, ranks 20th nationally in RISMedia’s Power Broker survey for number of transactions closed in 2013 and ranks 19th in Real Trends for sides.
Within Watson Realty’s orb are a dozen ancillary businesses, including mortgage and title services, property management, electric, plumbing, HVAC, corporate relocation and even a school of real estate.
Beyond the bounds of the company are scores of individual agents who got their start at Watson and went on to lead successful careers in real estate.
The story of Watson’s rise has reached an almost myth-like quality, with generations of associates repeating anecdotes of when Watson passed out company-branded pens while trick-or-treating with his children; went back to the office at the end of the day to squeeze in two more hours of work; or returned every person’s phone call, no matter how late the hour.
Separating the myth from the man is made difficult by Watson’s own careful guarding of the brand he worked so hard to build. Gently and kindly, Watson answers questions with anecdotes, steering the conversation where he wants it to go in a sort of Ronald Reagan-style.
Those who’ve worked with him, though, say the real Bill Watson is not too far off from the legend that surrounds him.
A business of wealth building
William A. Watson Jr., was born in Jacksonville, the son and grandson of railroad conductors for what today is CSX Corp.
The work had been good pay for the senior Watsons. But Bill Jr.’s early years came at a time when railroad profits were declining and Amtrak was forming. He needed a better career path.
As a young man, his interests ranged from sports — baseball being his favorite — to ROTC.
Even from a very young age, though, he loved business. As a boy he built his paper route from 85 to more than 350 customers. He still keeps a bank ledger showing the $1,000 withdrawal that paid for his first car from the savings.
Watson attended Stetson University in DeLand, where at first he majored in insurance. Then a roommate recommended he take a course in real estate. The professor, Roger G. Giles, would become one of Watson’s early mentors.
“He added so much sizzle to the subject,” Watson said. “He’d say, ‘Where is the wealth in the U.S. today? It’s in real estate. Who’s in a better position to buy real estate than somebody who’s in it every day?’”
It seemed so much more practical than an economics class, where everything was “supply and demand.” Watson switched his major.
Love this job
After graduation in 1959, Watson joined Gifford Grange Realty in 1960. When Grange left the business to enter politics, Watson opened his own brokerage on the Southside.
His goal in those days was simply to build an office as successful as the one he had been working in, offering property management and fire and casualty insurance in addition to real estate services.
His wife, Janelle, returned to teaching for a year to help save money and typed contracts for Bill at night.
During those early years, Watson, who loved both work and family, blurred the lines between the two.
He paid the children $1 for every real estate lead they found. They played games in the evening, guessing how many houses he’d sold that day.
When they spent summers at the beach, Watson flew in on weekends, dividing time between swimming with the kids and working on contracts. Family vacations were always wherever the Florida Association of Realtors held its conference.
“It was fun,” daughter Carlotta Landschoot said. “We got to meet the children of other people in real estate at places like Orlando and Sanibel Island. There were always cool beaches and cool pools.”
Today Landschoot, her brother and brother-in-law all work for Watson.
An outlier’s success
Watson opened his first branch office in 1970. Janelle asked why he would take on the extra work when the first office was doing so well.
“I said, ‘Honey that’s the trend. I think real estate offices are going to get bigger, and the market is going to expand,’” Watson said. “We’re going to see more money and it is going to become easier to acquire.’”
It was the same year the government created Freddie Mac, which buys mortgages, pools them and sells them as mortgage-backed securities to investors on the open market.
Real estate companies like Watson opened branch offices in order to bring services closer to customers.
It wasn’t just Watson who grew a real estate empire during those days. A high school friend, Walter Williams, also developed one of Jacksonville’s largest real estate companies.
It’s a phenomenon that makes Calta think of the book, “Outliers,” which postulates that timing, as much as talent, plays a role in breakout success, such as that achieved by a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.
Calta worked for Watson for 13 years, the last four as a senior manager, before opening Atlantic Shores Realty.
“One of the things I learned when I got into real estate is that almost every major community has a company like Watson Realty — a large independent brokerage that started with one man, either in the 1950s or early 1960s,” he said.
Being in real estate at the right time wasn’t any guarantee, though – success still demanded a Bill Gates.
“It takes a person with work ethic and leadership skills,” Calta said. “It was an opportunity that came because the industry was evolving. And Bill Watson stepped up to make it happen in Jacksonville.”
First deal became guiding principle
Watson had definite ideas that set him apart from other companies.
Many people get into real estate to make money. He also wanted to play the game fairly.
“I made a commitment that if I was going to be successful, it had to be honorable. It had to be right. I wasn’t interested in a fast sale,” Watson said. “I was going to go back to the office two nights a week and never lose a customer.”
He lost a few. But, the commitment kept him on track.
His ethic was apparent as early as his first real estate deal.
“It was an FHA home to a city engineer, who was an electrical lineman. And I almost blew the sale up,” Watson said with a smile.
He had asked for a 30-year loan for the buyer. At closing, the mortgage came back as a 25-year loan, increasing the monthly payment by $2.50.
“I stood up and said, ‘I’ll go back to the mortgage company and I’ll fight to get that raised to a 30-year loan,’” he said.
A more seasoned closing attorney asked Watson to sit down. He then explained to the buyer it would be like buying an extra carton of cigarettes and would go entirely to principal. The buyer was satisfied.
But Watson had been prepared to fight. He didn’t want the buyer to think he had quoted a lower payment on purpose.
It was a guiding principle that would define the company Watson later built. Today he calls it legendary quality service, though Watson has since refined his methods.
A legend built on service
Watson insists that phone calls, even to him, not be screened.
“He doesn’t want anyone to feel like they can’t reach someone, or that someone’s deciding whether you will get to talk to them,” said Donna Overman, who manages Watson’s North Mandarin office. “If you call him, he will absolutely call you back.”
Affiliated companies, like plumbing, electrical and HVAC, were a market opportunity for the real estate firm. But they also were a way to get excellent service for customers who were using Watson’s property management, Landschoot said.
One of the most striking illustrations of Watson’s commitment to customer satisfaction, though, is the lengths he’ll go to find closure for a distressed home buyer.
There are stories of Watson paying for undiscovered repairs that weren’t anybody’s fault after a house closes. Or financing a home for an eight-time customer who had recently gone through a short sale. Or the home he bought back from the ham-radio operator.
The company actually sets funds aside in its budget to solve such unforeseen problems, Watson President Ed Forman said.
“You could spend thousands marketing the company, or you could spend a few dollars solving an issue,” he said. “We know if somebody has a good experience, they may or may not brag on you. If somebody has a bad experience, they will tell a lot of people.”
Never a discouraging word
Calta calls Watson one of the most principled people, in terms of his values and discipline, he’s ever met.
He’s a master of, not just thinking positive, but being positive.
“When I first met him, initially I thought it was all pretend. But later I learned it was not the case,” Calta said.
Calta remembers Watson lending money to agents, who, in some cases left the company before paying him back.
“I guess my perception about successful business people was, it is all about the money. If you’re due money, you should go after it,” Calta said. “To him, it was a business decision that just didn’t work out. Those were his words, and he was OK with that.”
Game not over
As the company approaches its 50th year, Watson can look
back on a distinguished career that includes leading state and national real estate organizations and winning numerous performance and lifetime achievement awards.
Asked if retirement is in view, Watson thought for a mere split second.
“No,” he said. “I love what I do. Some prominent leaders have been active into their 80s and 90s. I think it’s just part of being happy.”
In a business filled with people who want to make a quick buck, Watson is lasting proof that someone with high personal ethics who treats people fairly can get ahead.
Calta said Watson is a “shining example” that success is about more than making money.
“He’s been an influence on a lot of individual agents who’ve had successful careers,” Calta said. “And, none of them have ever done wrong by modeling themselves after him.”