Hickory Delegal was standing in line for lunch at Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant in Jacksonville Beach when he turned to chat with the man behind him.
Learning that the man was moving to the area from California and was in the market for a home, Delegal did what any good real estate agent would do: He whipped out his business card.
By the time they got to order, Delegal had a new client.
Growing up in Jacksonville and raised by a successful Realtor mother, Hickory Delegal knows a lot of people. But he also has the ability to quickly connect with strangers.
“I can find a point of contact in a conversation within 10 seconds,” he said, glancing at his mother, Donna, across the table. “We know Jacksonville more thoroughly than just about anybody in the business.”
Nodding in agreement, Donna added, “and we love what we do.”
Donna Delegal, 73, and her 42-year old son are a team with Oceanside Real Estate in Jacksonville Beach. They consider themselves Northeast Florida experts, from the Georgia state line all the way to Flagler Beach. They share an assistant, but otherwise it’s just the two of them. Donna still works full-time in the business while Hickory said he works an average of 70 hours per week.
Their slogan, which Donna coined shortly after becoming a Realtor in 1990, is “Start Packing.” Over the last two-plus decades, the pair have prompted a lot of people to pack.
Inspired by his mother’s success, Hickory joined her in the business part-time while attending college, transitioning to full-time after graduation. “I got my license when I was 18,” he said. “I wanted to make money.”
The youngest of five children, Hickory was the only one to follow in his mother’s footsteps. His brother, Tad, is 2017 president of The Jacksonville Bar Association, and the other Delegal siblings also enjoy successful careers. They grew up in a family that owned and managed many real estate properties as well as area businesses, with Hickory undergoing the deepest indoctrination.
Donna and her late husband, Al, at one point owned and rented more than 350 units in Northeast Florida. They also owned several 1950s- and 1960s-era hotels and motels, including oceanfront properties and others along Philips Highway. Donna left her nursing career after Hickory was born to help Al manage properties. “We dragged Hickory everywhere,” she said.
Donna grew up in Jacksonville as — she likes to say — “a little country girl.” Her family lived on St. Augustine Road near San Jose Elementary School, which was built when she was in fourth grade.
After graduating from DuPont High School, she enrolled in St. Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing, eventually becoming a registered nurse.
She loved nursing and was good at it, rising to head nurse of the surgical intensive care unit team at St. Vincent’s.
After she left nursing in 1974, Donna dedicated herself to raising the children and helping with the family business. Battling diabetes for 25 years, Al often was in ill health, which complicated their already busy lives, she said. “We became accustomed to chaos.”
As Al’s health continued to decline, they gradually sold their properties and Donna decided to become a Realtor to earn a living.
She took to the business quickly, joining Watson Realty in 1990 and sold more than $2 million worth of properties in her first year there at a time when the average home in the area cost $65,000.
By her third year, she was top agent in the office.
After a move to Re/Max, Donna said she became the first Realtor in Jacksonville to form a “team.”
“Nobody had a team at the time,” she said, but the concept came naturally to the former team leader as a head nurse. The first team had 12 members, one for which she held weekly lunches along with office staff and real estate associates.
She trained her team personally.
“I had a van,” she said, “and I’d put them in it and say, ‘let’s go get you a listing.’” After driving around neighborhoods and knocking on doors, “most of the time we’d get a listing,” she said.
Hickory joined that team in 1999, and the pair moved to Oceanside six years ago. There, they continued to use their “Start Packing” slogan, which Donna has in extra large letters on her name tag.
They credit their success in part to establishing and maintaining personal connections with their clients.
“We keep it very simple,” Hickory said, adding the Delegal team capitalizes on customers’ discomfort with many competitors’ reliance on communications technology rather than personal contact.
He said he is aware of many real estate agents who orchestrate transactions entirely through text messaging.
“We pick up a lot of business from people who were completely dissatisfied with that,” he said. “We pick up the phone. People tell us nobody picks up the phone anymore.”
Donna added many agents are in the business part-time — often for mostly social reasons— and don’t possess the necessary expertise to fully serve their clients. Technology is a complicating factor, Hickory added.
“Because everybody — Realtors, buyers, sellers — think they are experts. But having information and being able to discern what it means are two different things.”
The Delegal team earns much corporate relocation business, Hickory said, because of connections made through decades of experience in the market — including doctors from Donna’s career as a nurse.
Mostly, they are successful because they know the business.
“We understand real estate,” Donna said. “We really understand it.”