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Legendary Houston real estate firm acquired by Sotheby's; competitor has no plans to sell

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Tom Anderson and Martha Turner January 2014
Tom Anderson and Martha Turner Photo by Eric Anderson
News_NEW HEAD SHOT_Ralph Bivins

Martha Turner Properties, known as one of the premier brands in luxury homes in Houston, has been sold to Sotheby’s International Realty Inc., a firm known around the world for selling mansions and estates.

Martha Turner, who founded the company in 1981, and her business partner Tom Anderson will continue to lead the Houston operations of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty, with both taking roles as co-presidents of the company.

Turner could not be reached for immediate comment following the Sotheby’s announcement. But she told me in an extensive interview in 2011 that she will never retire as long she is in satisfactory health.

Behind Turner's East Texas drawl and Deep South persona, associates say, is a woman with significant business acumen. 

Martha Turner Properties ranks as the second largest realty brokerage in the city, behind only Coldwell Banker United, and the average price of a home sold by Turner is $527,000, according to the Houston Business Journal.

A native Texan, Martha Turner didn’t start at the top. Turner, 73, grew up in the small East Texas town of Hemphill, working at her family’s store, Fuller’s Dry Goods and Hardware. After college, she began a fifteen-year career teaching elementary school geography and music and she rubbed shoulders with some wealthy families at River Oaks Baptist School.

“It’s amazing that she went into the business as a school teacher and became a great brand,” says Evert Crawford of Crawford Realty Advisors. “There are only handful of Realtors that have this premium brand.”

But behind her East Texas drawl and Deep South persona, associates say, is a woman with significant business acumen.

“Martha is brilliant. She is one of the smartest people I have ever known in the real estate business,” says author Jack Cotton, a Cape Cod, Mass. realty advisor who is regarded as one of the nation’s top experts in luxury housing.

“She thought outside the box,” says Cotton, who worked with Turner often in prior years. “She could see something that was really being done well in another business, whether it was luxury cars or luxury jewelry and say: “I know how we can apply this to real estate.’ ”

Personal adversity

Martha Turner co-founded Turner Owens Real Estate in 1981 in a single office in Houston, with Nancy Owens. But a few years later Ms. Owens was diagnosed with cancer. Then Turner's husband, Keith, passed away shortly before Christmas in 1986.

 John Daugherty Realtors, founded 47 years ago, has no plans to merge with a bigger company and lose its independent ownership, says company president Cheri Fama. 

Facing personal adversity, Turner concentrated on building the business. The results are impressive. Today, Martha Turner has six offices, 220 sales agents and it handled $2 billion in sales volume last year. The company also has branched into mid-market sales of homes that aren’t million-dollar mansions. (She famously appears in TV ads, where she offers homes from $20,000 to $20 million.)

But Turner has not lost its prominence in the upscale markets, such as West University Place and Memorial, where it goes toe-to-toe against upscale competitor, John Daugherty Realtors.

John Daugherty Realtors, founded 47 years ago, has no plans to merge with a bigger company and lose its independent ownership, says company president Cheri Fama.

“We founded this as a luxury concept year ago,” Fama says. “This is a brand will never stop advertising and never stop growing.”

Daugherty’s firm was once an “affiliate” of Sotheby’s, but that alliance, which ended in 2004, did not mean the Daugherty firm was ever owned by Sotheby’s, Fama says. It was more of a referral network.

Sotheby’s is part of NRT LLC, the nation's largest residential real estate brokerage company. The Sotheby’s International Realty network has 13,000 sales associates and 660 offices located in 49 countries and territories worldwide. NRT is a subsidiary of Realogy Holdings Corp., which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sotheby’s has brokerage offices in key markets, including San Francisco, Sonoma, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Malibu, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and Carmel, Calif.; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Greenwich, Conn.; Manhattan and the Hamptons, New York; Cape Cod, Mass.; and Palm Beach, Fla.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is founding editor of Realty News Report

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