remembering martha turner

Houston's empress of real estate Martha Turner passes away at 81

Houston's empress of real estate Martha Turner passes away at 81

Martha Turner headshot
Martha Turner turned a fledgling real estate business into a $2.5B empire. Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby’s International Realty

Houston’s matriarch of real estate has passed away. Martha Fuller Turner, the pioneering, self-made, consummate local success story, died in Houston, surrounded by her family. She was 81.

“We are heartbroken over Martha’s passing,” Robin Conner, president of Martha Turner Sotheby’s International Realty, tells CultureMap. “She was a deeply respected leader in the Houston real estate community and an inspiration, friend, and mentor to us all. Last year, Martha Turner Sotheby’s International Realty celebrated 40 years of excellence, and, in her honor, we will continue her legacy by upholding the values she established so many years ago. We are so fortunate to live out her vision and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity she gave us all to be successful.” 

The real estate icon who watched her empire grow to $2.5 billion in sales (as of 2021) was born in the East Texas town of Hemphill in 1940. She credited her young days of helping in her parents’ feed store — Fuller's Dry Goods, Feed, Seed, and Fertilizer — for developing her work ethic — for which she was legendary. The graduate of North Texas University married and launched a 15-year career as a teacher, often supplementing her income by selling wigs and even encyclopedias door-to-door.

Her teaching post at River Oaks Baptist School was her longest; here, she would begin building and selling houses, generating a passion for real estate. She retired in 1979, secured a real estate license, and sold her first house that year for $78,000. Two years later, the unflinching Turner launched the fledgling Turner Owens Real Estate company in a harsh local economic climate. That company would become the familiar Martha Turner Properties in 1986.

“I have a God-given talent and it is a gift that I was given,” Turner once said. “The gift of communication first, and the gift of selling.” Both gifts served Turner well as she grew her independent firm, stressing “excellence” as a company brand pillar, attention to detail, and ultra-personalized customer service. Her mantra: “The more you listen, the more houses you will sell.”

A keen networker and master of word-of-mouth referrals, Turner applied a simple formula to her work: “As I began to get more listings, whether it was for a $70,000 house or one for $200,000, I gave the client the same service,” she explained to the Houston Business Journal. “I gave exceptional service and stayed in touch. My clients in turn referred their friends to me. It is the cheapest advertising you can do, and my business started to multiply.”

It didn’t take long for the industry to notice such multiplying success, and in 2009, Turner was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame — at that time, she was one of only seven women to be so honored. Five years later, she sold her firm to Sotheby’s International Realty for an undisclosed price, creating what is now the Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty brand.

Turner stepped down from day-to-day management in 2015 and embraced her chairman emeritus role, but never stepped away from civic, philanthropic, and social work. She was a familiar face at A-list social events and an ardent advocate for women (especially in business), the arts (she minored in music in college), and, fittingly, education. Socially, Turner was gracious, kind with a word, and displayed trademark humility that belied her local, regional, and national success.

Nurturing 40 years of business growth, a household brand, $2.5 billion in sales, and an army of colleagues, coworkers, devotees, satisfied customers, and fans might not have been the future the young teacher from Hemphill may have envisioned, but it’s one she crafted with her immovable core values.

“To be successful,” Turner once said to Conner, “you have to love what you do, love the people around you, make everyone feel special, and realize that you are the only person in charge of your life.”