Chapter 4
Continuing Our Lives
Without knocking myself out, I set about determining what to do about making a living and getting us a place to live since it was a little crowed at her folks. A quick visit to the Carpenter’s Hall put me on a framing job on a group of apartments in Belmont Shores. I was put in charge of the layout which required reading the blue prints, marking the location of the walls, window and door openings and the location of each stud. When that was completed on each building I would work with the crew to fabricate and erect the walls.
I had contacted Howard, who was working as a painter and we decided to go back into business for ourselves, picking up where Dad had left off when they moved to Grass Valley. A lot of work had been put off waiting for the war to end so we had all we could handle. I had studied for a general contractor’s license and passed the State exam but hadn’t thought past that point. Until one day when I was hanging wall paper in the home of a general contractor I mentioned to him that I had obtained a license but had no plans to use it. His simple response of, “Why not?” changed my life. Proof of how powerful questions can be.
We bought a vacant lot on an alley corner on Tivoli just off of Broadway in Naples using our War Bonds as the down payment. I developed the floor plan, took them to the bank, got a construction loan that also covered the rest of the money due on the lot and went to work. Up until that time almost all homes had slanting roofs of one kind of another but I decided I could add real value with little extra cost by building a home with a flat roof ready for a second floor addition. So I provided a two story foundation along with ceiling joists large enough to act as second floor, a stair well framed in and rough plumbing extended upward for another bath.
After that, just tear the old roof off at any time and start building. The fourth time I held it open a couple came by who were out riding their bikes and bought it at a price the local Realtors said was unrealistic. As far as I know it is still just one story. It doesn’t look like much by today’s standards but in 1946 it was an innovative break from the traditional which is what sold it.
This led to the designing and building a home on the Ocean for a couple I met on my first one. It was the beginning of 8-years of designing and building homes, three apartment buildings and remodeling several restaurants as well as other commercial buildings.
I had read that the National Association of Home Builders was sponsoring studies to simplifying the construction of homes at the University of Illinois. The studies included the use of wooden trusses to span a residence from outside wall to outside wall. This allowed complete flexibility and interior walls could be erect anywhere and moved when remodeling. Concrete footings normally required under interior walls to support the roof were eliminated.
I had grown up reading Horatio Alger stories about how young men became successful through honesty and hard work. However, the author had failed to point out that business knowledge was just as important. Consequently, after nine years I failed with a debt of about $18,000. That was a lot of money in 1956 but over a period of several years I was able to dispose of it and avoid bankruptcy.
We had paid a $1,000 down and bought a new subdivision home on Tulane Avenue, just off of the Los Coyotes Diagonal for $12,500. It was only a block from the elementary school and Our Lady of Refuge Church. The house was sitting in the middle of raw dirt so we added a sand pile, swing and exercise bars for the kids, a covered patio, enlarged dining area and landscaping. Our drapes were made of sheets. By that time we had added Roger, Peggy and Mike to the family.
When I started building I had leased a lot and constructed an office building and storage lot. One of my tenants was a Realtor so I had obtained a real estate license by paying $10 and taking a 2 hour test. I joined a Realtor on a corner close to the house and stayed with him two years learning how not to sell real estate. I asked him for help in presenting an offer on a multiple unit and he got into an argument with the owner over the commission so I never asked for help again.
A news article announced that Walker and Lee Realty was opening another branch office in our Los Altos area. Their main office in Lakewood was the sales office of the subdivision I had worked on as a carpenter after trade school. They had other offices in Dutch Village, Park Estates, several in Orange County. Those were in addition to the subdivision sales they handled for developers. Eight years later, when I left them to start Sparow Realty, I was District Sales Manager over the six Long Beach, Lakewood and Los Cerritos area offices. During that time I had attended every program offered by noted sales consultants and did my best to apply the insights to the managing of the office and the support and training the agents.
About 1960 the Dean of the Adult Education at Long Beach Community College asked me to teach the "Fundamentals of Real Estate" and, when he discovered I’d been a contractor he asked me to create a course to be called the "Fundamentals of Residential Design and Construction". The upshot was that for eleven years I taught one or two courses a semester that also included the "Legal Aspects of Real Estate" and "Tax Aspects of Real Estate". Although I had been putting Limited Partnerships together I wasn’t an expert so I attended a "Tax Aspects" course at UCLA while I was teaching the subject and used it to stay ahead of my students.
We’d been looking for a corner house that we could enlarge and found one on Los Arcos across the street from a grammar school and a Jr. Hi School. We then began 3 years of converting the garage to a master bedroom and bath, adding a family room between it and the house, a covered patio, an over sized garage, making the old dining area into an entry and moving the front door and porch around the corner. Outside we added stone planters and landscaping.
We enjoyed the new space and Peggy didn’t have to share a bedroom with a brother. The paper ran a story about the house that turned the corner because we had to change the address to the side street.
Peggy was born with a congenital heart condition consisting of a small hole between the heart’s chambers. At the time the surgery was non existent but it didn’t seem to affect her in any manner until she was 13 and became ill. They diagnosed that the heart had developed an infection due to that defect and while they cured the infection they recommended surgery that had become available because they believed it could become infected again and, if it did they were afraid it could be fatal. The surgery was a success and on the third day home she wasn’t feeling well and the doctor told Marguerite that if she wasn’t better the next day to bring her in and they would reevaluate her medicine. I had stopped by at lunch to see how she was doing and had returned to the office when a neighbor called to say she had been taken to the hospital. When I arrived I was told that Peggy had died and that Marguerite was in the hospital chapel. Peggy had died in Marguerite’s arms shortly after I had left. I don’t have the words to describe the days that followed but family, neighbor and friends were a great help. We had the photo taken two weeks before the surgery.
I had become dissatisfied with Walker and Lee and putting together limited partnerships and investment opportunities seemed more challenging than continuing in sales management. At that time §1031 tax deferred exchanges didn’t exist so it was necessary to sell the smaller properties being use to trade up because the larger property usually wanted all cash or a better property than the one being offered. Some times that required guaranteeing a minimum sales price for the smaller property. The challenge was to analyze the properties and compute a price that would allow the limited partners a reasonable return while assuring the sale of the smaller property.
However, when Walker and Lee announced my leaving, several agents I had trained asked to go with me. When I told them my objective was just to do limited partnerships they said that was okay, they would work residential.
Since a full service real estate company would require a brick and mortar office I looked for a prominently located building. None were available so I leased a vacant lot at the corner of the Los Coyotes Diagonal and Willow facing the 405 freeway. That required more capital and Marguerite’s, sister Betty Ann, provided the funds. Due to her the building and its location became a major factor in Sparow Realty’s success.
It was built and occupied in a record six weeks. Dad and Mom were living in Leisure World so Dad did the painting. We moved from our temporary office space in a nearby building and we were in business full bore. While some painting, landscaping and other odds and ends still had to be completed we were in business.
With the kids mostly grown Marguerite had been taking some college classes and volunteering as a teacher’s aid. She immediately took over as the receptionist and proved to be extremely helpful. She was well liked by the agents as well as our clients. (I thought a lot of her too.)
One day a man came in and said his name was Dan Olsen. He was selling rusty horse shoe nails and showed us how to use them to increase business. I introduced him to the sales force and he conducted a couple of sales meetings. It was a was a clever idea but few could apply it.
Then he suggested taking several photos of each listing, mount them on a board, attach the boards to a circular display rack and show them to prospective buyers when they came in. I didn’t believe they should be limited to a rotating rack so I rearranged the lobby furniture and placed them on railings so that all would be visible. We decided to call it the "Value Vision Show of Homes" and the individual homes were, "Valuescopes."
I created a graphic listing presentation that showed how our lobby show case permitted us to hold their homes open all-day, everyday and even at night, rain or shine. It also explained how it allowed us to qualified buyers' likes and dislikes so when they came to see their home it would be because they were partially sold and were in the process of confirming.
It preceded today’s computerized Multiple Listing Service photos by over 25 years and saved us from going broke in the recession that hit in our second year. I improved the listing presentation, broke it into three parts and in training sessions everyone presented one part at a time and finally made a complete presentation to the group. They quickly learned why pictures were worth thousands of words and how it set them apart from other agents.
A year later a young man, Gary Lawson, called. He said he worked for IBM as an instructor and was working on his Masters and asked to interview me. How can you say no to that? Several months later he reappeared and said he had completed his Masters and would like to leave IBM for real estate. A year later we opened an office for him in Fountain Valley. When I became involved with Century 21 he bought the office and retained the name, Century 21 Sparow Realty, Fountain Valley.
With the kids mostly gone we sold the house on Los Arcos and bought one in Park Estates near the University. Of course it needed remodeling, decorating, roofing and landscaping which we accomplished in less that a year which was a record for us. With the family room opening to the patio (Smooth concrete for dancing). it was great for parties that included live music because two of our agents had been professionals and would get a couple of others for a great foursome.
Foreign Students. Congressman Dr. Steve Horn, now retired, was President of UCLB and I joined his President’s Club which led to involvement with the International Student’s Association which led to our providing a home for foreign students who needed assistance.
Our first was Vania Sotti from Sau Palo, Brazil. Extremely charming and intelligent, she tutored high math in addition to her studies and spoke three languages. She got some other foreign students to help her cook a dinner of foreign dishes for our guests at my 50th birthday party. Here she is doing the dishes afterwards.
When she graduated we interviewed Sombat, a Thai student. He spoke a little broken English but was easy to understand so we gave him a key and he said in would move in shortly. We came home one day to a message that read, "Hi Mom, Dad, I move in tomorrow. Okay me call you Mom, Dad?"
Because he was obviously non-Caucasian, about 5"4" tall with a wispy Fu Manchu type mustache and weighed about 120 lbs I told my sales force not to worry if a person who fit the above description came to the office and asked for his "Dad."
A couple of years after Sombat graduated and returned to Thailand we visited him and his fiancé, Sugonya in Bangkok where he was teaching at the University Chulalongkorn. We traveled 400 miles north with them to Ching Mai, the only other city in Thailand, to visit Sugonya’s sister who owned a newspaper and had arranged a home for us to stay in. They threw a big dinner party for us on the lawn where we sat on mats in circles while they served a Thai dinner on multi-tiered lazy susans followed by a dance group composed of North Thai dancers in their native dress. It was a wonderful evening with wonderful people.
The Burmese Councilor, who was in attendance learned that I had been with the British in Burma during the War and gave us his limousine and driver for our stay. We had been hosted because they were impressed that an American would assist a Thai student.
About the same time I became involved with the Catholic Big Brother program and three children left fatherless in a plane crash, David, Tim and Lisa Farthing. They are now part of our extended family. More about them latter.
Century 21 is born. In 1969 I had purchased a service from Art Bartlett called "Comps Inc" that provided valuable appraisal information and in December of 1971 he walked into my office again and proposed that I buy a real estate franchise called, Century 21. I was a scoffer but Art was a grinder and we met with his partner, Marsh Fisher, who dealt the fatal blow.
In December of 1971, I bought the first Regional Franchise encompassing South West Los Angeles County running south from Mulholland Drive along the Santa Ana Freeway to Long Beach, west from the Santa Ann Freeway and the Orange County line to the ocean. A seat on the Board went with it and I invested in the parent company.
Art and Marsh had also been busy selling franchises in Orange County so when my full page ad appeared in the Press Telegram on April 9, 1972, it stated that Century 21 had arrived in the Long Beach-Lakewood area as well as Orange County. I had 7 well established companies, two of them second-generation and there were no "start ups" like a competing franchise. The ad is framed and hanging in our family room and contains their photos and background and states that Century 21 has forty offices and lists our 100 agents. But, one broker who didn’t buy, told me that while franchises might sell hamburgers they would never sell real estate.
By that time I had leased and remodeled the second floor of a building on Long Beach Blvd for our Regional Headquarters. It contained a class room for sales training and our licensing school plus offices for staff and an escrow company.
I had just sold a franchise to a Realtor in Bellflower and when I told him I was looking for a secretary he introduced me to his daughter Carole Roberts. She did a great job and we met again years later in San Diego where she was working for a title company. I sold her home and met her fiancé, Mickey, then sold them a home and then sold his home. Now we see them regularly when attending plays and musicals booked by Anne for her charities. We just attended her retirement party where I roasted her with some stories from the past.
I sold my offices, one to Gary and the other to seven of the agents and devoted full time to the development of the Region. I had to replace my first two franchise sales persons and was searching for another when I remembered a two man team composed of Dr. Bill Kroske and Dr. Dick McKenna, clinical psychologists, who had conducted an excellent session for us at our first convention in New Orleans. I met with Kroske and asked him to find a person who could assist in building the Region. A week later he returned, informed me he had found the best man for the job and then—introduced himself which is what I had hoped for. When we started our escrow company his wife Sally became part of our team as its manager. Bill and Sally both were outstanding and the Region prospered.
A less than adequate Listing Presentation had been created by one of the Century 21 International staff. I reworked the Sparow Realty presentation to include the Century 21 benefits and made a presentation to the Century 21 decision makers. Two days later Art called me and we cut a deal for royalties. Theirs went in the round file.
Then Universal Pictures was hired to make a listing presentation film based on a script that someone had drafted. They called me when it was ready and we drove up to Universal Studios for a preview. Although it cost $25,000 in 1973 dollars I felt it didn’t work so I wrote a scrip and produced a film on my own dime. After they viewed it they dropped theirs and agreed to pay a royalty for mine. When Art implied that I should sell it at cost I reminded him of what he had willingly paid to Universal.
Later, I wrote another script designed to convince prospective buyers they should use a Century 21 agent. Art didn’t believe there was need for it but after he viewed the script we negotiated the royalties.
Both films were on seven millimeter and shown on the "Technicolor Showcase" which was the best portable unit at the time. I’ve forgotten the cost but hundreds of agents bought and used them.
In our fourth year I built a new Regional Headquarters. We had grown to 110 franchised companies plus related businesses of home loans, licensing school and escrow.
At a Century 21 Board meeting we were having a discussion about where and when to have our next management training session. In the past it had been held in Newport Beach which meant long travel distances for some and was the reason many didn’t attend. I suggested that we hold four or five in key areas and we decided on San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, DC.
I engaged Dick McKenna, Kroske’s former partner, and we spent two months writing the manual and creating an equivalent of today’s Power Point, using slides accompanied by a matching work book. Dick and I would appear on the stage together and lead them through the pages in the manual while we expanded the subject matter on the screen with photos and graphics. The Divisions of the Manual were: Business Objectives; Office Location, Appearance and Layout; Recruiting, Qualifying, Training, Supervising and Dehiring agents. Dehiring was the process of assisting them in evaluating why they were failing, helping them design a plan to overcome the problems and then assist them in executing their plan. If they continued to fail the broker had earned the right to Dehire them. Part of the two days was spent on breaking them into small groups to discover individual problems and develop a way to solve them.
We had Jerry Mendelson a professional, handle all details of arranging and managing our meetings. At our first one in San Francisco he came to me the second day and said he was amazed because he handled a lot of seminars and this was the first one where more attend on the second day than on the first. He said there usually was a drop in attendance of ten to fifteen percent.
The impact we had was apparent when we joined the franchisees afterwards for cocktails. For most the information was like finding the mother lode, everyone stayed for the second day and some took the course a second time. In a short time our program was referred to as the, "Ollie and Dick Show." Franchises salesmen would bringing prospect to visit the "Show" and used it as an easy "close" after the prospects had talked to franchisees who had attended.
We named it the "Sales Management Training Academy," included its cost in the franchise fee and made it required attendance. With that we started presenting the program every two months at a hotel in Costa Mesa. We added a third day and included our vendors for purchasing shirts, "gold" jackets, sales materials and office equipment. We soon realized the program was contributing substantially to our growth and the public’s recognition of our professionalism.
In addition to presenting it regularly to new franchises in Costa Mesa we conducted two, nationwide tours to catch those who had missed it or wanted to take it again. After two years I bowed out and Dick found a partner.
They continued to grow the program to fit times and conditions. Years later they sold the management training program they had developed to Century 21.
Century 21’s rapid growth can be attributed to Art and Marsh’s concept of selling Regional Franchises to successful Realtors. I had bought the first and Bud Cashen and John Gerken bought the second consisting of San Fernando Valley north to include Bakersfield. Thirty years later I found out Cashen was also a Rotarian and was using his time and wealth to personally construct schools and hospitals in third-world countries. Next, the Whittier San Gabriel area was bought by the Yeager’s and Bob Leeds bought San Diego County.
Realtors were having their annual National convention in Hawaii so Art, Marsh and I attended and manned a booth. George Kettle from Virginia stopped by and ultimately bought a Region and we became good friends and still talk on the phone. He has invested heavily in guaranteeing K-12 classes of underprivileged students a college education if they graduated and qualify.
Other regions followed but one stands out. Gary Charlwood from Canada, dropped by one day and introduced himself. Art had sent him and after a presentation of the Value Vista Show of Homes and a tour of my Regional offices he bought Canada. Later Gary also developed Uniglobe Travel franchise which is now worldwide.
We held all our National Conventions in Las Vegas after we realized it attracted the greatest number of franchisees. I was standing in the breakfast buffet line at one of them and this very attractive young lady came up to me very excited and said, “Mr. Speraw, you’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” I assumed she was with one of our franchisees and I could image a number of things that could have happened to her but I wasn’t about to guess. Fortunately she didn’t wait for an answer and blurted out, “I won $5,000 dollars!” The evening before she had played the game in the restaurant where you write numbers on a slips that are collected and the winning numbers are announced later. She had use the birthdays of her husband and children. I asked her what she had done with it and she said she sent it home the night before. Wow and double wow!
We use the top motivators as speakers at our conventions as well as national figures. Bob Hope was one and years later I was able to play golf with him at his club in Palm Desert. See Chapter 8.
Another was Gov. Ronald Reagan before he was elected President. Art, Mash, Dick Laughlin and I had lunch with him in Art’s suite. It was an honor and he proved to be unassuming and at ease. I met him many other times when he was Governor of California and also as a Delegate for him at both of the Republican nominating conventions and at his inauguration. On one occasion he was speaking in San Francisco and it was also my stepson Todd’s, fourteenth birthday so we took him along and arranged for him to have a photo op with Reagan. Another time, when my ten year old step daughter Keri was with us and was allowed to present him with a rose and was given a copy of the photo.
A major event at our conventions was our Vendor’s show where our franchisees were able to inspect all of the customized items available to enhance their image plus the office equipment necessary to provide better service and attract agents. Keep in mind, this was at a time when most real estate offices were little more than store fronts with a few desks. With our thousands of attendees we attracted major vendors. At one of the shows in Las Vegas my son Michael, who had been working at the Regional headquarters, brought over a load of the books and films we were selling and helped set up and work our display. Today he merchandises his own products at large shows. More about him later.
On our fifth anniversary we had a big party. The, "early buy ins" and Board Members, posed for this photo with Art and Marsh. Of course that’s water in my glass.
In our sixth year we sent out signals that we were looking for a buyer of Century 21 Corp and H & R Block was the first to submit an offer. We questioned their ability to adapt as well as their price and passed. The next was Trans World Corp and we cut a deal for $92 million. Art moved on to their board of directors and Dick Laughlin, Regional Owner of Northern California, was elected President of Century 21 to replace him.

Click photos to see larger versions.

© 2011 Oliver W. Speraw