By Kelly Putter
You can tell Sally McGarr enjoys telling the story about how at 40 weeks’ pregnant she presented an offer to clients on a beautiful evening in 1991. A few hours later in the early morning hours of May 22, she gave birth to her youngest daughter Raiana. She phoned her unsuspecting clients that day to tell them she’d had a baby overnight and they all shared a good laugh.
True to form, McGarr was back at work within the week with her new baby tucked in safely by her side.
“There are photos of her nursing me in the office,” says Raiana Schwenker, who today works at the real estate company that is known for its bright pink for sale signs. “I grew up running around that office. Going into real estate was pretty organic for me.”
It is that kind of chutzpah and dedication that has helped Sally McGarr Realty become the longest operating, fully independent boutique brokerage in the Niagara region of Ontario.
Never one to crow, McGarr is reticent about citing the awards she’s won and the sales goals she’s surpassed in a career that has spanned more than three decades. There was a time when she decorated her office with plaques and trophies, but she has packed away the hardware perhaps as a symbolic gesture to the next generation of real estate professionals who will succeed her. McGarr is passing on the torch and she’s doing so with style. To mark the occasion, a new website, a big social media presence, a newspaper ad campaign and a catered lunch for clients, staff and colleagues within the McGarr real estate community have either taken place or are ongoing. The company is also officially changing its name from Sally McGarr Realty to McGarr Realty.
Schwenker is marketing and creative director, who oversees the company’s social media. Married with three children of her own, Schwenker gave birth to her youngest about a year ago. On her way home from hospital with newborn in tow, Schwenker, ever her mother’s daughter, went on a home tour of new listings. McGarr points out how her daughter is a chip off the old block and is a sensible choice to succeed her along with Raiana’s husband Cam Schwenker, a salesperson, and long-time staffers and real estate reps Patrick Burke and Jim Broderick.
“As a kid, driving to school with her meant listening to her phone conversations with clients, witnessing first hand her level of client service and hearing her problem solve and expertly negotiate offers,” recalls Raiana, 25. “While I was annoyed I couldn’t have the radio loud, and was too young to realize I was getting firsthand experience from an amazing mentor, I picked up a lot. I learned the lingo and the ins and outs of how the business worked. I grew up sitting in on office meetings, sometimes begrudgingly, but I could see from the moment I got started in this business that having that calibre of mentorship from such a young age was beyond valuable.”
McGarr started her firm in 1988. Nearly 30 years later, she still employs three of the original four staffers who joined her company back then – administrator Emma Trozzolo and sales reps Randy Hart and Vaughn Aloian. So how does she engender loyalty?
“The piece of the puzzle is the culture and the overall atmosphere here,” says Burke, who as managing broker and director of operations and strategy leads the team who will take over from McGarr. “Because we are very collaborative and group based, you see people here going outside of what’s expected for the greater good. The thinking is if I have a great month and you do as well, then there will be a spill over effect that helps everybody share their experiences, progress and grow. What helps people advance quicker and get over their hurdles is that willingness to contribute. That collective mindset then goes on to breed loyalty, which creates a cycle effect.”
The company also invests in mentoring programs, goal setting, training and coaching for staff and even devotes a senior position to the rather unique title of director of people and culture. That’s held by Broderick, one of the newly rebranded brokerage’s partners. But McGarr is fully aware that her success didn’t come about in isolation and she is quick to credit her staff.
“I could not have survived this long without someone as talented and caring as Emma is,” she says. “It’s like a marriage. We have a lot of respect for each other and a lot of empathy. The employees here have treated the company as if it’s their own.”
In the early ‘80s, McGarr was a single mother with two young kids working three jobs to make ends meet. Feisty and determined, she decided she wanted a better life for her family so she got her real estate license, followed two years later by her broker’s license. After a few stints with a small brokerage and then a larger franchise, McGarr decided the time was right to strike out on her own. A few years later in January 1991, McGarr purchased a large commercial property in downtown St. Catharines and moved her office into the building. That’s when the economy took a nose dive and the real estate market sank. McGarr was pregnant with Raiana, but not revealing it to anyone.
McGarr doesn’t think of herself as a feminist but she does concede to being an advocate for women in business. And though she has heard the odd salacious comment about how women in business advance, she chose to ignore the insulting remarks. More than once some competitors, who suspected she was pregnant, would inform potential clients about her condition, suggesting that McGarr’s pregnancy would get in the way of her doing her job.
“I told clients I’m pregnant but I’m not dying,” recalls McGarr with a laugh. “And every time I said that I got the listing. If anything it made me stronger.”
With 33 salespeople and eight support staff and an office in Niagara-on-the-Lake, McGarr may be passing the torch but she’s not yet leaving the stadium. As broker of record, and now specializing in higher end luxury homes, expect to see her guiding the new management team for some time.
“My mother is so well respected in this region and not just by clients, but also among Realtors,” says Raiana. “I’m not naming names but other Realtors have asked her to sell their homes and on more than one occasion. I would not be surprised if she continued selling for the next 15 years.”