In 1974, Beth Wolff found herself in a predicament. She had two children, ages 4 and 6, and needed a new career.
“One day, I was a housewife, and the next, I was their sole supporter,” Wolff said. “At that time, there were not a lot of accommodations for working women — very little daycare, not many job opportunities, corporate jobs not very accepting of family leave.”
She launched her company, Wolff & Associates, now known as Beth Wolff Realtors Real Living, in 1978 with one sales associate and 375 square feet. Now, 40 years later, her company has grown to 40 sales associates, all busy mostly with corporate relocations.
Wolff, who serves as chairwoman and CEO of her company, is one of the Houston Business Journal’s mentors at Mentoring Monday Feb. 12. She spoke with HBJ about her career and reflected on the past 40 years in business.
Take us back to 1978. Why did you decide to go into real estate? I selected real estate based on the time flexibility and the income potential. I knew that if my children were ill, I could stay home with them because there wouldn’t be anyone to tell me I couldn’t. In real estate, you technically work for yourself. I had my teaching certificate but knew I couldn’t support them off a teacher salary. I worked for one broker for two years, then another for two years, and I felt like I just wanted to do things my way.
What were the biggest challenges you faced starting out? Well, there’s a reason my company was called Wolff & Associates — it wasn’t an asset to be a woman in business in 1978, so that alone was a challenge. In addition, we didn’t have the technology that we have today. Starting out as I did, advertising and marketing was limited. And, of course, as a single parent, I had that additional challenge.
How did you overcome those challenges? I really wanted to be accepted as a business person, not just a woman in business. I chose to be involved with The Greater Houston Association of Realtors and the Downtown Chamber of Commerce, which were not gender specific, and I had a bachelor’s in business from the University of Texas. I wanted to be treated equally even then. For overcoming our advertising challenges, we did what we could with small ads, and most of my business came from word of mouth.
Your son, Ed, plays a huge role in the company as president. What does it mean to you to be able to share this career and company with him? It’s amazing. Ed was four when I started the company. I tried not to bring my kids into the office during the week, but they’d come with me to put up signs or something over the weekends or with me during the evenings if I had to go back into the office. Back then, I would show properties on the weekends or in the evenings, too.
It was pretty common for me to be on the phone on business with my children in the other room, and Ed would overhear my conversations and negotiations. I did not know that Ed would choose to go into my line of business — he majored in psychology and when he got out of school, he told me he wanted to come work for me. I really wanted him to try working for someone else first, but he wanted to work for me. It was going to be one way or the other — no middle ground — it was either be great or just wouldn’t work. He had a fairly natural aptitude for this line of business. I’m very proud of him. He’s enhanced my company.
This May, you’re celebrating 40 years in business. Looking back, what would you say are your biggest accomplishments? As far as my life goes, my family comes first. As far as my professional accomplishments, I’m very proud that what I started doing in the early ’80s was giving back to the community because I felt so fortunate at that point in time to be a woman in business and I that was able to support my family.
I was also so fortunate to be appointed by Mayor Kathy Whitmire to city commission when she was mayor, and each subsequent mayor has appointed me to a commission. Mayor Sylvester Turner hasn’t appointed me but that’s OK. I’ve had the opportunity in the community to be a part of some pretty amazing things.
As far as the business, it’s been amazing. It was difficult for me, once I had about 15 sales associates, I found that I could not list and sell property myself and provide support for my team. I had the difficult challenge of trying to make the leap toward growth. I enjoyed showing houses and meeting people, but by having more sales associates and still staying involved, I got to do that on a greater scale. It’s been exciting to see the careers of some of my agents develop.
How has Houston’s real estate industry changed over those years? What did you have to do to adapt? It’s exciting, in a way. I find that the challenges are part of the excitement and the opportunity to be innovative along the way. When we first started, we had one-page contracts, and the only thing it said was buyer, seller and legal address. We had to write all the language you see today. I believe that real estate has come of age. When I got my license, you just had to pay a fee. There was no educational requirement. Today, it’s almost the equivalent of a college degree to get your real estate license. And that’s the way it should be. The value we add and the understanding we have to have of all these components of a transaction. It’s become increasingly more complex. We’ve gone from that one page from multiple pages. Houston probably has more types of properties than most cities — we have a lot more diversity in neighborhoods, and I think that this has changed a lot. I’ve seen the city change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Beth Wolff, Chairwoman and CEO, Beth Wolff Realtors Real Living
Education: Bachelor’s from the University of Texas
Years in your industry: 44
Family: Two adult children and four grandchildren
Favorite thing about Houston: The “can do” spirit! Its diversity and resilience.
Book you’re reading: “Dinner with Lenny” by Jonathan Cott