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Ebby Halliday & Mary Frances Burleson: A Pioneer and Her Successor Parlay Simple Principles into Big Business

by Bob Barnett

Ebby Halliday & Mary Frances Burleson

This article was originally published in 2007.

If the homebuying public were asked to picture a real estate agent in their collective mind’s eye, the picture would most assuredly be female. It seems only natural in this day and time, but it wasn’t always so, of course. 

Not so long ago men dominated the profession to such an extent that in many areas it was inconceivable that a woman would be entrusted with responsibility for selling a house and closing the transaction. It was in this world, in Dallas in 1945, that Ebby Halliday sold her first house. 

She was asked by the husband of one of the customers of the millinery store she then owned to sell cement houses, because, as he said, “If you can sell those crazy hats, maybe you can sell those crazy houses.” Halliday went on to sell an astounding 52 cement houses in the next nine months.

Perhaps she sold so many houses because she was clever enough to decorate one of them as a demo, thus pioneering the concept of the model home. Asked how she came up with the idea of a model home, Halliday credits necessity: “Those cement houses were ugly — cement floors, cement walls; I had to do something.” 

Perhaps she sold so many houses because she was fortunate enough to be selling houses at a time when there was a ready supply of returning World War II veterans looking for inexpensive housing. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, her success in that first venture cannot be overestimated. 

Had she failed, it could have set back for many years female efforts to join the profession, at least in her area of the country. That she succeeded so spectacularly established that women could sell houses at least as effectively as men.

Buoyed by her initial success, Halliday opened Ebby Halliday REALTORS® in Dallas in 1945. Not only did Halliday ultimately develop the state’s largest independent residential brokerage, which today has 29 offices, 1,600 employees and annual revenues of $4.7 billion; not only did Halliday help pioneer standard industry practices, such as the model home, relocation services and training classes; not only did Halliday lead the way for women to join the National Association of REALTORS®; not only did Halliday serve as one of the first presidents of WCR; not only did Halliday go on to become widely known as the “First Lady of Real Estate;” but she also helped completely transform an industry in which now well more than half of all agents are female.  

Halliday Hones Her Skills
Halliday’s successful real estate career was hatched in 1929 during the Great Depression when she went to work for $10 a week in the millinery department in the basement of a Kansas City department store. Over the next 11 years, in three cities with the same company, she honed her sales skills – “Hats were not a priority in the Depression,” she notes dryly – and saved her money.

In 1936 Halliday moved to Dallas, her third and final stop with the company. She remembers it was a good time to be in Dallas, with bands playing and happy times all around, because the mayor had declared the Depression over, and Texas was celebrating its Centennial.

As Halliday continued to hone her sales skills and save her money, she realized that what she really wanted was to be in business for herself. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she said, “even though I couldn’t spell it at the time.” 

One day, as she sat in the doctor’s office to have her tonsils out, she heard the nurse bring the doctor information on the stock market, which sparked an idea. After recovering from the procedure, she went back to the doctor and asked him to advise her where to invest the $1,000 that she had saved. “I don’t advise women,” he said testily, “because if they lose, they cry.” That harsh comment hardly deterred Halliday. “Well,” she said, “you try me,” and he did, advising her to invest in cotton futures, which turned out to be good advice, causing her $1,000 investment to grow to $12,000.

With the money, Halliday opened her own millinery shop, in the front bay window of an old redone Victorian house. She brought with her to the new business not just many of her old customers, but also the department store’s hat designer. After that fateful day when the customer’s husband offered her the opportunity to sell his crazy cement houses, she sold her business to the hat designer and set off on her new career in real estate.

How in the world, one wonders, did she have the courage to sell a successful business in an industry she had worked for more than a decade to launch a new career in a male-dominated world with no experience and no guarantees? “I was ready,” she said. “I was a salesman. I had learned the fundamentals. I knew the importance of being interested in what the customer wants. I knew that I could do it.”

And do it she did. But she was a doubly rare specimen in those days in the real estate business because she was not just a woman but a woman who owned her own business.

Halliday’s New Career Takes Off
In setting off on her new career, Halliday’s timing couldn’t have been better. Not only was there a steady supply of returning GIs looking for affordable housing, but there was also pent-up demand for new homes because few houses were being built during the war. 

The two bedroom cement houses sold for $7,500. The three bedroom model was $9,500. She laughs as she recalls how easy some of those early sales were. One guy, she says, set out with a shotgun over his shoulder to hunt rabbits and came back with a signed contract for a cement house. And so did his brother-in-law who was with him.

Shortly after she began selling the cement houses, Halliday hired her first agent, the wife of one of the couples who bought a cement house. Halliday and her agent worked at first out of one of the cement homes before opening what Halliday calls “our first proper office” in a new shopping center. As her business grew, many of her new hires were widows referred to her by banking friends she had met in her civic activities.

In those early years, Halliday personally handled all employee training. She tells of one widow the bank sent who had five boys and no work experience. Halliday had her sit across the desk from her and follow her on appointments for 30 days before letting her go out on her own, in what has to go down as one of the all-time great real estate training opportunities. 

The new employee called Halliday one night, filled with excitement at selling her first home. “Did you get the contract signed by both parties?” Halliday asked her. “No,” the widow replied sheepishly. “Do you remember that I told you never to let the sun go down without getting both signatures?” Halliday asked her. “Yes, but the sun is no longer shining,” the widow replied, hoping for a break. “It is somewhere,” Halliday responded, and out the widow went to get the signatures.

Ebby 1957

Ebby Halliday in 1957

Ebby Woman Realtor

 Halliday (left) on the cover of an early WCR publication with Dorothy Ingalls (center) and Florence Willess.

The remainder of Halliday’s career reads like a who’s who of real estate history. She was a pioneer in developing education classes for brokers and agents. She was involved in the initial efforts of NAR to examine whether computers could be useful for the profession. She helped develop national relocation services, which prior to that point didn’t exist. 

When she joined WCR, the annual meeting consisted of a get-together at NAR’s annual meeting. “It took us years to get on [NAR’s] program,” she said. And, of course, during all of these activities, she continued to oversee the growth of her real estate company back in Dallas.

At age 96, the old fires continue to burn. Halliday still goes to the office and still shapes the industry she helped transform. 

Burleson Arrives on the Scene
In 1958, Mary Frances Burleson applied for a job at Ebby Halliday REALTORS® as a part-time secretary and receptionist. Forty-nine years later, she serves as its president, overseeing continued expansion and growth. She was, Halliday said, “a fabulous addition to our company and its growth,” adding that today Burleson is “one of the most informed people in the business.”

When she started, Burleson said, full-time jobs, other than as a secretary or a receptionist, were rare for women because it was assumed that they would get married, have children and drop out of the workforce. But Burleson didn’t want just a job; she wanted a career, something, she explained, that “I could put my feet into.”

Her part-time stint as a secretary and receptionist lasted exactly one week, at which point she became a full-time secretary and receptionist. In 1966, after eight years in that position, she got her first big break when she was asked to open a new office in Richardson, in north Dallas, which would become Ebby Halliday REALTORS®’s fourth office. The accommodations weren’t exactly glamorous — it was 10 by 40 feet with Formica countertops — but within 12 months Burleson was on her way, having expanded the business enough to quadruple the office space. She had also obtained her real estate license along the way.

In fairly short order, Burleson opened four more offices in the area, becoming in the process a regional manager with responsibility for all five offices. Although she loved the hiring, recruiting and other responsibilities of being a regional manager, she also continued to sell homes to stay active in that part of the business. Over the years, Halliday would ask her to take a job at corporate headquarters, but Burleson would always rebuff her because she loved being a regional manager and wanted to continue selling homes.

Then one day in 1979, as Halliday and Burleson were walking up the steps to a second-floor room for a meeting, Halliday informed Burleson that she was about to announce at the meeting that Burleson was to be named the company’s new executive vice president. Taken aback, Burleson was, she said, “not happy” about the announcement. But she failed to convince Halliday to change her mind in the time it took them to walk the few remaining steps to the meeting room. Burleson accepted the position, she said, only because Halliday “didn’t leave me any options.”

Burleson went on to serve as executive vice president for 10 successful years before becoming the company president in 1989. Ebby Halliday REALTORS® continues today to find ways to grow, including purchasing boutique agencies and developing its mortgage and insurance businesses.

When asked for her key to being successful in real estate today, Burleson points to education, in all of its manifestations. “Get all the designations you can,” she advised, “Continue to learn. Continue to grow.”

She recommends learning about others in the business. “Join groups,” she said. “Get involved.” She also says that learning about the latest changes in the business is critical. “The mortgage business is, of course, undergoing a great deal of change right now,” she said. Forms are also changing. Keeping up on all the latest developments is essential. 

Becoming tech-savvy is also now a necessity. It’s not enough today just to return phone calls. You must also answer all e-mails promptly. And speaking of the phone, learn text-messaging, because that’s how younger people prefer to communicate.

Above all, she said, never stop learning. “Get up, suit up and show up,” she said. “Be ready every single day.”

They Employ Their Formula for Success

Over the years, Halliday and Burleson have stuck to a simple formula for success in helping their business to grow, what they refer to as the three points of service: service to the customer, service to the industry and service to the community.

Service to the customer is embodied in three salesmanship maxims that Halliday has often used over the years in her speeches. The first is that “people are impressed by what they see when they look at you,” which means, Halliday said, wearing proper business attire and presenting yourself professionally. 

The second is that “people are impressed by what they hear when you speak,” which means knowing the business and being able to communicate it effectively. The third is that “people are impressed by how they feel in your presence,” which means developing trust and rapport with your customers. They are more inclined to do business with you, Halliday said, if they believe that you are there to help them.

The service to the industry component of the three points is manifested in participation in industry associations, such as WCR. “Many of our managers and associates,” Halliday said, “have been presidents of boards and chairmen of state associations.” Halliday herself, of course, was president of WCR in 1957. Her own involvement in NAR led to her being involved in a task force that was responsible for developing the computer-based listing service and a task force that was responsible for helping to develop relocation services. Even today, relocation services remain a significant part of Ebby Halliday REALTORS®’s business, accounting for about 20 percent of its revenue.

Burleson, for her part, said that she got involved in industry associations relatively late in her life because she was minding the store while Halliday and the late Posey Willis, another female trailblazer, were ably representing the company in various associations. In fact, she said wryly, she believes that Halliday got her involved in associations to “get me off the street,” by which she meant spending less time selling real estate.

Burleson’s involvement was in reverse order from the path that most who get involved use, starting with national organizations before moving to state and local organizations, because Halliday was already so prominent. But once Burleson got involved, she got involved with both feet, serving as president, chairman or member of an impressively long list of associations, committees, task forces and projects for a variety of local, state and national associations, including WCR.

The third point of service, service to the community, means getting involved in community affairs to build visibility, trust and a positive public image. “We can’t receive until we give,” Halliday said. For Ebby Halliday REALTORS®, that means everything from sponsoring baseball, football and soccer teams to offering a Yellow Rose contest that awards cash prizes to those who do good works in their neighborhoods.

Halliday tells the story of a young executive, who, when asked why the company had chosen Ebby Halliday REALTORS® for its relocation services, said that while one reason was that they had a solid reputation, the other was that he had played third base on a Little League baseball team they had sponsored. Burleson tells a similar story, remarking how old she felt when a 6’1” man said he wanted to buy a house from Ebby Halliday REALTORS® because he had played on the pee wee football team they had sponsored.

No matter how big the company gets, and will continue to get, Halliday and Burleson never stray from their three points of service. They are still the cornerstone of their business 62 years after Halliday first dressed up that crazy cement home to hide those ugly cement walls.

Bob Barnett (bobbarnettjr@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer who specializes in providing writing and editing services for the legal, medical and real estate communities.

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