A pioneer in a male- dominated industry

February 14, 2010
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Ellie Callander is owner and president of Callander Commercial, one of the largest commercial real estate firms in West Michigan. But when she started her career, she didn’t picture herself as a commercial real estate tycoon — and neither did anyone else in the male-dominated industry.

At large industry gatherings, it was not uncommon for other agents to introduce themselves to her husband rather than to her. Friends and family were puzzled about her career choice and wondered how it would affect her husband’s career as a lawyer.

“My friends and my family questioned me as to what I was doing — what was the reason for my doing this and would this help my husband’s career,” said Callander. “I had a lot of interesting comments as to why I would choose to do such a thing.”

Indeed, commercial real estate was far from the University of Michigan grad’s intended career track. Callander earned a degree in dental hygiene from U-M in 1971. It was during college that she met her future husband, Douglas.

The two married in 1972 and spent a couple of years in Detroit before Douglas was offered a job in Kalamazoo. Ellie began teaching dental hygiene at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in 1974. She went to part-time teaching after her children were born, and when her youngest entered grade school, Callander and her husband dipped their toes into commercial real estate.

“My husband and I decided we would do some very small investments in real estate to see how we’d do with it — not knowing a darn thing about it,” she said.

“I started to research it. I started to run numbers and was basically self-taught on what to look for in terms of income and expenses, how to manage real estate. We made some very minor purchases as our initial jump into that arena.”

That’s all it took to hook Callander on commercial real estate.

“I thought that I really liked it — that I had a knack for it. I felt that, from a buyer’s side — which was my first exposure — the sky is the limit in terms of opportunity,” she said about the flexible hours and how pay was based on results rather than on a job description.

“I decided I was well suited to make a jump, career wise,” she said.

“My first sales job was to sell my broker on hiring me. He looked at me and said, ‘Number one, you have no experience in real estate. Number two, you don’t have a license. And number three is you’re a woman.’ There were virtually no leading female brokers in commercial real estate — and few to none in West Michigan.”

The broker, Jerry Carlson of Jerry Carlson Realtors, told her to get a license and he might find a spot for her. She did so immediately and approached him again.

“He really tried to back step, and I finally talked him into giving me a chance on a six-month probation,” she said.

For the first six months, Callander used the end of someone else’s desk and a telephone. By the time her probation was up, she was among the top sellers in the office. By 1990, five years later, she was the top seller.

“There was a lot of resentment in the office,” she said. “I was asked not to tell anybody in the office that I was successful, because people would resent me more.”

Callander’s passion for her new career was stronger than the office friction, and she persisted. In her eighth year with the office, her boss was considering restructuring the company and partnering with another firm. Callander tried to sell him on partnering with her.

“I went to him and made a proposal. I felt that we needed the creativity, we needed new blood — a new approach to business — and I could bring that to the table,” said Callander. “He believed that good associates don’t make good owners. I told him I would give it a six-month try to stay with him while he went through this transition with another partner, but if it didn’t work out, I would have to leave.”

In 1993, Callander left the firm. After a short stint with a well-respected industrial broker, Callander formed a new company, Callander Wollam, with business partner Steve Wollam.

“I made the decision to go on my own. I felt that I needed to implement my ideas as to how to run a business,” she said. “Until I went out on my own, I couldn’t do that.”

The new firm quickly took off using hard work and creativity as its signature differentiators. Callander believes that the root of her success is marketing.

“At the heart of what we do is marketing. If you can’t take the information about what it is you’re selling and get it to the market, then you’re not doing your job,” she said.

“Most brokers rely on a sign, but that isn’t what sells real estate. These were the days before the Internet. We needed to think of a better way, a more creative way, a more expressive way of getting the word out — and it wasn’t by way of classified ads. That was the answer for most brokers in those days.”

Callander started experimenting with new ways to market her listings.

“I had to learn the process for myself, but I was determined to figure out a way to do brochures, display advertising in a way that had not been done in our area before,” she said.

One by one, Callander Wollam gained agents. Many sought employment at the new company, but it was growing so fast, Callander said she was soliciting agents, as well. After about a year and a half, Callander Wollam was approached by one of the oldest property management firms in southwest Michigan. The companies partnered and became Callander, Wollam and Britigan.

“It was wonderful. They felt they needed more of a sales arm, and we felt we needed a property management division,” she said. “It worked quite well.”

Callander saw education as a way to stand out from the competition. In 1993, she became a Certified Commercial Investment Member. A few years later, she became certified by the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors. She was the first woman in Michigan to achieve those certifications and remains one of the few realtors in the state to hold both certifications.

“I’ve always felt that I had to prove myself on all levels, and to me, education has always been important,” she said. “It was a real feather in my cap.”

Between the years of 1996 and 2001, Callander bought out her partners. There was a trend in the industry for smaller firms to partner with national firms. Callander wanted to maintain a regional focus, but saw the benefits of partnering with a larger firm as a means to expand the marketing territory of her client’s listings. In 2001, she was contacted by Signature Associates in the Detroit area.

“I liked the idea of hooking up with a regional firm rather than a national. I had no problem with name recognition; what I felt I needed was for my clients to have a connectivity outside of West Michigan,” she said. “I believed that taking their information further and more frequently would be of benefit to them.”

Callander made the decision to partner with Signature Associates and became its senior vice president and director of West Michigan operations.

“My job, in large part, was to grow the firm in Grand Rapids,” she said. “That relationship lasted five years, at which time I made the decision to leave. The people in my organization wanted to go back to our own name recognition.”

During those five years, from 2001 to 2006, the Internet had become increasingly accessible. Where Callander once depended on the statewide reach of the larger firm to spread her clients’ information, she could now use the World Wide Web to achieve the same results.

In 2006, she separated from Signature Associates and formed Callander Commercial. The Grand Rapids territory went to Signature Associates, while Callander took Kalamazoo.

“But several of the people in the Grand Rapids office, whom I had hired and trained, asked me if I would consider starting up under the Callander Commercial name in Grand Rapids,” she said. “I felt indebted to them. They trusted in me and were used to working for me, so I made the decision to open a very small office in Grand Rapids.”

The office opened in 2007. In the summer of 2009, she re-branded the company, and while the commercial real estate industry as a whole has slowed, Callander noted that her firm’s market share in the Grand Rapids region has grown.

When she broke off from Signature Associates to start Callander Commercial, she was able to convince her son, Matt, to leave Chicago and join the company. Her daughter Leigh, a lawyer, now works with her father at Miller Canfield in Kalamazoo.

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