The Unsinkable MARY BELL Grempler's founder: part siren, part steamroller, all scrapper

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After apologies for growing up in rural Montana, after a little cursing, after a few cigarettes, Mary Bell Grempler gets down to business: She explains how despite a bitter divorce filled with affidavits, accusations and even an assault charge, she can still run Grempler Realty Inc. with her ex-husband Donald.

"We're live and let live, but let's make sure the company is OK," says Ms. Grempler, who is the chairman of the board. "Actually, since we divorced, we're much better business partners. We both realize that the company is our main family."

In many ways, it is. Their eldest son, Donald Robert, or "DR," is president, their daughter-in-law Marci is a top agent, and until recently their youngest son, James, was in management.

But the family she refers to is actually much larger than that. It's an extended clan of employees and agents -- nearly 1,000 in all -- in 15 offices across the state who will help Grempler earn a projected $500 million in sales this year and make it one of the area's biggest real-estate companies.

It's both poignant and ironic to hear Ms. Grempler speak of family, particularly since she has known difficult times with her own. After 30 years of marriage, she and her husband separated in 1983, divorcing eight years later. Before they finished divvying up who got the Mercedes and the condo in St. Croix, she was charged with assault during a confrontation with her husband and his girlfriend at the Greenspring Racquet Club. The case was never prosecuted, though.

Despite working together, she and her son Donald "don't get along very well," he says. And during closed-door family meetings, employees say the shouting is sometimes heard down the hall.

But know this about her: Mary Bell Grempler is a survivor. Growing up as one of eight children born to a railroad conductor and housewife, she learned early on that being scrappy was the way to get by.

"If I had been educated in the proper girl's fashion, I probably wouldn't have done half the things I did. But since I didn't know any better, I did them and found out later, 'Gee, if you're a girl you weren't supposed to do that,' " she says.

At 62, she still maintains that same philosophy. She still dons a bikini, mows her own 6 1/2 -acre lawn and throws talked-about parties at Villa Vista, her seven-bedroom estate in Stevenson. During one party held in her honor last month, guests wished her a happy birthday with a male stripper. He arrived dressed as a policeman.

"It was wonderful," she says. "His name was Officer Buns. . . . I like buns."

She's part siren, part steamroller. In her, Mae West meets Annie Oakley. During a photo session, Ms. Grempler, a size 4, shows a little thigh -- well-toned from playing tennis on her backyard court -- and then utters one word that immediately makes her smile: "sex."

On a gray afternoon, she looks as if she stepped out of a Crayola eight-pack. The bright primary colors -- green dress, blue jacket and orange-colored nails -- suit the unretiring Mary Bell Grempler, who calls herself "mother superior" around her Towson office.

Employees sometimes use other names. She's been known to criticize them publicly, then call them an hour later to apologize, says her assistant, Meredith Wescott, who has been with the company for 20 years.

Sometimes intimidating

"She's very intimidating at times," she says. "If you don't perform like she wants you to perform, you'll get one of these: I TOLD YOU I WANTED THAT! I used to break down and cry at my desk. . . . She can be hardheaded. She can get mad at one person and take it out on everyone."

For her part, Ms. Grempler says being candid is how she prefers to do business.

"I don't sugar-coat things. I'm very upfront about the way I see something. Whether it's correct or not is another story," she says.

One person who disagrees is her son Donald. Last year, he became president of the company. It's been a rocky transition by nearly all accounts.

"She doesn't want to step down, get out of the way," he says.

Her ex-husband offers another assessment: "She relates giving up the reins with aging. By not giving them up, she continues her youth."

Relinquishing control of the business she created more than 30 years ago has been "awful," she says, but she's committed to making sure Grempler stays in the family.

Even she acknowledges, though, that she's been slow to react at times. Only last year did Grempler begin advertising on television, a tool that other companies have been using for years.

Once considered the No. 1 real-estate business in Maryland, Grempler is now behind O'Conor, Piper & Flynn and Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., she says. In addition, the shaky economy and the influx of national real-estate chains continue to hurt business.

"I call people who come into real estate from out of town carpetbaggers. And they really are. I mean Long & Foster, Coldwell Banker, Prudential. . . . I think real estate, of all the industries, should belong to the ground and the county it exists in," she says.

Alice Burch, Baltimore regional manager for Long & Foster, has little reaction to the comment. "I don't get offended by comments made out of frustration," she says.

It's no joke when Ms. Grempler says that a sexy black dress turned her into a real-estate agent. It was the mid 1950s; she was a newlywed, working as a nurse in Baltimore; her husband

was a pilot.

Not even lipstick money

"My husband said, 'Your salary has to go into the savings account for our first house.' I didn't even have any money to buy lipstick. One day I saw this really sexy black dress I just had to buy, so I bought it and hid it under the bed. I thought, 'How am I going to pay for this?' I decided I needed a part-time job, so I went into real estate."

After five successful years, she opened her own business in 1960. At that time, women business-owners were rare. Fearing she wouldn't be taken seriously, she named the company Donald E. Grempler Realty.

At first, she wasn't allowed to attend the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors annual dinner, despite being a member, because it was a male event. And early on, her tough approach surprised some. What did competitors call it?

"Bitchy," she says with a throaty laugh.

During those early days, she attracted high-caliber talent and kept them motivated through the force of her personality alone. But it wasn't her demeanor as much as sheer luck -- and a sophisticated computer system that her husband added to the business later -- that turned Grempler into a major player.

"Everybody says to me, 'Did you have a business plan?' I didn't do any of that. I just happened to be lucky. I happened to be in Baltimore County, which was probably one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. I happened to get into an industry that definitely needed advances made in it. And so I basically put my nurse's training and my teaching ability to work," she says.

It paid off.

Four years after opening, she convinced her husband that he could make more money selling houses than flying planes.

Shortly after, she changed the name to Grempler Realty. "A lot of women would come up and say, 'Gee, I remember your husband's father started the business.' Or 'Do you help your husband out?' I decided no longer would I be in the background."

During the next decade, the company experienced dramatic growth -- adding a real-estate school as well as mortgage, title and insurance companies. Testament to her success came in 1980 when she was named one of the top 10 Realtors in the country in "The Real Estate People," a book published by Harper & Row.

But if she and her husband were succeeding professionally, their personal lives were suffering. Even their son Donald recalls hearing constant talk of managers, agents and buyers at the dinner table.

"We never got off work," she says. "We'd go home and argue over how the money should be spent."

In 1983, they separated. She relied on a close circle of women friends and self-help classes and books to weather that time. What helped even more was the Rolls-Royce she bought for herself. "My theme at that moment was: Living well is the best revenge," she says.

In 1987, however, she ran into her husband and his girlfriend (who last year became his wife) while playing tennis. Incensed that they showed up during her regular Wednesday court date, she says she let them know her reaction.

Unapologetic

"I thought it was very inappropriate for them to be playing tennis at that time, and I told them so," she says. While turning to walk away from them, she says her tennis racket inadvertently clipped her husband's girlfriend in the legs, leading to the battery charge.

She's unapologetic about the incident. "I don't feel bashful about that one," she says. "That was funny, wasn't it?"

At the moment, she's not dating, she says, although the emerald ring she wears is from a recent beau. She has no desire to ever marry again, but she's "interviewing" for dates.

There is one rule she now follows regarding her personal life. "I think love life and business life should be separated," she says. "I have one divorce to prove that."

She has no plans to retire soon. Her age rarely deters her from having a good time in life, whether it's being the catcher on the company softball team as she was years ago or parasailing in Cancun as she did last month.

"I'm proud of every wrinkle I've got," she says. "I've earned them. Age is more about how you feel anyway. And right now, I feel great."

THE GREMPLER FILE

Occupation: Chairman of Grempler Realty Inc.

Born: March 30, 1931; Ontario, Canada.

Education: Bachelor of science in nursing, Montana State College, 1952.

Current home: Villa Vista, a seven-bedroom estate on 6 1/2 acres in Stevenson.

Family: Two sons: Donald Robert ("DR"), 36, and James, 33; four grandchildren; divorced in 1991 from Donald E. Grempler.

Favorite restaurants: Dici Naz Velleggia, Hersch's Orchard Inn and the Polo Grill.

Her best free advice to prospective sellers and buyers: "Use professional help. So many people get in their cars and drive around and around. It's a waste of time."

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