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Gritty Joan Ryder bucks the trend toward consolidation -- and succeeds a Small Broker Makes it Big

Joan Ryder has a gym in her basement, but no time to work out. She has a sauna, too, but no time to relax. Her brick mansion in Fallston overlooks 35 acres of fields, forests, chickens, geese, four cows and three Rottweilers. But she rarely finds time to stroll the grounds.

Instead you'll find the 46-year-old in the formally decorated offices of Joan Ryder & Associates most days and late into the evenings.

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In real estate circles, she's known as a "bird-dogger," someone who jumps on a lead -- even the long shots -- with a single-mindedness that borders on obsession, and, more often than most, lands the sale. The quest has kept her up nights, forever searching for ways to beat the odds -- outthink, outrun, outmaneuver the competition. Her perseverance has paid off.

While other small, independent agencies have gone the way of mergers and buyouts, Joan Ryder & Associates runs steady with the big names in Harford County, O'Conor Piper & Flynn, Long & Foster, even the merged Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc.

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Just two years ago, at the bottom of a severe down market, Ms. Ryder left Prudential Preferred Properties' Harford County office -- where she'd ranked first in sales for 10 years -- and opened the agency she'd dreamed of for more than a decade.

Her 27-agent firm, which works out of a stone building she owns in Bel Air, has grown since then into one of the top four in Harford County. Sales topped $70 million in her first year, and one agency offered to buy her out. In September, Joan Ryder & Associates had more settled sales, 43, than any single office in the county, and second only to O'Conor Piper & Flynn's 49 settled sales from two offices.

"Joan is bucking a trend -- the trend is for smaller companies to be consolidated," said Bob Head, manager of O'Conor Piper & Flynn's Bel Air/Abingdon office. "As a single office, they do very well, though Joan did well as an agent -- as much business as some small offices in Harford County."

Mick Curtis, office manager of Long & Foster in Bel Air, says Ms. Ryder's speedy rise as a broker comes largely from building name recognition as an agent. It's likely that anyone living or working in Harford County at least knows her name.

"No matter where you looked in Harford County, you saw the name Joan Ryder," says Bonnie J. O'Brien, marketing director for the Harvard Title Corp. in Baltimore. "It prompted people to say, 'Who . . . is she?' "

Ms. O'Brien was working in Harford County as a loan officer for a mortgage lender when she met Ms. Ryder. She recalled Ms. Ryder as an imposing woman who demanded perfection from herself and others and reeled off seemingly encyclopedic real estate facts. She intimidated other loan officers. But Ms. O'Brien discovered behind the hard exterior a generous soul who went to great lengths to encourage her in her career.

When Ms. Ryder left Prudential "it took a lot of guts," Ms. O'Brien says. "It was more than gutsy. It was really a bad time to do it. She'd always been very successful but had no management skills. What made her think she could manage 30 or 40 agents? But when she makes a commitment she makes it work."

It works, Ms. Ryder says, because she has cut through the red tape that inevitably comes in a big company. Smaller, she says, is more personal, more efficient, more human. And though she hopes to open a second office in Baltimore County after five years, she says expansion will stop there.

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"If you want to do business right, you have to be involved in it," says Ms. Ryder, who in a typical day acts as broker, manager and bookkeeper, writes listing ads, oversees her advertising magazine and leads seminars for her agents. "I know every listing we have. If the seller or buyer has a problem, there's no red tape to me."

Friends say she's a time-management expert, leaving to others those chores she knows she'll never do. As an agent, she hired her own secretary. A maid keeps her 7,000-square-foot house spotless. At night, she's usually too worn out to cook, but her husband of two years, Roland Buitron, gladly takes on that task.

She thrives on her role as teacher, training new agents and running weekly sessions based on her own peaks and valleys as an agent. She tells them, "I've had my foot slammed in the door. If you're cold calling, people will scream at you. But taking that rejection makes you stronger."

To cut costs, she installed an art department in her office basement and produces her own 44-page, monthly advertising magazine. She distributes 20,000 copies by mail and on racks.

Once she sells someone a house, she fully expects to sell him his next one, or at least to sell to one of his relatives.

She keeps in touch with phone calls and Christmas cards.

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Give customers what they want, she says, and what you want will come.

She told herself that as an agent and broker and now drums it into her agents, along with high expectations of professionalism in an occupation many consider one step above used-car salesman.

Common sense told her those things 16 years ago when she first got into real estate, and it has guided her ever since. She drew on lessons she'd learned as an introverted teen-ager who found refuge in a horse stable near the Belcamp house she shared with her mother and grandparents. Her father was in the Army, stationed in Korea, and the family struggled to make ends meet.

She became such a fixture at the stable that the owner finally paid her to clean stalls and threw in riding lessons. She became skilled enough to teach riding, and in doing so discovered a determination to be the best and a desire to help others reach their potential. Riding mountain trails in endurance competitions, she collected a slew of trophies.

Later, Ms. Ryder, working as a school secretary who subsidized her income with a part-time job in a fabric shop, lost nearly everything after divorcing her first husband. She tried real estate on a lark, starting part-time at Bud Shenton Realty in 1977. "I felt the divorce was failure," she says. "I was out on a mission to prove I could be the best. It wasn't going to get me down."

She began making her name known during her first week with Bud Shenton -- with a crash course in cold calling. "Call a 'For Sale By Owner,' and see if you can get an appointment," he told her. "Tell him you have buyers in the area."

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The first person she called seemed relieved. "I'm so glad you called. I'm sick of this," said the seller, who turned out to be a small developer. She listed his house and three others he had built.

She used to sit up nights thinking of ways to set herself apart. One idea resulted in a personal brochure she called, "Why Joan Ryder?" displaying her photo, services, awards and training. It was something different. She got 17 home listings that month.

In 1986, both the Harford County and Maryland realty associations dubbed her sales associate of the year. Four years later she was Harford Realtor of the Year. That kind of recognition and her community roots helped Ms. Ryder establish herself quickly.

But her competitor, Mr. Head, points out the true test will come as she attempts to expand from a limited marketplace. "As she tries to spread out, it will become more difficult," he says.

Not that Ms. Ryder will let such a challenge slow her down. "If I want something," she says, "I go get it."


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