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Realtor who rose to the top faces her toughest test ON HER OWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At 54, Carole A. Greenwald-Ryan can still hear her father's stock reply to her childhood stubbornness, to complaints of "I can't!"

"My father always said, 'Don't ever say you can't do something.'

For the president of The Prudential Preferred Properties in Baltimore, that exhortation steeled her at age 11 when she found herself the only girl on the golf course, as a young mother of three trying to sell real estate without a car, and as a 35-year-old divorcee sitting among teen-agers in her first college classes. Her father's words also guided her during a job interview 15 years ago, when she bluntly told the president of a real estate company she would like his job.

Today, the feisty mother of five and grandmother of yet another five drives a two-seater Cadillac convertible, holds a degree in psychology, and, essentially, has the job she'd told her interviewer she was after. No one has managed to bully her off the golf course either. She and her husband of seven years, Thomas L. Ryan, who live in Ellicott City, retreat to the links in a West Virginia golf community on many a weekend.

In a ferociously competitive industry, Ms. Greenwald-Ryan has risen to the top of the fourth-largest real estate company in metropolitan Baltimore while earning the respect of employees and competitors alike. Since 1990, she has led Prudential's Baltimore division, and recently she became its sole owner as part of a corporate reorganization. But now she faces the toughest test of her determination.

Over the past few years, the weakened economy and a slowdown in home sales has forced Ms. Greenwald-Ryan to slash expenses. Like many other local real estate brokers, she has closed offices, laid off staff, and cut advertising and office support. Such measures have kept the company profitable, she says, but they have prompted dozens of agents to jump what they fear may be a sinking ship.

"The image, the clout -- it is definitely a shrinking violet," said one former agent who left Prudential in April after seven years. "If the company is doing all of these cutbacks and not providing the proper services to expose the listings, you need to seek shelter elsewhere."

Because of the restructuring, the company has fallen behind by $250,000 on agents' commissions and vendors fees. Ms. Greenwald-Ryan has assured agents the delays are temporary and the commissions will be on track by the middle of this month.

But to some of the 50 agents and managers who left Prudential's two Towson-area offices in April, the cutbacks point to a company losing presence in the Baltimore region.

"They have pulled out of markets that were viable markets," says Chris Coile, president of Champion Realty in Anne Arundel County. "You can't shrink your business, or you lose market share, you lose agents and you lose economies of scale."

Even competitors agree that it has become more difficult to balance cuts in expenses in a poor market with agents' happiness.

"Whenever you cut back, you will upset some people," said D. R. Grempler, president of Towson-based Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction out there, and they tend to blame the companies."

But Ms. Greenwald-Ryan defends her decisions as defensive moves in a slow economy, with home values stagnating, administrative costs rising and agents claiming greater shares of commissions.

"The company that does the prudent thing, such as adjusting, does not make the sales associates very happy," she said. "If the economy is bad, the agents say 'don't consolidate, that shows weakness, don't cut back advertising.' The truth is, it's the company that doesn't do the prudent thing that ends up closing its door or selling."

She says she has no intention of doing either. On May 5, she became the owner of the Baltimore division of a franchise she and four partners bought five years ago. The restructuring spun the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia divisions into separate companies. And last week, the Washington company was gobbled up by a larger competitor.

She has spent the past several weeks working through divisions of settlement transactions, assets and liabilities among the companies and traveling to her 12 branch offices.

"It's easier to get a divorce than split up a company," she said. "It's an emotional, stressful time for everyone."

She was greeted with an outward show of support when she visited the Towson branch on Bellona Avenue last month. Standing at the head of a conference table before remaining agents and managers, she was dressed in a vibrant green and pink jacket with gold charms dangling from her wrist. Ms. Greenwald-Ryan had given the talk earlier in the day in Harford County and would repeat it in Anne Arundel, about making newly independent companies more profitable and responsive to local markets.

During her visits, many agents told her they supported the changes -- an attempt to create greater accountability between the head of each division and the lender that financed the bulk of the franchise sale. It was prompted by a more than $2 million cash crunch in the Washington division resulting from a sharp drop in home sales. Last week, the division was sold to Weichert Realtors, the second-largest real estate company in metropolitan Washington.

The separation from the Washington division, which had been a drain on Baltimore, came as too little, too late for some agents, who said they already had lost faith in management.

"Commissions are sacred," said Chris Crampton, a former Prudential agent in Towson who headed to Long & Foster when agents' commissions were delayed by as much as 30 days after settlement. "It's a gut-wrenching thing to turn over checks from a settlement to a company thinking you may never see your piece of it. Agents generate the business, and it is the height of arrogance to feel you have more of a right to the use of the money than we did."

Ms. Greenwald-Ryan says she agrees that agents should come first. She blames agent bidding wars among companies for the troubles, for driving up agents' commission splits and making it difficult to pay other expenses. When she started in real estate in 1967, brokers wouldn't have dreamed of recruiting another company's agent, and brokers split commissions with agents down the middle.

Ms. Greenwald-Ryan, the daughter of an insurance claims adjuster who owned his own company, grew up in Wheaton assuming that she, too, would one day head some sort of company.

Her mother, who worked as her father's assistant, would say, "Anybody can be a sheep, and anybody can follow. The fun is leading. Don't be afraid to make a decision." Her father, a golf addict, finally gave into his 11-year-old daughter's pleas to play when her younger brother showed no interest. She developed a lifelong passion for golf -- and competition.

After graduating from high school in 1958, she studied accounting, sold insurance and worked as controller for her father's Washington firm. By the fall of 1966, living near West Friendship in Howard County with her first husband and two children -- and expecting a third -- she called a Realtor about a home that some friends wanted to see.

"I don't know what possessed me," she said. "I said to the owner that I found real estate fascinating."

When she began selling homes in Howard County and Catonsville, her family had just one car, which her husband drove. She would walk to her office and show homes after her husband came home. With money from her first settlement, she bought a used Plymouth for $500.

She was promoted to manager. By 1970, she realized the place to sell homes was Columbia, James Rouse's vision of a planned, racially and economically mixed community that had just started to sprout between Baltimore and Washington. She opened her own company, Greenwald & Associates.

In a field dominated by female agents, Ms. Greenwald headed one of the few woman-owned real estate companies. But she never viewed herself that way. In fact, she recalls telling her husband she thought some women were going to extremes to prove their equality, to which he responded, "But you are women's lib."

In the mid-1970s, she sold the company. Going through a divorce and looking for a fresh start, she decided to go to college and become a lawyer. She took heavy course loads and persuaded her instructors at the University of Maryland College Park that she didn't need to sit through classes to pass their exams. She completed the equivalent of four years of college in a year and a half. But real estate proved a greater pull than law school.

She became vice president of education at Grempler Realty for three years. When nationally recognized Merrill Lynch & Co. came to Baltimore, she sought a management job. She recalls Chris Coile, then president of the Baltimore division, asking her what she wanted to do. She answered, "Quite frankly, the job I really want is yours."

It was the one she ended up with, after rising through the management ranks at Merrill Lynch. In 1989, Merrill Lynch sold its operation to Prudential Insurance Co. The next year, Ms. Greenwald-Ryan and her partners bought the mid-Atlantic franchise and she came to Baltimore.

Roxane Zach, for one, believes the leaner Prudential is primed for growth. She left O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in mid-April after 12 years to manage an office in turmoil, the recently merged Towson branch that so many agents had abandoned.

She expects some former agents to return, and says, "I feel this company is stable under Carole and will be a growing company. Whenever the market softens, agents don't have much patience. Those who do end up staying for years and years."

CAROLE GREENWALD-RYAN

* Born: April 21, 1941 in Washington, D.C.

* Resides: Ellicott City, Howard County

* Education: 1958 graduate of Wheaton High School, Wheaton. Bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland College Park, 1977.

* Family: Married to Thomas L. Ryan assistant to the director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington. Children, Mark, 32, Kellye, 31, and Kim, 28 from previous marriage. Stepchildren, Tom, 32, and Erica, 22.

* Professional affiliations: Served as first vice president of the Howard County Association of Realtors during early 1970s. Founding member and president in 1972 of the Women's Council of Real Estate of Howard County. Instructor for the Graduate Realtor Institute, at locations throughout Maryland, from 1984 through 1994.

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