Before he had turned 19, Alan N. Pyles was running a family car dealership in Chestertown and settling into a marriage that began on New Year's Day in 1977.
Selling Fords for a living was a dream fulfilled. "I knew what I wanted and I had the opportunity," recalled Mr. Pyles.
But by 22, his family had sold the dealership, and Mr. Pyles was in La Plata, running his own carpet company. He had skipped college; there was no time, he felt.
"My mother was concerned. She said, 'What do you know about carpet?' I said, 'Selling is selling.' "
At 26, his career took another lurch. Mr. Pyles was recruited to launch a new home warranty franchise of the fledgling, Florida-based Homeowners Marketing Services.
Mr. Pyles had zero knowledge of the warranty business. But, he figured again, selling is selling. And by all accounts, he figured right.
Newly turned 37 (on Friday ), Mr. Pyles has spent the past 11
years building a franchise that has come to dominate the real estate support services industry in Maryland and surrounding states.
Mr. Pyles' HMS of the Mid-Atlantic States franchise, based in Fairfax, Va., sells 85 percent of the existing-home warranties in .. Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia, by his reckoning. "In some pockets, it's 100 percent," he estimates. Most brokers in the Baltimore area use HMS for home warranties, according to D. R. Grempler, president of Towson-based Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc.
HMS also sells liability insurance and referral services to real estate agents and liability insurance to home sellers, among its various products.
Revenues of Mid-Atlantic and other Pyles-run franchises in the Midwest and Plains states will top $15 million this year, he says.
Nationally, the 15-year-old HMS, a collection of independent (such as Mr. Pyles') and corporate-operated franchises, calls itself the country's largest seller of real estate support services, doing business with more than 50,000 real estate offices coast to coast.
Mr. Pyles is one major reason, according to HMS corporate officials in Florida, where claims are processed for franchises.
"He's the best we've got," said Jim Beach, director of marketing for HMS' real estate division. "I wish we had several Alans to run our corporate-owned franchises. He doesn't sit and watch numbers in the office."
Some of his success can be attributed to timing. HMS launched during the fat years of the 1980s, when the number of Realtors and home sales were climbing rapidly nationwide. But the marketplace has been less forgiving over the past five years, through a recession and sluggish real estate market, and the continued growth of the Mid-Atlantic franchise is credited to Mr. Pyles' focus on customer service.
If Realtors don't like what he is selling, if they lose confidence in Mr. Pyles' word, they won't snap up his products and services, or pitch his warranties and other offerings to their clients. And the past two decades are littered with the remains of warranty firms that went bust. Their legacy has been skepticism that Mr. Pyles had to overcome in real estate offices.
His customers say he has succeeded.
"HMS is great on follow-up," said William F. Cassidy, a Long and Foster sales manager whose office covers Fells Point, Federal Hill and downtown Baltimore. "If the hot water heater goes up the day after settlement, zap, it's taken care of."
"He's an extremely capable individual," said John Evans, executive vice president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, the largest locally owned real estate firm in the Baltimore region. "He's very accessible and very responsive."
For all his achievements, Mr. Pyles is still a man in a hurry -- maybe not the impatient teen prodigy who hawked Fords on the Eastern Shore while his friends were on campus -- but still youngish and restless.
Index cards at hand
The pockets of every sport coat, every suit jacket in his Clifton, Va., closet brim with blank 3 x 5 index cards. The night stand, at home or in a hotel, always has a pad and a pen. He is phobic that he might lose a killer idea for want of paper.
He is away from home 100 days and nights a year, traveling the road in his 1992 Lexus, relentlessly working the 1,500 real estate offices in his markets.
"He has a lot of intensity," observed Dick Eagen, president of Century-21's Mid-Atlantic operations and a Pyles customer and occasional tennis partner. "He works hard."
"If I'm awake, I'm working," is Mr. Pyles' assessment.
He has been selling since he was 15, in the family car business in Prince George's County, a tradition that went back decades to his grandfather's DeSoto dealership in the Anacostia section of Washington.
At 17, he was the youngest person ever approved by Ford Motor Co. to own a dealership, a step his father took to prepare him to take over the business in Chestertown.
Eventually, his father's illness prompted his family to get out of the car business, but Mr. Pyles' car days scuttled his plans to go to college in New Hampshire.
As the manager responsible for interviewing applicants for sales jobs, he would talk to recent university graduates, "and the only thing I saw was that they were four years less experienced than me.
"I became a student of what I was doing," he says, and that approach took him through the carpet business, where he wound up handling contracts for a major distributor in the Baltimore-Washington market. "I carpeted a great deal of the Department of Commerce," he recalls. He also got his first glimpse of how government operated, part of what has turned him into a "staunch Republican."
He noticed that as the end of the federal fiscal year approached, orders poured in from bureaucrats who seemed in a frenzy to spend every cent of their budgets. It seemed that he took in more orders in the last three weeks of the federal calendar than in the balance of the year.
Striking up a partnership
Mr. Pyles might now be a carpet mogul had it not been for investor Ronald M. Nocera's search for a partner to run the new HMS franchise in the Mid-Atlantic. Friends at a Christian retreat introduced the two. "He didn't want to sell [warranties]," Mr. Pyles said of Mr. Nocera, a certified public accountant. "He was interested in the financial end."
HMS began in Florida in 1980, selling warranties through local brokers. The services were not particularly new; many of them had been offered by nationally franchised real estate companies and other businesses, Mr. Pyles notes, but they were treated as sidelines. HMS franchises focused entirely on these products and services and added some key innovations.
An example would be its approach to errors and omissions insurance for Realtors, policies that have become increasingly important given brokers' and agents' significant exposure to lawsuits in their normal listing and selling activities.
Traditionally, Realtors had to pay lump sums, often $2,000 to $4,000 a year, for the insurance. Mr. Pyles' company began offering insurance that was paid for through a small fee every time a Realtor sold a home. By putting it on a transaction-fee basis, HMS helped boost errors and omission coverage from 30 percent in the early 1980s to nearly universal now, said Mr. Pyles.
Today, errors and omissions is a "very minor part of our business," he says, because the niche became much more competitive. "But it was a key to our success."
Boost in market share
The long-term profitability of his franchise was in warranties. It was a difficult sale because of the warranty firms who went out of business, leaving brokers and consumers hanging, he said. In 1984, only 4 percent of existing-home sales in this region involved a warranty, Mr. Pyles estimated.
In 11 years, that percentage has risen to 15 percent, and most of those are sold by HMS.
Typically, the one-year HMS warranty on single-family homes runs between $350 and $400, and can be bought either by the buyer or seller.
Mr. Pyles says they have been selling better since disclosure laws in Maryland and other states have raised sellers' fears of litigation. While home inspections are useful for detecting structural problems, "You can't see the dishwasher's going to seize tomorrow."
A seller can honestly fill out the disclosure form, but that doesn't prevent complaints or lawsuits if the pipes burst or the oven dies, he says.
Faulty furnaces, false teeth
Ultimately, his standing will rest on whether the Realtors believe his warranties will keep them out of "nasty situations," as Mr. Cassidy of Long and Foster describes fights that sometimes erupt between buyers and sellers after the sale. If a warranty is worthwhile, "you won't have those phone messages three days after settlement," Mr. Cassidy said.
Like the winter before last, after one of his listings settled in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore near O'Donnell Square. "The buyer's furnace went up to the tune of $1,000, with a $100 deductible."
"Alan's people kept in touch, and in a day or so, a new furnace was installed," Mr. Cassidy recalled. "The buyer referred two more customers to this office."
"There's never a convenient time for something to go out," Mr. Pyles said. "The oven goes out when you've got people there coming over for dinner. When that claim comes in, they're not happy right from the beginning."
Sometimes it's the oven, sometimes it's the plumbing. One of Mr. Pyles' contractors was summoned by a new buyer because of a problem. A set of false teeth jammed in the pipes turned out to be the difficulty, property of a previous owner.
Not that all customers go away happy. In the early years, Mr. Pyles turned down an appliance claim from a homeowner. Wet roller skates, HMS told the customer, should not be run through the drier.
But several years ago, Mr. Pyles heard from a satisfied Norfolk, Va.-area, customer who had just returned from several months abroad.
He and his wife had purchased a home before he left, and major mechanical systems failed while he was away.
His wife called and HMS contractors fixed the problems.
The husband subsequently came home. He had been in the Persian Gulf, serving in Operation Desert Storm. "He said it was comforting that someone was protecting his home," said Mr. Pyles.
"He's out here fighting for his country, and he wrote us a letter thanking us."
ALAN N. PYLES
Born: Sept. 8, 1958, Washington, D.C.
Raised: Temple Hills, southern Prince George's County
Married: The former Kaye Ellen Garber, Jan. 1, 1977
Children: Jennifer Kaye, 16
Education: Crossland High School, Camp Springs, 1976 graduate; certificate, Washington Bible College, Lanham, 1984
Work Experience: Finance manager, Norris Pontiac GMC, Waldorf, Md., 1977; president, Pyles Ford Mercury, Chestertown, owner, Magic Carpets, La Plata, 1980-81; contract manager, Benjamin Berman, Baltimore, 1981-84; president, HMS of the Mid-Atlantic States, 1984-
Hobbies: Tennis, skeet shooting
Civic/Religious Activities: Founder/leader New Life Ministries, Friendly, Md.; instructor, Prince's Correctional Facility.
Home: Clifton, Va.