REALTOR® Emeritus Phyllis Waters could have chosen to retire decades
ago, except for one problem: Nothing excites her as much as the real
estate business.

At 96, she is still going strong as the broker-owner of Century 21 Long Beach Realty
in Michigan City, Ind. Her company has two offices and 10 sales agents,
with a sales volume last year of $25 million. Waters fully expects to
get through the current downturn as she has numerous others: By staying
focused on what she loves to do.

As a REALTOR® for nearly 50 years, you've ridden out numerous economic downturns. How'd you do it?  

The early 1970s was an especially difficult time for the economy. We
just lived through it and didn't pay much attention to the bad news. As
the owner of my brokerage, I did everything to keep us going. I
scrubbed the floor and cleaned the bathroom. We just kept going one day
at a time.

You worked as a salesperson before you bought Long Beach Realty in 1967. Why did you decide to buy it?

The old owners were going broke but they had a good reputation. I
had to borrow money to buy it, but we had good credit. The bank loaned
me $10,000, but my husband had to sign the note because they didn't
trust me as a woman business owner.  My husband had nothing to do with
the real estate business. He was an engineer.

How did you feel when you became the owner?

I worried in the beginning. I couldn't sleep at night. The bad times
seemed to come regularly. But gradually things got better. I never
doubted myself. I always knew that if you have hard times, better times
will follow.

Why did you decide to stop selling 20 years ago?

I had too much to do as a manager.

You got into the real estate business in 1960 after a long career as a social worker. Why did you make the switch?

I've always enjoyed people and helping people in need. I can
remember distributing food to people in need during the Depression in
the 1930s. … But eventually I found the social service agencies I
worked with to be too rigid.

How has your social work career helped you in real estate?

I learned to talk to all kinds of people, and to listen and let them
talk and understand what their problems were. I train my salespeople to
listen to people.  We never sold to people who were trying to buy a
home beyond what they could afford.

Did you have any particular strategies for working with reluctant or nervous buyers?

I never pushed anyone to buy, except once.  This man was unable to
make up his mind. One evening we were at the office which is a very old
building. The door was closed and the lock engaged. We were unable to
open it from the inside because the lock was broken.  The man was
laughing as he said, the only thing I can do to get out of here is buy
a house.  He took it as a sign that he should buy the house, and he
did. He thanked me every time I met him later for insisting that he buy
the house.

What are the qualities of successful real estate salespeople?

You need patience and the ability to see someone else's problems.
You need to just enjoy people, I think. If you don't enjoy them, you
won't put up with them.

You're 96, and still active in the business. How much do you work each day?

When the weather is good, I go to the office most days and spend
five or six hours there. I do paperwork and talk to any salespeople who
need advice. People ask me the usual things, like how they should
approach a certain customer.

How's your market along the shores of Lake Michigan doing?

Many of our homes are second homes, but some people still live here
year-round. The buyers are slower at the moment. But this area is not
like California or Florida. It is a settled area. Many of our buyers
pay cash. Now all they have to worry about is taxes.

How savvy are you with the Internet?

I'm not as good on it as I should be. I've learned to use it in sort
of a haphazard way. If I really want to be sure something is right, I
may ask someone else for help. But I believe technology is important
because that's what's being used now. The industry depends on it. You
have to keep up with the times. But there is still a need for everyday
human consultation. Most people don't just call up and buy a house they
see on a Web site. Our most successful salespeople still keep up a
listing book and work with it. When you have a person who walks into
the office, he is not going to sit there for 30 minutes while you pull
up stuff off the Internet. Our customers want to know the answers
immediately. So they still keep a listing book.

Any plans for retirement?

I think I would be very bored. I would have to find something else
to do, and so far I haven’t found it. I need to be able to circulate
with people.

What are your thoughts about the future?

I think we'll get through this as we always have. The thing about
the housing market is that the majority of people want to own a home so
you'll always have business. Just take things one day at a time. I am
not a worrier.  You have to know you can't control everything, and you
should not waste time worrying about the things you can't change.