Off the beaten path

Michael Saunders built her life and business her own way

Photos by Penny Rogo

Michael Saunders is an iconic member of the Sarasota business community, you may know her by her colorful scarves.

The woman with a man’s name built her waterfront luxury real estate business during a time when women needed a male signature to get a $5,000 loan.

She’s a leader that doesn’t take no for an answer and paves her own path, something she inadvertently started before she was even born.

Family roots in Barbados

Saunders was the first child of three, born to a father from Barbados, who had nine siblings. Her grandfather was an Anglican clergyman. The family had been in Barbados for 400 years, originally from England.

The name Michael Drayton is a family name, dating back to a Michael Drayton who was a contemporary poet of Shakespeare.

“The story goes, that the night that Shakespeare died, Michael Drayton drank him under the table. My father’s family, liking their toddies in the afternoon, would’ve rather had Michael Drayton, than Shakespeare, on the family tree,” Saunders says.

Saunders is Michael’s married name from her first marriage.

“My grandparents were hopeful that with the arrival of each new great grandchild, that there would be a ‘Michael Drayton”’on the way and in those days you didn’t know the sex of the child,” Saunders says.  After the arrival of many girls, they were hoping that a male great grandchild would soon be born.

When Saunders’ mother was pregnant, she said she had enough of the waiting for Michael Drayton to be born and decided her child would break the waiting period.

“She said, ‘If it’s a boy, it’ll be great for family tradition, and everyone will be happy, if it’s a girl, well, if she’s cute and interesting it will be a great name, and if she’s not, it won’t matter what her name is,” Saunders said as she laughed.

Saunders hated the name in her youth.

“I just wanted a feminine name, but I will tell you, once I got into business it was absolutely fabulous. I got my foot in the door and I didn’t take it out,” Saunders says. “I would get in with the name, because they thought I was a man.”

Born in Tampa, Saunders grew up in a very close-knit family of modest means.

Her Great Uncle John Savarese on her mother’s side of the family traveled south in 1898 with a steam boat, The Mistletoe from Tampa, for his wholesale fish business.  Being an entrepreneur, he capitalized and provided reliable transportation for curiosity seekers, mail and supplies.

Savarese  ended up buying property on the north end of Longboat Key, and much of Manasota Key, as well as land in downtown Sarasota, where he had a hotel and fish houses along the bay front.

“When mother and daddy were married, there were three big stacks of tax deeds that my great uncle’s wife had,” Saunders says. They were offered to go through the deeds and choose which property they wanted as a wedding gift.

“They looked at Manasota Key where they could have 50 acres, but at the north end of Longboat Key, there was this magical spit of land,” Saunders says. “They began talking to people but there wasn’t anyone to talk to on Manasota Key, but on the north end of Longboat Key, there was a small village and there was a sense of community.”

Sense of community was very important to the young family, and that factor won when deciding which property they wanted. Something Saunders now understands quite well in her line of work.

“There’s a great lesson for people making decisions. Looking back today, you might say, ‘Well how stupid is that? Why didn’t they buy those multiple acres for $500 in back taxes on Manasota Key?’ But what was important to them was not having all that land. It was having the right piece of land for their lifestyle,” Saunders says.

The  property ended up holding a significant meaning for Saunders when she later would change careers to focus on waterfront properties in Sarasota.

“We had this incredible spot where we could look straight out to the Gulf. We swam in the aqua marine waters, we had stone crab, we sailed, scalloped and fished. We were the end of the island. We called it Lands End for a reason,” Saunders says. “Not many people came that far down on Longboat Key at the time.”

The property remains a family homestead with her brother, Tom Mayers, and sister, Joan Bergstrom, living on adjacent land. 

After the 1957 bridge was built that made Longboat Key more accessible, Saunders’ father decided to establish a marina.

“What he didn’t know about the marina business was about as much I didn’t know about real estate when I started,” Saunders says. “But we were passionate. I learned passion and the importance of having a clear vision of what you want to do as your driving force.”

Saunders’ dream was to go to law school. She received a full scholarship to the University of Florida Law School but needed a fellowship to be able to attend.

“I finally get in, and this woman comes up to me while waiting to be interviewed for the fellowship and says, ‘I know you’ve been waiting all day, I thought you were with one of these men being interviewed for the fellowships. We don’t give fellowships to women. We only give them to men who are going to make a career of law,” Saunders says. “If I had known what I know now, my name would be on the University of Florida law school.”

Overcoming barriers in real estate

There’s no denying that Saunders is a determined professional, who works just as hard as anyone in her company. She says she still works about 60 hours a week.

“I’ve never worked harder. I’m still passionate, and I don’t think you outgrow passion. I don’t think you retire from something you’re passionate about. Passion has no age limit, so I continue to do it, because I love it,” Saunders says.

Saunders worked for a real estate firm in St. Armands Circle, when she first started in the industry.

“I learned a lot of lessons working for someone else and I thought this can be done differently,”  Saunders says.

It was evident in the 1970s that real estate agents were viewed like used car salesmen. Saunders says she vowed to change that perception by raising the bar of the conduct, values and appearance of real estate brokers.  To accomplish this, it would mean opening her own company.

Women who wanted to start their own companies in the 1970s weren’t taken seriously and Saunders found it difficult to borrow the money to finance her dream, as banks did not lend money to women. Never taking no for an answer, she persevered and a male Canadian customer cosigned for a $5,000 bank loan.  Saunders is still close with him, and his family.

In 1976, Saunders found a space for her own firm on St. Armands Circle. “That put me in business,” she says.

From the very beginning, Saunders understood the importance of marketing and branding as essential in reaching the desired buyers and sellers. She furnished her office with antique furniture, oriental rugs and hardwood floors with fresh flowers artfully arranged. 

Her listings were displayed in picture frames, a technique that was unheard of in the local real estate market at that time, she says.

Her own firm, her own values

Saunders, while acknowledging the hurdles women had to jump over during that time period, she doesn’t seem to dwell on those memories.

“I never really thought of them that way,” Saunders says.  “They were just roadblocks to get around because I had always been very focused on a vision and I’ve always been very purposeful in getting there.”

The key to her success, was being hyper-focused on what kind of real estate she would hone in on and establishing a culture that would attract the kind of employees and agents to grow her company.   

“The reason I started the company was because I could do it my way. I could start it with a foundation of values. I could attract like-minded people and say no to the people who were not aligned with them,” Saunders says.

Having a value-based company has always been very important to Michael and equally important to the agents, staff and management team, she says. 

It’s easy to decipher Saunders’ strong foundation in civility, and she says it comes from her upbringing and the strong family values that were instilled in her when she was young. She applies these values to how she runs her company.

“You can make a mistake on a contract, you can be late to floor time, but not being aligned with our values is a reason for us to ask you to leave the company,” Saunders says. “Staying true to our values as guiding principles has kept us in  a good place, which is more important than money.”

People don’t understand why they can’t recruit our agents or our leadership team, but it’s really because I believe that the right people are attracted to a value- based culture.”

Memories from travel

Saunders’ office is decorated with personal touches. She collects boxes and rocks everywhere she travels, most items have a story to accompany them.

“It’s fun when you can get a box that relates to where you’ve been and a rock that you remember because of the color or if you picked it up while hiking or walking on a beach,” Saunders says.

She’s never visited anywhere where she couldn’t find a box or a rock to add to her collection, which her granddaughter Kinsley has taken a similar affection to. “I like to go off the beaten path,” Saunders says.

Some of her favorite places to travel include Ireland, Africa and Turkey.

“I really like to spend more time in the countryside when I’m traveling,” Saunders says.

In her free time, Saunders enjoys gardening, fishing and cooking, and if she can do it with her granddaughter, it’s even better.

“I make a fabulous bolognaise, and a fabulous meatloaf … and at New Year’s Eve people call and ask about my black eyed peas,” Saunders says.

And then there’s the iconic scarf collection.

“My mother told me, ‘buy the most expensive jackets you can afford, and accessorize them,” Saunders says. “Scarves were easy, and I loved them.”

NEXT CHAPTER

Saunders has aligned herself with national and international networks including Christie’s International Real Estate, Leading Real Estate Companies of the World (where she served 18 years on the board) and is a founding member of Luxury Portfolio International, where she currently serves on its Global Advisory Board.

Saunders only son, Drayton, joined the company in 2003 and currently serves as president, working alongside Saunders, who serves as CEO. 

The company remains local, yet it is continuously expanding its boundaries of a regional and international brand by providing an alternative to the franchises.

Giving Back

“I think that I have the heart of service and giving back. It’s making a difference and if leaders won’t get involved in the community, who will?” Saunders says.

Saunders was on the Selby Gardens board for 18 years, and currently sits on the Gulf Coast Community Foundation board.  Her son has been instrumental in a community led effort to revitalize the Sarasota Bayfront area for future generations.  The Bayfront Master Plan, 53-acres on the bay in the heart of Sarasota, was approved recently and will be a game changer for their region. Drayton Saunders also serves on several community boards including the Sarasota Economic Development Corporation.      

In addition, there’s the MSC Foundation, which follows the company’s philosophy of giving back to the communities where its agents and employees live and work.

Agents can contribute to the foundation in the name of their buyer, and the money is funneled back out to the community via grants to organizations that offer shelter, sustenance, education and a path to self-sufficiency.  Founded in 2011, the foundation has given away over $600,000 to 177 nonprofit organizations, with Saunders and her son matching 10 percent of the donations.

“First of all, you have to grow your culture. Then you grow the community and develop people. If you do all of those things, you’ll build a lasting business,” Saunders says.

Her most important sale is always the next one, she says. “The next transaction. That’s always the most significant one … the next one you do.”

Even with 42 years in the business, Saunders says she has no plans for slowing down any time soon.

“That’s what I love about getting up every day. I learn something new with each day,” Saunders says. “I think that’s my responsibility because I want everyone to be all they can be. I want to make a difference in their lives.” ♦

Michael's Listings

Michael’s Listings

The Mark

100 S. Washington Blvd., Sarasota

Status: Under construction

Expected completion date: 2019

From the $800’000’s

The Ritz-Carlton Residences

1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota

Status: Under construction

Expected completion date: 2020

From $2.4 million

Coming Soon …

The Residences on Longboat Key

From $4 million

Michael’s Listings

The Mark

100 S. Washington Blvd., Sarasota

Status: Under construction

Expected completion date: 2019

From the $800’000’s

The Ritz-Carlton Residences

1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota

Status: Under construction

Expected completion date: 2020

From $2.4 million

Coming Soon …

The Residences on Longboat Key

From $4 million

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