SUNDAY BUSINESS

COLUMBIA • SOUTH CAROLINA

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2007 • SECTION D

we’re almost like brothers’

‘We’re not only partners,

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM

Abb Jeffcoat and Bob Russell recently were honored as Realtors of the Year by the March of Dimes. They have been in business together more than 40 years.

Over four decades, Bob Russell and Abb Jeffcoat have built the largest real estate firm in the Midlands
By KRISTY EPPLEY RUPON
krupon@thestate.com

W
1
Rank among independent real estate firms in South Carolina on the basis of number of listings and sales

hen Abb Jeffcoat decided to leave the telephone company in the early 1960s and join a startup real estate firm run by his friend Bob

Russell his wife’s reaction was lukewarm. “‘Is that what you want to do?’” he recalls her saying. “‘I always thought if you couldn’t do anything else in life you could sell used cars or real estate.’” But Jeffcoat — who had watched some former employees find success in the business — had made up his mind. More than 40 years later, Russell and Jeffcoat have built the largest real estate firm in the Midlands with 14 offices and a sales force of nearly 600. The pair recently were honored by the March of Dimes as Realtors of the Year. The men have remained friends and partners through tough business decisions, personal tragedies — and some really close Carolina-Clemson football games. Both say the key to their success has been surrounding themselves with good people and then treating them like family. Their quirky senses of humor — they’re forever taking jabs at one another — haven’t hurt, either.

65
National ranking among 80,000 real estate firms in the nation in volume of 2006 sales

$1.5 billion
Dollar value of homes sold in 2006, greater than the No. 2 and No. 3 Midlands firms combined

>>> A chance encounter with a blackboard
Bob Russell was 35 when he opened the real estate firm with his wife as his secretary and just one other salesman on board. It might seem like a boring profession for someone who a decade earlier had been a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy.

14
Number of local offices

SEE REAL ESTATE PAGE D4

600-plus
Number of local agents

42
Number of years in business

6,000-plus
Homes sold in 2006
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RUSSELL & JEFFCOAT REALTORS

Russell, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, now flies planes for fun.

REAL ESTATE
FROM PAGE D1

further together,’” Russell said. And they have.

But is was a chance encounter with a chalkboard that led him into it. When Russell was discharged in 1957 with $1,500 worth of leave he had not become the goal-setter he is today. He spent months playing golf at the Columbia Country Club and living in his parents house. When his mother said, “‘I think it’s about time you got a job,’” Russell thought a classified ad for “executive” sounded good. But every afternoon when he walked down the block to Tom Jenkins’ real estate firm to wait for his girlfriend to get off work, he saw the chalkboard with how much each agent had sold listed beside their names. He knew how much commission they made and quickly did the math. Top agents were bringing in 10 times as much as he made. He joined the firm. For three months, he didn’t make a sale. But eventually he began building a successful career. In 1961, Russell was called back into military service to serve in Spain during the Berlin Crisis. When he came home, he had aspirations of opening his own firm. But Jenkins met him at the airport and convinced him to stay. He spent three more years with the company learning the property development side of the business. When he finally opened his business in 1965, he was ready to start accomplishing his goals: marketing his first subdivision, Garden Dale in Irmo in the first year and building his first office in the second year. That building, at the corner of Calhoun and Assembly streets, still houses the corporate offices. He had hired Abb Jeffcoat — a friend of a friend — just six months after opening his doors. Five or six years in, he had a hunch Jeffcoat was ready to go out on his own and open a competing real estate firm. It didn’t feel right. “I told him, ‘I think we can go a lot

>>> From picnics to the computer age
Ed Billings, chief financial officer, has been with them for 38 years. He has seen the business grow — from when it was small enough to have old-fashioned family picnics — and the industry change tremendously. The most obvious change has been the coming of the computer age. Instead of having to search through a book, listings can be found and updated almost instantaneously through the Internet. Billings remembers being the first real estate company in Columbia to get a computer in 1980 and said neither of the men has been afraid to spend money on technology to grow the business. But amid the change, Billings said there has been one constant: the character and positive attitude of the two men who run the business. “I have never worked for people that were better than Bob and Abb,” said Ron Roe, chief operating officer. “They’ve never made me feel like an employee.” Roe said the men identify the job and then leave their employees alone to do it. But they also have an open-door policy if someone needs help. They also have noncompeting managers at their branch offices — a rarity in the industry. “Bob and Abb always say you don’t work for them; we all work together.”

>>> Strengths play off each other
The two men have different sets of strengths that have helped them succeed. “Bob’s more the methodical business visionary kind of guy, and Abb is highly relational,” said Jeff Wheeler, president of Coldwell Banker United, Realtors, who has known both men for decades. He said their success can be credited to their unique partnership that has lasted for more than 40 years, their con-

tinued involvement in the business community in supporting projects like March of Dimes and Make a Wish and their retention of good managers — many of their employees have been there 20-plus years Russell is a perpetual goal-setter. His biggest problem right now — at age 77 — is that he needs to set some new ones because he’s already accomplished so much on his list: Build the biggest real estate firm in the Midlands by age 40, run a marathon by age 50, become one of the top air show pilots in the country and write three books. He’s written two so far but can’t get motivated to write the third, which is supposed to be about, well, motivation. Jeffcoat, on the other hand, is not a big fan of knocking down goals. His philosophy is more about plugging away and getting the work done. “He sets a goal and I accomplish it for both of us,” Jeffcoat says. Both men laugh. But times have not always been rosy. Abb was there in 1987 when Bob lost his first wife, June, who had juvenile diabetes. And Bob was there for Abb earlier this year when he lost his son, Abb III, to cystic fibrosis. “We’re not only partners,” Russell says. “We’re almost like brothers, really.” But when it comes to college football, the two are the bitterest of rivals. They remember the specific game they stopped watching the CarolinaClemson game together. “It was ‘The Catch’ with Butler,” says Russell, the Clemson grad. In that legendary 1977 match-up, Steve Fuller made a last-minute throw to Jerry Butler with 49 seconds left to give Clemson a 31-27 win. “I’m on top of the world, and he’s just completely destroyed,” Russell said. Jeffcoat, the Carolina grad, still looks pained just thinking about it. But they’re able to put aside that difference to focus on real estate. “Regardless of who wins, who loses, we’ve got the same goal to grow the business,” Jeffcoat says.
Reach Rupon at (803) 771-8308.