Ebby Halliday: In Her Own Words

By Stacey Moncrieff, Editor in Chief, REALTOR® Magazine

Last week, I wrote a post about Ebby Halliday’s 100th birthday. In it, I said you needed to know Ebby to understand why her birthday was such a big deal. Well, for those who don’t know Ebby, I thought I’d share an interview we did with her back in 2006 for a book commemorating the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®‘ centennial. When you read the interview, I think you’ll be struck by how on top of her game Ebby was when we talked with her, just before her 96th birthday. She was just as sharp two years later, in 2008, when NAR celebrated its centennial. At a gala where she was the honored guest, Ebby played her trademark ukelele and sang her own personal tribute to NAR.

But before you read the interview, check out this slide show I put together from the Feb. 23 birthday bash. The photos were provided to me by Charles McMillan, who attended the event, and Victoria Shapiro, one of the organizers. Question: Was I ever as firm as those Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders? Answer: no!

To view the photo captions in the slideshow: click play, expand to full-screen using the button in the lower right corner, then click on “show info” in the upper right corner.

OK, here’s the interview, which was conducted by one of our former editors, Barbara Ballinger. The context of the interview is this: Throughout the book, we included profiles of “giants” in the real estate industry. Ebby was one of the giants. Our interview with her ran in a section of the book in which we were describing the significance of multiple listing services–thus, the reference to MLSs in the lead:

From Hats to Houses

(Excerpted from THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®: 100 Years In Celebration of the American Dream, Wiley Publishing Inc., 2007)


One practitioner who saw the evolution of the MLS from a simple cooperative to sophisticated Web-based systems is Ebby Halliday, chairman of Ebby Halliday, REALTORS®. Halliday, 96, started her company in 1945, building it into one of the largest independent real estate companies in the country. Along the way, she attained iconic status, earning the title “First Lady of Real Estate.” She also helped pave the way for women in the ranks of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

Halliday was born in Arkansas and grew up on a wheat farm in Abilene, Kansas. Her father died when she was young, and she worked throughout high school in a department store to help support her family.

After graduating in 1929, she struck out on her own, relocating first to Kansas City, where she applied at a local department store. “The store wasn’t hiring. Remember, this was the Depression. Banks were closing, and fellows were jumping from windows on Wall Street,” Halliday said, “but I had good experience and a lot of enthusiasm. They sent me to the leased women’s millinery department in the basement. My mission was to sell hats.”

She stayed there four years and then transferred to a store in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1938, she moved to Dallas, where she managed the hat department in the old W.A. Green store. After parlaying $1,000 of her savings into $12,000 —thanks to her dentist’s advice to buy cotton futures — she opened her own hat boutique.

Before long, Halliday was approached by the husband of a customer. He asked her to sell his experimental cement houses, which he said would revolutionize housing. “He said, ‘If you can sell my wife all those crazy hats, maybe you can sell houses, too,’” Halliday later recalled. Indeed, the millinery business had served as a good training ground for real estate sales. “I learned that customers are always right — whether they are or aren’t.”

To attract buyers, she decorated one of the houses — a forerunner to today’s model homes. Within nine months, she had sold 52 two- and three-bedroom houses for between $7,000 and $9,000 each. GIs returning from World War II were among her earliest customers.

In 1945, Halliday traded her hat inventory for houses and opened Ebby Halliday, REALTORS®, in Dallas. Sixty-two years later, Halliday still works full-time and — with her longtime associate Mary Frances Burleson — operates the state’s largest independent residential brokerage. With 28 sales offices and one corporate office, more than 1,600 sales associates and staff, and $4.7 billion in annual sales, Ebby Halliday, REALTORS®, was ranked the 18th largest residential brokerage in the country, according to REALTOR® Magazine’s 2006 ranking.  Halliday has continued to follow the same work ethic that originally inspired her. “I worked like a dog, but acted like a lady,” she said.

Although Halliday was never NAR president, she has served the Association for more than half its 100-year history. Besides participating in a number of NAR committees, she was a leader in the Women’s Council, serving as its national president in 1957. She also was active in the National Institute of Real Estate Brokers (NIREB), the forerunner to today’s Council of Residential Brokerage Managers, and served as the president of its Residential Division in the late 1960s; she was active in the Farm and Land Institute (today the REALTORS® Land Institute); and she served on the association’s Executive Committee in 1972 and 1973 under NAR presidents Fred Tucker and J.D. Sawyer. In 1979, the year NAR established its Distinguished Service Award, Halliday was a recipient. In 2006, she talked about her career and her work for NAR.

Q: What was it like conducting business when you started? Besides different methods of communication—no Internet, no cell phone, no hand-held devices—what has changed?

A: Real estate was a slower process. The Multiple Listing Service didn’t come along until about 40 to 50 years ago. We sent a delegation to California to learn about how it worked because we felt it rendered a better service for buyers and sellers and inspired cooperation. It revolutionized the industry. In those early days, we carried our listings around in our pockets and then on card files.


Q: When you opened your first office, what was it like to be a woman in what was predominantly a man’s world?

A: It wasn’t hard. I worked on a development all by myself in the beginning and didn’t come in contact with a lot of men. The men I came in contact with were mostly buyers, so it didn’t pose a problem that I was a woman. Because I helped to found the Dallas chapter of the Women’s Council in 1952, I was able to use that as my springboard to national office. I’m sure there was some resistance to women, but I didn’t realize it.


Q: Were you an immediate success?

A: Immediately. I was just thrilled with the idea of a larger product [than hats], but I think what I liked was the realization that home ownership was a basic strength of America. It was a wonderful feeling to get newly married couples into their first homes. I don’t take a lot of credit for my immediate success. The North Texas area was booming. We grew our company as the city grew.

Part of my success was being involved with NAR. I joined shortly after opening my business, probably about 1946, and was one of the first female members of the local Dallas Board. The idea of RELO — a national network of companies offering relocation services — was born at a National Institute of Real Estate Brokers meeting. It took place at the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) meeting at the Drake Hotel in Chicago in 1959. Every May, NAREB officers and their committee people met at the Drake Hotel in smoke-filled rooms. Eventually, NAR [as NAREB was later renamed] established an office in Washington, D.C., and the May meetings were gradually changed. I was one of the founders of RELO [still headquartered in Chicago and now operated as Leading Real Estate Companies of the World]. Originally, we were a national organization, but then we went international.


Q: Why was RELO so important?

A: You need extraordinary service for people who are being uprooted and going to new jobs and neighborhoods and maybe taking children to new schools. NAREB spotted this need very, very early. It took the ball and ran with the idea. RELO was always separate from NAREB, but it was an idea hatched by those of us who were active in the association; it actually came out of an NAREB-appointed committee that was studying the fact that relocation was needed as a service to corporations.


Q. In those early days, local boards chartered Pullman train cars to take their members to the conventions. What was it like on the trains?

A: It was a great way to travel and a lot of fun. The entire state delegation climbed on board the train, and there was a lot of partying. I recall a lot of good times going and coming. I think the first convention I attended was in Cleveland in 1954. Women were not officers or heads of committees back then. That took a few years to happen. Men were receptive to the idea of women officers once they realized the women were capable and didn’t trade on their femininity. I learned from all the women I worked with, particularly from Posie Willis. She was one of our early managers and one of the first women to work on national committees. [Willis, whose real name was Florence, received the association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1982, three years after Halliday.]


Q: In all your years in the business, what have been the industry’s greatest challenges?

A: To make the public understand the difference between a REALTOR® and a real estate agent and to make fellow practitioners understand the importance of having a watchdog for our industry.

Q: What were you most passionate about as an NAR leader?

A: The correct pronunciation of REALTOR®. So many people mispronounced it! I was also passionate about the importance of the Code of Ethics [In 1962, Halliday joined a speakers’ bureau that traveled the country educating members about the Code.] and the association in general. Discrimination was also one of the biggest issues facing the association in my days as a national leader. NAR worked very hard to train everybody not to discriminate.

Q: Did you ever aspire to be NAR president?

A: No, I think that my life became so involved with the growth of our business and creation of our technology department and our training. I was also in great demand as a speaker. At one time, I averaged one speech a week. That took up a lot of time, but it was also one of the reasons we [women] were accepted in the communities where we went. It’s so important to give back. I speak, sponsor sports teams, and organize stay-in-school programs. Our company gives the Ebby Rose of Distinction Award annually to non-real-estate heroes within the community who do good work and improve the lives of others.


Q: Your own list of awards is very long. Which awards have meant the most to you?

A: There have been three. The [NAR] Distinguished Service Award in 1979 was one. In 1963, I was the first woman to receive the Texas Association’s REALTOR® of the Year award. And in 2005, I was the first female in real estate to receive the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans Award for overcoming adversity to achieve success.


Q: What did your company do to help it grow into one of the largest in the country?

A: Our people are the biggest reason for our success. From the beginning, people came to us because we offered them a lot. We have excellent training. Associates are taught to cooperate, which I learned from the MLS. We offered computers early.

I learned a lot of my ideas by serving on national association committees. I served on the association’s Special Committee on the Use of Computers in the late 1960s. NAREB formed a study group to study this newfangled thing called a computer to see if it would be of use to the industry. Out of that study group, or Special Committee as we called it, came the interest to use computers. From working on another committee, of course, the idea came to form RELO.

I also served on the REALTORS® Legislative Committee, and I think political involvement has been good for our company’s growth. We want our people to be involved in politics. We need to be watchdogs for legislation that affects our industry and give money to representatives who work for what we believe is right.

Q: Besides listing and selling, your company has expanded into other services—leasing, property management, insurance, mortgages, and a counseling center to assist transferees and corporations. What’s the most exciting change?

A: The trend of top-flight companies offering full service as a convenience to clients. We have mortgage officers assigned to every one of our sales offices. Clients can walk from their sales associate’s office to the mortgage office. Like the MLS, technology revolutionized the industry. Our Web site (www.ebby.com) gets thousands of visits every day. It’s such a wonderful service to clients, especially those who are relocating. There was a fear that the Internet would diminish the services of real estate professionals, but we haven’t found that to be true.

Q: What’s the best part of growing the company?

A: Helping develop people who do well. We’ve received so many notes from people who’ve been able to put their children through college. Before women came into the business in large numbers, attorneys and banks around town would send us women who were newly widowed or divorced and ask me to counsel them and help them develop a career. A woman with five little boys and came to me wanting to sell real estate. I told her I would help her learn the business. She sat across from me for 30 days and listened to me talk to clients and help associates learn to negotiate and list. I told her, “Never let the sun set without getting a contract signed on both ends.” Well, she brought me her first contract and was so excited, but she had forgotten to get one signature. I said, “Dorothy you’re missing one signature.” She said, “But it’s dark outside.” I said to her, “Dorothy, the sun is shining somewhere.” She went back and got the other signature.

Q: You continue to operate an independent company. Why?

A: We’ve had many offers to sell, but we pride ourselves on being independent. One of our strengths has been our ability to judge what we want to do—and when we want to do it. We believe that being independent is an asset. We also believe it’s a real obligation to the people who have helped to build the business. I’m leaving the stock of the company to the people who built this company.

Q: Where do you both see the company headed?

A: The company is sound enough to continue without me. We’ve brought on board a management team of 29 people. There’s not a single person on that team who doesn’t have someone else in mind as a replacement. We also have a senior management team. We have heads of departments who are all fabulous, and we’ve got Mary Frances [Burleson, president since 1989], whose been with the company 48 years and is doing a magnificent job.

Q: You’re 96 and work full time. What’s your secret?

A: I always say, “I inherited good genes, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t retire!”


Q: What do you do when you’re not working?

A: I’m involved in many community activities that keep me pretty busy. Yesterday, T. Boone Pickens was the speaker at a luncheon of the Texas Association of Business. The annual luncheon recognizes and honors a businessperson — I’m a former recipient of that award — and I composed a short musical piece as part of his introduction. Today, Lily Tomlin and Mary Kay Place spent the day with me because they are playing real estate practitioners in an HBO sitcom and wanted to see how we show property. That was a lot of fun.


Q: NAR will be 100 years old in 2008. Would you care to hazard a guess on whether NAR will be around in another 100 years?

A: I think it will — it will be even more international in scope — because it will continue to have good leadership and uphold the ethics that were put in place by the founders. 


To cap off this post, here’s a piece, also written by Barbara Ballinger in 2006, that didn’t make it into the book. It’s a brief interview with the company’s long-time president Mary Frances Burleson:

Learning from the Real Estate’s Pied Piper

For 48 years, Mary Frances Burleson has worked alongside Ebby Halliday, initially as a temporary receptionist and secretary and eventually as her company’s president and heir-apparent. Burleson knew almost nothing about real estate when she entered the business in 1958, but she needed a job and didn’t have the requisite skills to teach or be a nurse as many of her peers did. She quickly became enraptured with the industry. “My husband says I peeked over the garden wall and that was it. I loved working with people and being in the marketplace. I had an office next to Ebby’s, and she opened my eyes. It was like being in graduate school. She did that for a lot of us.”

Within eight years, Burleson opened the company’s fourth office with Halliday’s younger brother Paul Hanson, now 83. She later managed five offices.

Burleson attributes Halliday’s success to her great intellect, intuitiveness about people, and stellar memory. “She reads people very, very well. She remembers an agent’s name and knows to ask about his wife and kids. She’s also great at sharing everything she knows and has become the Pied Piper of an industry that she’s passionate about, inspiring others to join. She’s also become a Pied Piper in her community, showing how to get involved,” Burleson says.

Those who work for Halliday, Burleson says, come to live their lives by the three tenets that their mentor says are crucial for personal and business success: give back to clients, give back to the community, and give back to the industry. There’s a fourth, unspoken tenet, too. They all know the importance of continuing to open doors for eager recruits who share Halliday’s hard-driving work ethic, unlimited ambition, and can-do spirit.

Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is vice president of business-to-business communications for the National Association of REALTORS®, overseeing the association's key communications with NAR members and REALTOR® association executives.

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  1. Happy 100th Birthday Ms. Ebby!

    You truly are an inspiration to all women everywhere….

    Suzanne Matlosz, LMT
    AZ Real Estate Broker
    NV Real Estate Broker-Salesman

  2. Wow

    what a story and very inspiring.

    do you have one piece of advice for new agents in Orange County Ca?