Martha Turner: Houston's Grande Dame of Real Estate Talks About Slowing Down
by Minnie Payne

Martha Turner

When Houston’s prize real estate lady, Martha Turner, was a little girl working in her father’s small family store, Fuller’s Dry Goods and Hardware, in Hemphill, Texas, then population 972, and county seat for Sabine County, she dreamed of being in the business world, wearing beautiful suits, high heels, and perfect makeup. And indeed she does just that.

“When growing up, I didn’t realize how poor we were,” she says. “We lived in a two-bedroom house in somewhat of a family compound, in that our house was in the front yard of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s house, an aunt and uncle lived down the street, and a little further down, another aunt and uncle lived.

“We had cows, with a nearby pasture. I milked cows, and I churned butter.”

Turner, 75, graduated from the University of North Texas in 1962, with a major in music and education. While going to school, she met her first husband on a blind date; they married and moved to Austin where he was studying law at UT/Austin. She taught elementary school and also worked at Montgomery Ward selling lingerie, selling more underwear working part time than her cohorts sold working full time. Then, she and a fellow teacher borrowed $1,000 from her hometown banker and started a successful wig store. Her husband graduated from law school, and they moved to Houston in 1966, where he became a land developer and built houses.

After a 15-year teaching career in Houston, Turner retired in 1978. While teaching, she remodeled, built, and sold a number of houses, which sparked a passion and love for real estate. She attended the University of Houston, earned her real estate license in 1979, and joined a local real estate firm, immediately becoming a top producer. In 1981, real estate was at a low ebb, but in spite of that, Turner and a friend, Nancy Owens, decided to buck the odds and opened Turner-Owens Real Estate.

Turner adopted a principled and personal attention to each transaction. Hiring superior agents, the stressed magic word is “excellence,” which is contained in the company’s mission statement – “The mission statement of Martha Turner Sotheby’s International Realty is to provide real estate excellence to our clients, customers, and all other real estate professionals.” “I don’t tell my people what to do. I live by example,” she remarks. “We have A-1 personalities, and I have set the tone of a company culture where people feel free to share information. That is what has made this company great by helping to build comradery and also helping in sales. “You will never grow if anyone can’t forgive or say ‘I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.’”

When Turner started the company in 1981, she borrowed $150,000 from Oak Forest Bank, her personal bank, to advertise in Houston Home & Garden, paying it back in six months. She says that her granddaddy taught her not to buy something if you can’t pay for it, and throughout her career she had very little debt.

“I put money into our company to grow, and at the time I sold, I had no debt,” she relates. “You cannot operate a company that has so much debt it pulls you down. In 2014, when Sotheby’s came calling, sales topped the $2 billion mark.”

She explains that when she decided to sell the company, she prayed that the right person would buy. The sales price was estimated to be between 20 and 25 million. In January 2014, the company was sold to Sotheby’s International Realty, who had approached Turner about two years prior about selling. The sale insured that the company will continue and all agents and employees will have a large corporation to provide many options for international advertising. Turner is Chairman Emeritus. Turner’s first husband died in 1986, and she remarried in 1988 to Glenn Bauguss. She has a daughter and one teenage grandson. Bauguss has three children and eight grandchildren.

When asked about slowing down, Turner admits that since she started in real estate, it has been her advocation and vocation, but in the last six months, she has been relieved a lot. She still comes to the office almost every day, mentors agents, goes on listing appointments (in her words “is a rainmaker by bringing in business”), and is a spokesperson for the company. Presently, she is helping work on a $15 million fund project for 501c3 Legacy Community Health Services that provides free medical services for anyone who cannot afford medical care. The $15 million campaign will go toward building campuses in the Fifth Ward and in the southeast part of Houston. “Besides trying to move out of my office to a smaller office, I like to read good biographies, inspirational stories, and history stories,” she shares. “We have a bay house, and my husband and I like to watch the birds. I also like to spend time with my grandson and travel.”

Turner is slowing down, but she still has a lot of steam left in her pipe. She leaves these words of wisdom for the world: “To be successful, you have to love what you do, love the people around you, make everyone feel special, and realize that you are the only person in charge of your life.”.