“Going Small” In A Big, Big (Real Estate) World

By Al Parker

Small office vs. big companies has been a long-standing debate in the real estate business. Big operations have big marketing budgets and brand name recognition, but smaller firms often offer more personal service – a huge factor in the real estate game.

So with the Grand Traverse region enjoying a real estate rebound, several smaller operations are having banner years.

“Our business has grown each year,” said Christine Stalsonburg, owner of Cherry Wings Realty, which opened in 2012. “In the first six months of this year, we’ve tripled last year’s sales. The market has taken off and it’s been non-stop for us. We keep plugging away.”

Cherry Wings Realty, with a six-agent staff, specializes in serving the real estate needs of military veterans, firefighters and law enforcement officers.

“Being a small office gives us a lot of flexibility in working with clients,” explained Stalsonburg, an agent for 17 years, including stints with national companies. “For example, there have been times when we didn’t even charge a commission. And there’s no national franchise fee or state fee. Things don’t have to go up a corporate ladder, we decide right here.”

Traverse North Realty

Local control is one of the best reasons to run a small shop, according to Ken Weaver, who, along with Amy Green, operates Traverse North Realty.

“We don’t have to have a big office and spend thousands on printed materials,” says Weaver, who started the agency in 2010. “We market nationally and work locally. I like full control over my market. That’s huge.”

Traverse North Realty handles residential and commercial real estate and specializes in Old Mission properties. From their Traverse City office, Weaver and Green, along with realtors Chris Ameel and Rita Rathburn, serve clients across the five-county area.

“We’re 100 percent local,” said Weaver. “Our website, our banking, our printing is all local. The money stays here. There are no franchise fees going downstate or out of state. You have to support your community.”

So how has 2014 been so far?

“We’re having a strong year,” said Weaver. “But it’s hard work. We work seven days a week. And lending rules and regulations are more complicated, making it more of a challenge.”


Mike Cummings, owner of TCarea.com, noted that the trend toward smaller real estate offices has been building for years.

“We like to control our own future, be our own bosses, set our own procedures,” he said. “There’s been a slow decline of large franchises and their power. The internet has played a role in that. Bigger operations have the marketing and brand names, but really it’s the agent who makes the difference. [The bigger operations] are just not as powerful as before. I know a few agents who have left (franchises) and started their own operations. A couple of them call me from time to time to ask advice.”

From his Traverse City office Cummings works with two other agents, Deanne Savinsky and Jake Miles. They serve clients from Leelanau County to Manistee, Kalkaska and Lake City. Many of their sales are in Grand Traverse County.

Oltersdorf Realty

Vicky and Jonathan Oltersdorf are a mother-son team serving clients in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties from their Suttons Bay office. After working for more than 25 years as an agent for various national companies in Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Suttons Bay, Vicky launched Oltersdorf Realty in 2006. Jonathan later joined her, turning the business into a true family operation. Since 2006, the company has sold more than 375 units, totaling more than $115 million in sales.

“It’s grown steadily over the past couple of years,” said Jonathan. “Technology has really leveled the playing field (between small offices and franchises). We have all the listings available for our clients, same as the large firms have, but we have complete control over the daily operations. We stress local operations with our clients. We know the business community, we’re local, we live in the community, work in the community.”

“We do all aspects of the business,” added Vicky Oltersdorf. “From a $15,000 sale of vacant land to a multi-million dollar commercial property. Whatever the client needs, we can help. We work hard, but we’re very efficient. And we’re always available. That’s huge.”

Both Oltersdorfs stress the personal touch is key to any real estate transaction. “People like to deal with people they know,” said Jonathan. “Word of mouth and experience are big factors. We appreciate the support we’ve received over the years.”