How developer Ron Willard built Prudential Waterfront Properties –

“I came to work for the company … 100 years ago when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I feel like.”

Although Jane Sullivan Horne may have the starting date off by some 200 million years, her recollections of the early days of working for and learning from Prudential Waterfront Properties owner and lake developer Ron Willard are quite clear.

Willard, through his business, The Willard Companies, has developed several residential developments including The Water’s Edge, The Waterfront and The Boardwalk, and commercial centers including Westlake Towne Center. Among the feathers in his cap is Prudential, which is celebrating its 25th year in business. Sullivan Horne has been there for almost all of them.

Like Willard, the real estate firm’s origins are humble.

“I was the person selling real estate seven days a week,” said Willard. “Seven days a week, daylight to dark, on the hood of my car I sold millions.”

For almost 10 years, Willard both developed and sold properties. In 1985, he hired the first salesperson, Bitsy Davis, now with Long & Foster, and the following year added Sullivan Horne. She and Ramona Washburn, now Ramona Simpson, started working for Willard at about the same time, Sullivan Horne recalled. Neither had any experience selling real estate.

“I said, I don’t care if they don’t have any real estate experience,” Willard recalled telling his sister when he first decided to hire someone to help with sales. “I said, I just want somebody that can sell and let me train them in real estate.”

Sullivan Horne said that’s how she and Simpson ended up among the first to graduate from what she calls “Ron Willard Training School.”

“Ron put us in his car and he made us walk every lot,” recalled Sullivan Horne, adding that Willard taught them about other important parts of the business such as home construction, drainage fields and determining viewsheds.

“He said, ‘There’s no way you can sell something if you don’t know what you’re selling,’” Sullivan Horne recalled. At that point, Willard and his sales staff were selling only developer-owned property. When customers came back to ask for representation on resales, Willard said they were turned over to one of the lake area’s real estate agencies. That meant the sales were going elsewhere.

“That’s when we developed the name Waterfront Properties of SML Incorporated in 1987,” he recalled. “It was a full-fledged real estate company.”

Helping assist the sales staff in the transition was Ann Bowen, who worked as the broker for Waterfront Properties until her death in 2004.

“Ann helped move us from … four or five of us in the beginning to being more of a real estate brokerage firm,” said Sullivan Horne, who counts Bowen among the top friends she’s ever had. “[With Ron], Ann was the other half that was our glue that really held us together.”

Following Bowen’s death, Realtor Cathie Daniel was named the principal broker for Waterfront Properties in 2004. Within a year, Daniel brought the national Prudential brand to the business and the real estate agency became Prudential Waterfront Properties as it is known today.

Daniel said in the company’s 25 years, it has supported a number of community events and causes such as the After 5 Jive concert series, which benefits United Way of Franklin County; SML Charity Home Tour; Toys for Tots; and Franklin County e-cycling Day.

“We have always believed in being part of the community and giving back to the community that supports us,” said Daniel. “We grew up here, we didn’t just come in.”

The SML community has supported Prudential as well.

It was honored in 2010 with the Prudential Real Estate Round Table Award as one of the top three offices in the U.S. South Region, and was nominated for Business of the Year by the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce in 2011.

Daniel attributes the company’s success to customer service, the training its agents undergo and a steady presence in the community. She said joining Prudential has broadened the company’s reach and allowed Realtors an opportunity to pursue speciality training in sales.

“Every one of our agents has a certification of some sort beyond the standard Virginia license,” said Daniel. “I think that’s a testament to their commitment to the industry and to the profession as well.”

There are 20 agents working for Prudential now, and that’s been the norm, she said, even during the past few years, which have seen real estate sales plummet both nationally and at the lake.

“For our agents, this is their career,” said Daniel. “We don’t have a lot of turnover; they come and they stay.”

That stability has helped Prudential weather the tough times.

“We’ve not been immune to [the recession]. We’ve had our struggles, but we are still strong,” she said.

But like most real estate sales people, Daniel is ever optimistic that the market is about to pick up.

“We’re seeing a lot of improvement so far this year,” she said. “Things really are looking up.”