When the Women of Distinction nominating committee received a letter submitting Real Estate Partners owner and managing broker Darlene Brown for consideration, someone asked, “What took so long?”
A life-long Chattanoogan, Brown is unquestionably overdue for the honor, which the American Lung Association in Tennessee awards each year to ten of the city’s most accomplished women.
Brown is certainly that and more. She started her own real estate business when she was a single mother, she foresaw the boom in downtown living in Chattanooga when even suggesting such a thing could happen seemed like a punch line to a bad joke, and she built a female-centered business that is also one of the most successful independently-owned real estate firms in town.
And throughout decades of 60-80 hour work weeks, Brown has remained focused on giving back to the community of which she has always been a part.
“No matter where your path to success lies, giving back is important,” she says. “Sometimes, that gets lost while we’re writing our business plans.”
The story of Brown’s career is one of longevity. She entered the real estate business at a young age, first processing mortgages for one company and then working as a closing agent for another. She obtained her real estate license in 1984 and set up shop at Herman Walldorf & Company. Two years later, she acquired her broker’s license and opened Darlene Brown Realtors “in a cute little brick house” on Brainerd Road. Several years later, she joined Realty Center, which at the time was affiliated with Better Homes & Gardens. As managing broker of the company’s East Brainerd office, she supervised close to 100 agents and steered the branch through the height of the real estate boom.
Brown’s storybook rise in real estate was anything but well-plotted. Rather, she says she simply affiliated herself with the right people. “I wanted to do well, so I associated myself with people who were successful, and they in turn gave me opportunities to succeed,” she says.
One such opportunity came in the form of Loveman’s on Market, the first downtown living development in Chattanooga. While Brown was with Realty Center, she became the exclusive listing agent for the project. Although she saw a ghost town when she looked outside the window of her downtown residence in the evening, she believed the city had potential. Instead of dark, empty streets, she saw a vibrant, energetic downtown where people lived, worked, and played. True to her vision, Loveman’s was a success.
“People told me it wouldn’t work. Now they tell me I invented downtown,” she says, scoffing at the notion. “I’m just glad to have been a part of what happened. I believe in downtown Chattanooga, and I can’t sell something in which I have no faith.”
Twenty years after joining Realty Center, Brown moved on. She’d spent two decades helping to build someone else’s business, and she decided the time had come to build something for herself.
Empowered by the knowledge that downtown living could work, Brown set up shop on the ground story of the Loveman’s building and called her business “Real Estate Partners.” She did more than launch another real estate firm, though; she established a business focused on giving other women what many people had given her – the opportunity to succeed.
“I wanted to develop a company that was welcoming to women, and today, our entire support staff and the majority of our agents are women,” she says.
Although Brown claims to have no superstar agents, she does have a pool of Realtors who consistently produce millions in sales annually. Like Brown, they understand the value of hard work, and they see real estate not as a fallback, but as a profession that makes great demands and has the potential to yield generous rewards.
“This is a good profession,” she says. “I don’t like to hear people say, ‘I can’t do anything else, so I’m going to sell real estate.’ That’s an affront to those of us who have made this our career.”
Although being owner and managing broker keeps Brown busy, she still lists and sells properties. She concentrates on new downtown developments, though, partly to avoid competing with her agents, and partly because these kinds of projects have been her bread and butter through the years. She’s currently listing Cameron Harbor, a $100 million development across the Tennessee River from Moccasin Bend. As with the other developments she listed, including Museum Bluffs Riverside, Museum Bluffs Parkview, 417 on Frazier, Lofts on Main, and more, she’s been involved since the beginning of the project.
“Being involved at that level helps me to sell a property,” she says. “I know why the builders made the decisions they made, and I can answer any questions a buyer might have.”
This is a lot for someone who’s growing a company to take on, but Brown’s abilities to compartmentalize and focus help her keep up. Besides, she takes her role as mentor seriously, and strives to be a positive example. “My agents want to know I’ve lived it and done it,” she says. “They see me in the trenches, so they trust what I tell them.”
If there’s one thing about the real estate business Brown still needs to learn, it’s how to make time for herself. “This is a business. You don’t turn it off at 5 o’clock and go home,” she says. “For me, the hardest part of this job is switching off business mode.”
Brown has found the time to complete at least one of her personal goals: visiting every U.S. state. “I wanted to do 50 before 60,” she says, laughing. “I work well with goals.”
Realizing she sounds like she’s still in business mode, Brown shifts gears to her family. “I’d like to spend more time with my grandchildren. I have two beautiful granddaughters,” she says. “And while I’d like to travel more, as I’ve grown older, I enjoy being home more.”
Brown would also like to increase her volunteer work. Although she’s on the advisory board of Cohutta Bank, is a board member at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, and is president of the Association for Visual Arts, she wants to do more. She took a big step in that direction when Real Estate Partners took presents to 527 students at Clifton Hills Elementary School during the recent holiday season.
“Realtors had adopted Clifton Hills 25 years ago but had stopped doing things. I was driving by the school about three months ago and decided to check in,” she says. “I asked the resource officer if anyone else had adopted them, and she said no. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see the importance of children.”
Moving forward, Brown plans to stay focused on building the company she founded. “I want to grow this business gracefully, and continue to do things the way I feel they should be done, not just the way other people think they should be done because of where they perceive this industry is going,” she says.
The 31st annual Women of Distinction Awards Luncheon is scheduled for Tuesday, April 26 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. For more information about the event, which benefits the American Lung Association in Tennessee, contact Shirley Cudabac at Shirley.Cudabac@lung.org or 423-629-1098. Sponsorships and tickets are available at www.TNWomenofDistinction.org.