Martha Alexander has a way of telling a story that makes it sound like she’s sharing a juicy bit of gossip.
Seated at a table at Los Charros in Rock Springs, Georgia – her favorite restaurant in the small community she calls home – she leans over a plate of steaming fajitas and tells the story of how a local agent tried to discourage her from becoming a Realtor in 2004.
“I told an agent in a BNI networking group that I was going to become a real estate agent, and she told me not to because there were already too many Realtors,” she says.
“That was a horrible thing to say. You should lift people up, not tear them down. I wouldn’t care if there were 10 million Realtors and you told me you wanted to become one; I’d say, ‘Go for it,’ and help you.”
As someone who follows her heart rather than the misguiding hand of others, Alexander went to school and earned her real estate license anyway. When a friend of Alexander’s told the discouraging agent the news, the woman said to pass on an invitation to come work with her.
“I said to tell her I’ll be there when hell freezes over and the devil is ice skating,” Alexander huffs through a smile.
A woman seated next to Alexander, Gina Whaley, laughs as she lifts a forkful of fajitas from the same plate and shovels them into a tortilla. One of Alexander’s early clients and now a friend, Whaley reminds Alexander that she went to work at the woman’s brokerage anyway.
“A friend who worked there arranged an interview with the broker, who hired me on the spot, even though I was wearing mismatched pumps,” Alexander adds. “I didn’t notice until the interview.”
Alexander balances her story about the agent who tried to talk her out of becoming a Realtor with brief tales about the two women she says have been her biggest cheerleaders: her adopted mother and mother-in-law.
“People have always told me I would be a good real estate agent. My mom believed I would be, too, so she kept pushing me to go to school,” Alexander recalls. “She finally sent me a check and said, ‘Go!’ I had been laid off from a commission-based job and was about to go back to work, and I thought, ‘If I’m going to earn a commission, I should work for myself.’”
When the housing market crashed a few years later, Alexander’s mother-in-law encouraged her to hold on to her license. “She did not believe I needed to get out of the business. It was hard to make ends meet, though, so she carried us.”
Alexander says she will always be grateful for her cheerleaders. “Real estate has been a blessing. I love being part of someone’s great adventure.”
Alexander’s home-buying adventure with Whaley offers a glimpse into how she was able to build a busy real estate business out of her humble beginnings. During a two-month period in 2006, Whaley says, Alexander showed her more than 80 houses during an exhaustive daily search.
“I had no idea what I wanted, so we ran all over. I filled a binder with the MLS reports on the houses we saw,” Whaley remembers.
Whaley kept track of how much time Alexander spent on their excursions. After she settled on a house and then learned how much Alexander earned from the deal, she calculated that her friend had made about $2 an hour.
“That didn’t include mileage and all the dinners she paid for,” Whaley says. “Martha cares about her clients and does everything she can to help them.”
Alexander has since closed on houses for several of Whaley’s friends and family members, who Whaley says were drawn to Alexander’s honesty.
“She tells people the truth, even when it’s not what they want to hear,” Whaley notes. “This is more than a job to her; it’s personal.”
“There’s something special about being a part of someone buying a home,” Alexander says. “I had a very emotional closing with a woman in her late 50s who had never owned a home. She and her family were renting a house that was falling apart. Her mother was in a motorized wheelchair and almost fell through the floor.
“As soon as she was approved for a house, she packed everything except for four sets of dinnerware. She was desperate. I said, ‘If you make a desperate decision, you’re going to make the wrong one. Take your time, and we’ll find the right home for you.’”
Alexander found the woman and her family a suitable house in LaFayette, Georgia, and then cried with her at the closing table. “I love what I do,” she says. “I’m glad I didn’t let anyone talk me out of doing this.”
As Alexander is starting to tell another story, her server steps up to the table and speaks to her in Spanish. Alexander responds in his language.
After her server walks away, she says she didn’t speak Spanish until she became a Realtor – even though she was born in El Salvador.
“I have a weird story,” she submits.
Alexander’s history is more complicated than weird, though. She was born to a Salvadoran mother and a German father, the latter of whom raised her and her younger sister alone until they were 10 and 9. At that time, her father’s sister and her husband adopted the girls and brought them to Houston, Texas.
Having lived to that point in a German community, Alexander spoke no English and very little Spanish. However, regular viewings of “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” taught her English and enabled her to quickly advance through the lower grades.
Alexander began her long and winding work history at the age of 15 with a summer job delivering printouts to computer programmers at Pennzoil, where her father worked as an executive.
Dad also had a hand in sending Alexander to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where he insisted she study accounting. Claiming she’s “the farthest thing imaginable from an accountant,” she switched majors to elementary education and then speech communications after Pennzoil transferred her father to Bogota, Colombia.
Alexander was one semester away from earning her undergraduate degree when she decided to marry. Disagreeing with her choice of husband, her father cut off her financing, cutting her education short.
“The jokes on him, though, because I’ve been married to the same wonderful man and my best friend for 36 years,” she says, referring to Danny Alexander, the senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium.
At this point, Alexander launches into an extensive account of the many jobs she held as she and her husband moved back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma and finally to Tennessee for his work and education.
To keep things interesting, she peppers her stories with amusing anecdotes.
“I was the receptionist for Baker & Taylor Drilling in Amarillo, Texas, when the company decided to sell its drilling side,” she says. “I worked for Max Banks, who was the epitome of the Texas oil man. He had a ten-gallon hat, smoked big cigars and was not a fan of a lot of people. He scared one girl so bad, she peed herself.
“But he liked me, so when Real Petroleum was negotiating to buy his company’s drilling side, he told the owner, Barrett Pierce, he could have any of his employees except me.
“Barrett told Max the only way he would buy the company’s drilling side was if I came with the package. So, I was the bargaining chip in a deal between two oil men.”
While living in Enid, Oklahoma, Alexander worked for attorney Stephen Jones, who would later defend Timothy McVeigh during the Oklahoma City bombing trial.
Alexander says Jones took a liking to her, as well, and when he learned her husband was moving to Chattanooga to study biology at UTC, he joked he would give her two weeks off a year to visit him.
Alexander sums up her work history in Chattanooga, which included several more jobs in various industries, by saying, “Real estate finally came on the heels of everything else.”
Alexander’s Realtor gig has outlasted all her other jobs, although she has swapped brokerages several times. Her current home is Elite Realtors in Ringgold, Georgia, which owner Tracy Lee launched in February to allow agents to work at a small firm with no franchise fees.
Alexander is also serving as the president of the Northwest Georgia Council of Greater Chattanooga Realtors. She says the council’s focus during her tenure has been the education of agents who work in the North Georgia area, including Tennessee-based Realtors who want to learn the state’s policies and procedures.
As the server clears the table, Alexander picks up her phone and loads pictures of her and Danny’s two children, including their son, Micah, a 24-year-old police officer, and their daughter, Tess, a 20-year-old student at the University of Alabama.
Alexander also loads a photo of Danny sitting in a car Micah gave him. Looking less like she’s sharing a juicy bit of gossip and more like a proud mother, she leans forward and says, “Let me tell you that story.”