Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 16, 2021

O’Neil earns her merit badge

Chance encounter over Girl Scout cookies leads to a new career

Dawn O’Neil is a Realtor with RE/MAX Properties on Encompass Drive. She attributes the success of her business to the personal relationships she formed while involved in the extracurricular activities of her three children. - Photograph provided

The laws of aviation suggest bees should be unable to fly, as their wings are too small to lift their bodies into the air. Not knowing this, bees fly anyway, perhaps because doing so is essential to their survival.

When Dawn O’Neil became a Realtor with a now-closed Century 21 brokerage in 2005, she was given the opportunity to fly but not the wings that could lift her off the ground, she says.

Not knowing she should be unable to take to the air, O’Neil did what came naturally and eventually found herself in the company of clouds.

Her journey began on the sidewalk outside a grocery store off Highway 58, where she was helping the Girls Scouts in the troop she was leading sell cookies.

After she convinced a real estate broker who happened by to purchase a box of Thin Mints, the man invited her to visit his office and discuss working for him.

“He said, “I have diabetes, and you talked me into buying cookies. You’re good at this,’” O’Neil remembers with a laugh.

Deciding real estate would make it possible for her to be more involved in the lives of her three children, O’Neil seized the opportunity. “My kids were my priority. I didn’t want to put them in day care full-time; I wanted to be there for them. Real estate allowed me to do that.”

O’Neil became an agent before today’s abundance of post-licensure training was available to Realtors. Even worse, her broker threw her into the deep end of the pool and left her to sink or swim.

“He literally said, ‘Go write a purchase and sale agreement,’” O’Neil recalls. “But he didn’t make sure I knew what I was doing.”

O’Neil credits the agents with whom she worked on deals with teaching her the ropes.

“My first purchase and sale agreement looked like a 5-year-old had written it,” she admits. “But through trial and error and the generous help of other agents, I learned what I needed to know.”

O’Neil switched to a RE/MAX brokerage and eventually became skilled at the practical aspects of real estate, but she was still thrashing in the pool when it came to marketing.

No one threw her another lifesaver, though. Instead, she unwittingly built her business by becoming involved in the education and extracurricular activities of her daughter and twin sons.

“I didn’t want to be a parent that talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk; I wanted my kids to see me helping out,” she explains.

As O’Neil formed relationships with the parents and teachers in the PTA and her other volunteer efforts, people noted she was a Realtor and eventually began calling her for help.

“My sons’ kindergarten teacher called me and said, ‘Dawn, I need to sell my house.’ And other people saw the RE/MAX magnets on my car and said, ‘Oh, you sell real estate.’ And without me doing any real marketing, my business started to grow.”

O’Neil’s sphere expanded even more as she served as the children’s ministry director at her church and coached a church basketball team.

She also became a substitute teacher at Brown Middle School in 2011, when her sons started taking classes there.

While this allowed O’Neil to make even more connections that boosted her business, she confesses she had other reasons for wanting to be there.

“I’m not going to lie: It helped me to stalk my boys at school,” she says. “I knew who their friends were and who they were spending their time with, which was important because middle school is tough.”

While O’Neil says real estate gave her the flexibility she needed to be able to spend more time with her children as they were growing up, she says it also kept her at arm’s length at times.

“It wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies,” she acknowledges. “I was there, but I was also on the phone a lot, and my kids remember driving around with signs in the back of the car. But I somehow made everything work.”

O’Neil didn’t switch to other marketing efforts until after her children were in high school and she was divorced. She says being on her own motivated her to assemble a database of the people within her sphere and reach out to them.

Even in this effort, O’Neil focuses on being thoughtful rather than sending mailouts or mass emails. In 2020, she left about 50 Easter egg dye kits on the porches of people who have done transactions with her, and when a client lost a pet, she mailed them a sympathy card.

“People want to know they matter to you,” she advances. “So, I try to love on the folks who have supported my business all these years and be there for them in their times of need.”

O’Neil says her new approach to marketing has helped to increase her annual sales to $9 million. “I’m meeting milestones I thought I’d never reach,” she says.

Don’t look for O’Neil to hire an assistant or transaction coordinator, though, as she prefers to work alone. “I’m a control freak,” she declares. “I feel like no one is going to provide the level of service I offer.”

Even with her new marketing strategy fully deployed, O’Neil is still helping clients who knew her when she was an ever-present mother and volunteer.

“I just sold a house to one of the girls who was in my troop when my daughter was young. It made me feel old,” she says. “But that’s what forming those relationships has done for my business.”

Selling a house to a woman who once helped her to sell Girl Scout cookies might make O’Neil feel advanced in years, but little else in her life suggests the same.

At 52, O’Neil is remarried and spent the last year building a house with her husband. She’s also trying to figure out what she’s going to do with the flexibility real estate affords her now that her children are in their twenties.

“What do you do after your kids grow up?” she asks. “I need to figure that out.”