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Saturday May 30, 2009

Real estate star a pioneer in a men's field

Moranis became first woman to be elected president of the Toronto Real Estate Board

smartin@globeandmail.com

In 1963, Sadie Moranis was a 37 year old homemaker with no work experience, a financially distressed husband and two children to support. Adversity roused the tiger in her and off she went to sell houses.

As dynamic as she was determined, Ms. Moranis became the first woman to own her own real estate company in Toronto and the first to be elected president of the Toronto Real Estate Board. Today Prudential Sadie Moranis Realty has more than 120 independent agents, does $500-million in gross residential resale annually and is one of the top 10 real estate firms in Toronto.

Ms. Moranis loved three things: her family, her business and her cottage at Thunder Beach on Georgian Bay. She even opened a branch office in Midland, Ont., so that she could enjoy all three simultaneously in the summer.

"She was the first lady of real estate when I started," said Elise Kalles, a "friendly competitor" for 30 years. "She was a very astute businesswoman, and a pioneer who laid the groundwork for others. Real estate was an old boys club and she was very much to be admired."

Ms. Moranis had such an impact on government lawyer Chris Kapches that he eventually quit his job at Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. and began working for the real estate board when Sadie was in charge. They met in 1981, during a recession similar to the one we are digging ourselves out of now.

CMHC had many foreclosed properties on its books and Ms. Moranis was instrumental in developing an innovative way to unload them.

Essentially, the TREB became a commission-neutral listing broker, charging only an administrative fee on sales transactions. That made the CMHC foreclosures much more enticing to real estate agents because they could keep the entire sales commission (instead of splitting it with the listing broker) and only pay an administrative fee to help defray the salary of the TREB person who ran the program.

"It was a brilliant idea," said Mr. Kapches, who is now a senior vice-president at Chestnut Park, noting that the program lasted for two or three years, even after Ms. Moranis had stepped down as president.

Sadie Smith was the eldest of three children of Benjamin Bernard (B.B.) Smith, a Russian immigrant who operated a successful fur and horsehide business, and his wife Rose.

Sadie was always close to her younger sister Betty, but the birth, finally, of a younger brother discombobulated the family dynamics - at least from Sadie's perspective. Her brother was "king of the roost," as she wrote in Catch The Gold Ring, a self-published memoir, based on nothing more than his gender.

Besides hard home truths about patriarchal society, she inherited her father's entrepreneurial skills and adhered to the homily he had intoned when she was a child: "If you can't skin a horse one way, do it another way as long as you get the hide."

A natural athlete, she excelled at tennis, badminton and volleyball, winning competitions and finding a summer job as a tennis instructor at Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park when she was a teenager. Playing the piano was another pastime. She studied for many years with the Russian born teacher and composer Boris Berlin.

After high school she took sociology and philosophy at the University of Toronto, intending to become a lawyer. Instead, she met Jules Moranis and quit university, at age 20, to marry him on Oct. 23, 1945, a union that lasted, through good times and bad, for more than 60 years. They moved to Kitchener, Ont., where he owned a shirt manufacturing business.

When that business faltered, the Moranis family, which now included their son Stephen (born in 1950) moved back to Toronto, where their daughter Terry was born in 1954.

By the early 1960s, Mr. Moranis was again suffering business reversals and she decided to pick up the economic slack by selling real estate. Convincing a broker to take her on was the biggest hurdle. After being rejected by a major firm because she was a woman, she turned to a small estate broker in her neighbourhood. Harry Bleasdale gave her a chance and showed her the basics.

She imagined she could work around her children and be home after school. In fact, she often ended up seeing clients and houses, leaving her kids to read books and fall asleep in a locked car while they waited for her to close the deal. All the while, she was taking continuing education courses at night.

By the time she had been in the business a dozen years, she was making more than six figures and was one of the leading salespeople in Toronto. But she wanted more control and more success and that could only come, she felt, by running her own company.

In 1976, she bought the lease on premises in North York, badgered her bank manager until he agreed to lend her - a woman - money and hung out her shingle. Her son Stephen, who was studying organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto, decided that theoretical pursuits paled beside the nitty-gritty experience of helping his mother set up her business. "I dropped out of doctoral studies to go to a community college and five weeks later I had a real estate licence," he said in an interview.

Coincidentally, a larger neighbourhood company folded and she was able to attract five of its top agents to join her when Sadie Moranis Ltd. launched in 1977. Two years later, her daughter Terry, a teacher, joined the business, eventually becoming president of the company.

From the beginning Sadie Moranis used her name, client base and connections to build a network of agents and branches, often being the first real estate company to adopt new marketing techniques and embrace technological advances - whether it was photocopiers, fax machines or cellphones. After weathering several cyclical real estate tornadoes, she decided it was too risky to be an independent and after an attenuated courtship she affiliated in the mid-1990s with Prudential Insurance Company as a franchisee.

Life was not all commissions, however. In September, 2006, her daughter Terry died suddenly, at 52, of a cerebral aneurysm. Then Ms. Moranis's own health began to fail. Back in 1977, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. She survived the cancer, but the treatment eventually did her in. Radiation, which was not nearly so precise and refined an instrument as it is nowadays, damaged her heart and triggered other health issues that only manifested themselves more than two decades later.

Through it all, including the death of her husband Jules in April, she kept on working. "She was in the office and right on top of every deal until the end," said Ms. Kalles.

SADIE MORANIS

Sadie Moranis was born in Sunderland, Ont., on Jan. 30, 1925, and died in Toronto of organ failure on May 21, 2009. She was 84. Ms. Moranis is survived by her son Stephen, her daughter-in-law Monica, her granddaughter Rebecca, her sister Betty, her brother Gordon and her extended family.

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