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Ben Fox Kushner's Autobiography: Part 2 - Entering the Business

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Part 2: Entering the Business

In April, 1971, I accepted my new responsibilities of listing and selling land in Cherokee County with a combination of feelings. Excitement and fear of the unknown were among those nerve stimuli. Mostly, I felt both a driving desire to succeed and hatred of failure.

I was convinced that if I got good training, success was inevitable. Roy Ludwig and a fellow named Terry Fine were to provide the training. Roy was a very intelligent, highly energized fellow who came into real estate from the corporate world. Terry would turn out to be one of the greatest hucksters I would ever encounter. He also had an uncanny ability to pick areas of town that would ultimately explode, but more on that later. Terry had opened a small chain of clothing boutiques that catered to the flower children of the 60’s. What is now called Midtown was the hippie district of Atlanta. Terry had enjoyed such quick success that he first put into effect what would always be his basic business plan: keep the cash and expand with no capital. He would just borrow from everybody he could. The stores did very well for a short time, but his recipe for disaster propelled him into the next hot business in Atlanta, real estate. Since he had gone broke in the hippie clothing business, he did not have the money to buy business clothes. Terry wore a hodgepodge of very contemporary suits, along with very big heeled shoes popular among the Allman Brothers faithful.

Terry was engaged by Roy to train me in Barton/Ludwig’s specialty: listing property. In private meetings and the company’s weekly sales meetings, Roy always emphasized the benefit of exclusive listings. “If the property sells during the listing period, you have to get paid, but you have no control over a buyer.” The company had a very systematic approach to getting listings. First, you had to develop great telephone technique to get an appointment. You also had to have perserverence. We put a goal on ourselves not to leave the office until we had at least three appointments for the next day. We would stay in the office until midnight and beyond on the phone. I never thought that it must seem crazy to a land owner to answer the phone late at night to hear my attempt to convince him to allow a stranger an appointment to talk him into selling his land.

It also took some kind of strange character to make these calls. If you have ever seen movies like Tin Men or Boiler Room, you get only a small glimpse into the life of hard-living direct sales people. We felt like we only had one chance to get the business, so we best close the deal in one sitting. The B/L guys were some strange guys. Cars, clothes and other blang were the signs of success in the office. The real successful guys wore loud suits (70’s clothes were probably the ugliest in the history of our society). A couple of my favorite guys were Rea Holiday and Leon Novak. Rea had jet black, slicked back hair, drove a white caddy and usually wore bright blue or canary yellow double knit suits. He had the greatest telephone style of anybody I have ever met. He could always get an appointment with an unsuspecting elderly lady or a working class property owner. He had a friendly manner that exuded both confidence and compassion. I would love to sit next to him and listen as he turned his initially hostile prospect to mush, until the person on the other end was begging him to come out to see them. Rea did great during the land rush days, but once real estate became the province of mostly business types, Rea went the way of the 8-track tape. His skills remained, however, and he became a televangelist.

Leon was a highly energetic guy who loved to bounce from office to office, store to store in his blue and white Cadillac, making deals promising anything and loving life. His father had sired Leon when the elder Novak was nearly 70. When I met Leon, he was around 27 and he had three older brothers who were in their 60s and 70s. They treated him like an Admiral treats a swabbe, which motivated him to show up his older siblings. Unfortunately, they did not care. Leon also had the first car phone I had ever seen. In those days, you had to call a central operator who would patch you through to the recipient. Calls were also very expensive. Leon’s wife, Brenda, made him get rid of it after the bills started going over $1,000 per month, which would be equivalent to a $5,000 cell phone bill today. Leon and I became friends and would go into business together a few years later.

My first month in the business consisted of going on training missions with Terry, and sometimes Roy, to learn the listing process. While not on these appointments, I would go to the Cherokee County Courthouse and copy names of landowners of more than 50 acres out of the tax digest on a yellow legal pad. Since there no plat books in the courthouse, I had no idea where these properties were located. Beginning about 4:00 pm, I would begin my telephone calls to make appointments. I used my training methods and picked up on Rea’s style. I was able to make appointments from the start. At 22 years old, I guess my voice was not too intimidating, and by throwing in some of the bull I learned from Rea and the others, I got my share of meetings.

I could not believe that my first listing appointment on my own was successful. I drove my 1965 VW up into the county to meet with a very nice gentleman. I followed the routine and began to get really excited because I was getting the responses that indicated it was time for the close. When I said to the prospect, “Will you O.K. this paperwork for me, please,” (you never ask him to Sign the Contract) he signed. I was on Cloud Nine. I was also trained to get out of the house as soon as the guy signed the paper because he might change his mind. I think I ripped the listing out of his hands and jigged out the door.

Buoyed with confidence from this first encounter, I remember spending the next six months working sun-up to midnight at least six days a week trying to get as many listings as I could. At the end of that period, I had 17 exclusives in Cherokee County.

Roy Ludwig liked to say that in real estate you have to go out and find your own inventory; then you have to sell it. Unlike his background at Lockheed, where they would give you the planes to sell and all you had to do was find the buyer. Here we had to find both the buyer and seller. Roy turned out to be my first buyer and I think I took advantage of him on that one. I had listed a 160-acre track very north in Cherokee near Nelson, GA. The land belonged to the Cagle family. I was dealing with the eldest son, Tom, who was about 70 at the time. The land was roughly 10 miles from a paved road, so you had to drive on old logging roads for about 15 minutes to get to it. The price was $550.00 per acre. When I announced that I had this listing at the sales meeting, Roy immediately said any property under $1,000 an acre in Cherokee county had to be a great deal. He would go see the land and buy it if he liked it.

I drove Roy in his nice, new, comfortable Chrysler to see the land. Roy said he was a little tired, got in the backseat and promptly fell asleep. He slept through the entire trip, including the 15 minutes on the logging roads, through all the brush and thicket. He never realized how inaccessible it was. He got me to write a contract and the deal went down.

The closing of my first sale was more dramatic than the drive to see the property. Mr. Tom Cagle wanted to close the sale at the home of his 90-year-old mother who had to sign the documents, but was too ill to leave the house. Roy did not go the closing (Thank God!). He sent his lawyer Tom Raiford, a great guy who would die a few years later while still in his 30s.

Grandma Cagle was more than just ill. I thought she was already dead when we got there. I prayed that she would be able to sign the closing documents. If she died before it was over, the deal would not close and I would remain destitute. If it closes, I pick up a check for over $5,000, which would equal my previous year’s income. Just as the final papers were ready to be signed, one of the young great grandkids came rushing in all worked up. Her little brother had just drunken some gasoline and was turning blue.

All of a sudden, we were in several cars on the way to the Pickens ER. Before I left the house, I made sure Grandma Cagle’s oxygen was working. It took about two hours to get the kid’s stomach pumped. We then returned to the house, Grandma was alive and her kids were able to put a pen in her hand and lead it across the papers.

After the closing, during the long ride back to town in the dark, it all seemed so anti-climatic. All the hard work, long hours and hundreds of cold calls had culminated in the check in my pocket. The feeling was a bit of a letdown because I had to start the process over again in the morning.

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