When Shirley Zeitlin launched Zeitlin & Co. Realtors in 1979, she was the first woman to hang her own shingle, but she was also one of only a handful of female realtors in Nashville. Women worked mostly as nurses and teachers, and few owned businesses or even ventured into the business world.

“Today, it’s exciting for me to see so many women in Nashville doing things you could never have imagined,” Shirley says, citing, for example, that females helm four of the city’s banks. “All of that is very meaningful for me because I’ve mentored quite a few people, mostly women, through the years, and sort of watched it happen.”

In fact, in 2016, Nashville’s First Lady of Real Estate officially passed the Zeitlin CEO baton to one of her female mentees, Jessica Averbuch. But Jessica isn’t just any protégé. She’s married to Shirley’s nephew (and Zeitlin COO), Sam Averbuch.

Shirley Zeitlin (left) and new Zeitlin & Co. CEO Jessica Averbuch

“First and foremost, we are family,” Jessica says, explaining that she came to work for Shirley in 2001 when she and Sam moved to Nashville from Austin after the tech bubble burst. “I started selling real estate and building my own business, and during that time, Shirley was my sounding board. There’s just been this very organic evolution over time in our working relationship.”

Indeed, as the pair tells their story at a table in the office they share (Shirley, who still serves as chairman, has a desk on one side, and Jessica’s desk is on the other), it’s clear their relationship is an extension of the company Shirley built over the last 40 years. Shirley served as a realtor for 12 years before launching Zeitlin at the urging of her supportive homebuilder/developer husband, who encouraged her to get her broker’s license because she was “too good not to get the highest she could get.” During those years working for others, she learned quite a bit, and when she was ready to venture out on her own, she already knew what characteristics she wanted in a real estate firm. She didn’t hire everyone who walked through the door (and a man didn’t even try to work for her until she’d been in business for about two years, by the way).

“I wanted people who were intelligent and had integrity so I could depend on them to represent our company with honesty, and that’s how we built our reputation,” Shirley says, stressing that relationships have always been important to her. “I wanted people who built lifelong relationships and weren’t focused on making a sale but looked at the bigger picture.”

Always the innovator, Shirley, along with husband Martin, in 1983 was an early adopter with one of the first high-tech DOS computers. Image: submitted

Shirley credits her husband with urging her to get her broker's license and launching Zietlin. Forty years later, her company is a legendary Nashville real estate company.

Shirley credits her husband with urging her to get her broker’s license and launching Zietlin. Forty years later, her company is a legendary Nashville real estate company.

Unlike most real estate companies, Zeitlin doesn’t publish agent’s sales numbers, and that’s a policy Shirley decided upon on Day 1. So, instead of fostering competition between agents, she’s created a culture of teamwork.

“Agents who join the company aren’t here long before they comment on how helpful all the other agents in here have been,” Shirley says. “I just think it’s a more productive way to work.” But it’s also a culture in which everyone is treated like family. Her success is evident in that Zeitlin consistently helps client’s children and now grandchildren buy homes, and by the fact that the company has 12 agent family partnerships (mother-daughter, mother-son, etc.) among its 125 agents.

“So many of our competitors have 400, 500 or up to a 1,000 realtors, and I just never wanted that kind of company,” she says. “I wanted enough to be able to provide the services that would help our agents be successful without becoming a large corporate type.”

Jessica refers to Shirley’s teamwork and family mentality as one of her “golden eggs.” “There are just certain things that are intrinsic to the fabric of our company and that distinguish us,” she says. “They are things that are too important to jeopardize.”

Another golden egg, she says, is emphasis on education and training, and still another is giving back to the community. Even though Zeitlin is a business made up of smaller businesses or independent contractors, coming together as a group is important to them.

“When you come together as a work family and you give back and feed the hungry or do other things, it bonds you to something way bigger than just what we do for our profession,” Jessica says.

“When you come together as a work family and you give back and feed the hungry or do other things, it bonds you to something way bigger than just what we do for our profession,” Jessica says.

The importance of Shirley’s core values isn’t just something Jessica bought into when she became CEO. She had 15 years of experience with Zeitlin in the Nashville real estate market before assuming her latest role, so she knew firsthand what made Zeitlin unique, and she’d been through the real estate school of hard knocks. She and Sam, who entered the mortgage business upon the couple’s move from Austin, solidified their ownership role in the business after a conversation in Shirley’s office about seven years later.

As Shirley explains, Sam casually mentioned the couple would like to own a business one day.

“I sat up and said, ‘Would you say that again?’“ she says. “I said, ‘This business has been great fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good business, and none of my kids are interested, so maybe that’s something we should talk about.’”

So, in 2007, Sam and Jessica formalized a partnership with Shirley. They began investing in the business and getting involved as owners, and almost as soon as they did, Nashville began to feel the effects of the housing market crash.

“Somebody turned the water off,” Jessica says, turning to Shirley and adding, “You’d been through recessions before, but nothing like that.”

“Right,” Shirley says. “I didn’t know you could lose money in this business. I just thought you might make more one year and less the next year, but this was a very different experience.”

But, as Jessica explains, Sam, who has a tremendous financial mind, looked at the business almost like a consultant with an outside perspective, and together, the team partnered to weather the storm. In hindsight, it was an amazing experience that brought the trio even closer, and after surviving their five years of “horrible,” they moved on to six years of being able to look ahead and plan for the future.

“We have this strong anchor in the past, these core values and things we hold on to, but Shirley has never been afraid of change,” Jessica says. “We are the founder and the future. All our chips are on the table, and we are looking five, 10, 15 years down the line.”

Zeitlin & Co. recently joined forces with Sotheby’s International Realty, a decision that Jessica says was all about the future.

“It was an unbelievable opportunity to have their name recognition, credibility and the firepower of the resources they have for our agents and our clients,” Jessica says. “We’re doing great today, but we recognized that we could do something that would really cement continued success — the same kind of success that Shirley has had for many, many years.”

Zeitlin & Co. recently joined forces with Sotheby’s International Realty, a decision that Jessica says was all about the future.

Shirley, for her part, gets to sit back and watch her mentee and nephew take her legacy to the next level. But don’t misunderstand; even though she travels and spends more time with friends and family these days, she’s far from out of the picture.

“I have certain things I do, like business development, but I try to lay back and participate when Sam and Jess reach out to me, “ she says.

She’s confident that her business is in good hands, and from the beginning of their partnership, she stressed to Jessica and Sam that the couple would not be successful unless they earned the respect of Zeitlin’s agents.

“There was a time when I said, ‘You’ve done it, you’ve got their respect and support,” Shirley says. “They saw how hard Sam and Jessica worked, how smart they are, and how Sam and Jessica had our people’s best interest at heart.”

It’s an understatement to say Jessica appreciates Shirley’s wisdom and their special relationship that’s evolved through the years.

“With Shirley, it’s family, it’s friendship; she’s my mentor,” Jessica says. “I’m very lucky to have this special opportunity.”

As she tells Shirley, “The advice you give us because of your perspective and experience is such an important part of where we are. A lot of people have benefited from your expertise, but nobody as much as we have.”

To learn more about Zeitlin & Co., visit them online at zeitlin.com.

This article is sponsored by Zeitlin & Co. Photography by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.