By VICTORIA HILES

Special to The Post and Courier

Waiting in line to speak to a guidance counselor at Northeastern University proved to be more than a toe-tapping experience for one Charleston real estate professional.

“I overheard what another student in front of me was going to do and that sounded good,” Don McDonough says.

The Boston area native was not excited about the courses the hometown school was offering for graduate studies, including popular majors such as insurance and banking. But he was enthusiastic about something else — the opportunity to learn about real estate.

It wasn’t long before he had left his Northeastern studies behind and was able to put his knowledge to work.

In 1994, McDonough got his first chance to run a real estate business when he landed a job operating a small division of Ryan Homes in Rochester, N.Y. He spent three years there, then left to join Fisher Homes.

After four years at Fisher, he took a call that would be pivotal to his career. He was offered the chance to move to Charleston.

The call went well. Today, McDonough is the division president at Ryland Homes, working from the builder’s regional office in Mount Pleasant.

It was not only a change for him and his family personally, but his new job signified an expansion for the Ryland Homes national brand. It gave the company a foothold in Charleston.

Until then, much of the decision-making came out of North Carolina. “The Charlotte guys decided it’s going to be its own operation,” he says.

“I didn’t care what the salary was, I was excited to be here. Charleston was going to be its own division. Thought that was the plan all along, but it didn’t matter to me,” McDonough says.

What mattered to him was succeeding in the eyes of his parents, he said. They were blue-collar people who stressed the importance of moving up in the world by thriving in a career.

In metro Boston, the idea of building homes on a large scale didn’t exist, McDonough says. Once he discovered this idea, he knew he could do well in real estate.

McDonough says the support he receives from his Ryland colleagues, such as division president Byron Thorp, is part of the reason for his success.

Thorp, he says, has a great ability to multitask his work. That’s important, since real estate is not just about the buying and selling of homes anymore, McDonough says.

“Early on in our career it was not about land development. Now Ryland is more able to do that. The trend is to buy land and develop your own land,” he says.

But the work does not end there. One difference he notices between commercial and residential real estate is the interaction with the client.

“Commercial is sometimes just that — about a return on an investment. There’s more emotion there with residential. From homebuyers on up, there’s a softer side to residential. I stumbled on it and I’m excited about it,” McDonough says.

It is his enthusiasm for real estate, and in particular for building homes, that is a source of pride for McDonough. When he drives through one of his communities and sees the homes he helped create he feels a sense of satisfaction. But he also believes you have to have genuine interest in the business, as it’s not an easy job.

A daily challenge is pleasing his customers and working to keep them interested in the communities he builds. He does this in part through the help of his colleagues, who spend their time creating interior layouts that cater to buyers’ needs.

“Many people talk about Ryland’s designs. We have 80 active house plans — we offer a tremendous amount of choice — we work to keep it current. It changes and changes. We could please about anyone with the house plan or the upgrade,” McDonough said.

And, pleasing the customer is what it’s all about, he says. The New Englander approaches this task by practicing Ryland’s belief to take care of the customer the first time. That way, he will not only have a happy client but comparatively low service costs. The investment return makes his approach the right thing to do, and a smart business strategy, he says.

“I want them to feel like they got a square deal. They were fairly treated and they want to work with me again,” McDonough says.

Going by the handwritten thank you notes and Charleston client testimonials on the builder’s website at www.ryland.com, it appears his clients will be returning ones. Gauging clients’ feedback is a big part of ensuring customers return to Ryland and to him. He reaches out to new buyers in the first year in particular to see how clients like their home because he believes his responsibilities go beyond a handshake at closing.

“We stand behind our homes for as much as 10-12 years. It’s not like you sell a house and then walk away from it. It’s a relationship,” McDonough said.

Victoria Hiles is a freelance writer living in Charleston.