By VICTORIA HILES
Special to The Post and Courier
Students pursuing a second degree usually feel an unspoken certainty that their field of study is the one they plan to work in after graduation.
For some students, a deeper look into the field alerts them that it does not interest them like they originally planned.
Lennar Real Estate President Sam Sparks was the latter type of student when he was studying the legal profession.
“I got out of law school and swore I wanted nothing to do with lawyers. I’m a recovering lawyer today and go to lawyers anonymous every week,” Sparks quipped.
Sparks recalls details of that time in his life — when interest rates were 21 percent and the economy was at a standstill. This was also the time when he got a job that excited him. He was living in Atlanta working for a local homebuilder and started representing people involved with shopping centers. He took on homebuilders as clients, also.
Sparks joined Lennar in 2006 where he oversaw the Jacksonville, Fla.- to-Baltimore region of the firm, including Charleston.
Though his parents were not in the real estate business themselves, as his dad worked in industrial security and his mom was a homemaker, they showed their support by allowing Sparks the freedom to figure out his career path for himself.
“They didn’t have big opinions on what I should do, they just wanted me to be successful and to have a job,” Sparks says.
He found success in the Florida to Maryland market, but decided after five and a half years he wanted to be at home more and cut back on the travel. Sparks moved to Charleston in May 2012, where he is president of the Coastal Division for Lennar.
By the time he reached Charleston, Sparks was a seasoned real estate professional. Because of his expertise, he noticed a few changes in the style of the homes requested here compared with other markets. But there is one request that remains a constant for all clients, he says.
“Charleston likes the ‘Charleston look’ of the homes which means additional front porches but beyond that, they want a good, solid home close to where they work,” Sparks says.
Finding his clients’ homes is a daily motivator for Sparks, who begins his days at 7:30 a.m. and ends 12 hours later when he comes home, sometimes with homework in the form of a contract that is due the next morning.
Sparks’ self-assigned homework is part of his belief that it takes a team to run a successful real estate company like Lennar. Forty-four people to be exact, he said.
Sparks’ roster includes specialists in their own right responsible for running the sales, finance, land and accounting sectors of the business. These specialists work in one of Lennar’s several divisions that allow the company to tap into other markets besides the real estate business, he said. Lennar has a niche operation that buys distressed debt, a group that works with apartments, and it’s a large homebuilder as well.
Though the division name may vary, the goal is the same for each niche and it is one Sparks thrives on. “I love building people homes — no two days are the same. Fundamentally you’re providing shelter, but really you’re doing so much more than that — you’re providing room for a family,” Sparks says.
One person who can relate to the joys of the real estate business is his wife, Nancy.
While the couple resided in Atlanta, she was director of sales and marketing at a local homebuilder and according to Sparks, is a great sounding board for him today.
Because they share a real estate connection, Sparks often bounces ideas off of her and asks her opinion if he needs advice on a transaction or his career in general. She also contributes to Sparks’ work when outside the home or office. During subdivision checkups, Nancy rides shot gun so she can see firsthand the progress of his budding communities and houses, giving her opinion along the drive.
There are a few things on Sparks’ checklist during his assessments. He checks to see if the community is clean and if the inventory homes are in their best condition for showings. When asked how he handles conflicts with his work Sparks uses education as a proactive approach.
“We sit down and solve the problem. My group is all trained that we avoid the problem. It’s a very imperfect world but at the end of the day, it’s all got to work out for the homeowner,” Sparks says.
To make it work for the homeowner, Sparks works to please them as he knows the value word of mouth can have on a business. In his mind, customer referrals are the best way to measure success, he says. Part of earning a customer referral is letting clients know he is available to them by phone and email, he says.
“I think we have to acknowledge there are a lot of moving pieces and ask ourselves, how do we respond to the customer? Our focus is we fulfill the promise to the customer,” Sparks said.
Asking these questions is part of what makes Sparks a student at heart. Finding answers, in the form of logistics or a home close to a client’s employer, is part of what keeps Sparks moving up the ladder with Lennar.
Sparks’ smile widens when he talks about helping his clients make the single-biggest purchase of their life: It’s clear the other part of what keeps his success going is because he loves what he does.
Beyond the freedom his parents gave him with his career, his other great influencer was a former mentor in Atlanta, he said. He was a technical lawyer Sparks worked with who advised him to trust his instincts if ever in doubt of how to handle a situation.
“He told me, ‘Gee Sam, I don’t know. Just go do the right thing.’ Providing guidance is something to be respected and admired.” Sparks says.
Victoria Hiles is a freelance writer residing in Charleston.