Hats Off to Ebby

First lady of real estate celebrates 70 years in business and 104th birthday.

In 1945 Ebby started her own boutique, Ebby's Hats. Her designs were mostly bought up by wealthy Dallas women.

There are a few women who are known by their first name. Ebby Halliday is one of them. Ebby is synonymous with real estate. Born in the Arkansas Ozarks and raised on the Kansas prairie, Halliday learned the value of hard work and initiative at a young age. For her, work is a habit — one that has taken her to the pinnacle of her profession. This year Halliday’s real estate company celebrates 70 years in business. On March 9, Ebby will celebrate her 104th birthday. 

Ebby Halliday Realtors was founded in 1945 in Dallas. Today, the Ebby Halliday Companies includes Dave Perry-Miller Real Estate, Williams Trew Real Estate, affiliated mortgage, insurance and title companies, and approximately 1,700 associates covering more than 12,000 square miles of North Texas, including Fort Worth. It participated in more than 19,200 real estate transactions in 2014 with a sales volume of more than $6.6 billion.

Halliday built her company on three principles: Service to the client, service to the community and service to the industry.

She has golden rules for selling — be honest, touch people’s lives, look at people when you speak with them, never criticize the competitors, and getting along with people — a skill that has served her well.

George W. Bush, part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team; Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys; Mrs. Tom Landry (Alicia); Ebby and Maurice (1990).

Mary Frances Burleson, president and CEO of the Ebby Halliday Companies, began her tenure as a part-time receptionist and secretary in 1958 — when women typically were not given opportunities to move forward in positions of leadership, Burleson says. 

But Ebby Halliday doesn’t operate that way. For seven decades, Halliday has empowered, inspired and educated women. She has given them opportunities to become leaders in business and in their communities.

“There were eight or 10 women working as agents when I went to work in the little office on Westchester in Dallas,” says Burleson. “I’d never been around real estate people, and I had no idea what to expect. I was used to working in an office where people were just sitting and doing. In Ebby’s office, people were in and out, in and out, all day, every day. I didn’t quite understand it,” she continues. “They all drove nice Oldsmobiles and Buicks and such, and they dressed very nicely. I thought, ‘Oh my word, isn’t this something.’” 

After Burleson’s second week in a “permanent part-time position,” Halliday asked her to come on board “full-time permanently,” Burleson says. “I said, ‘Let’s talk money.’ We negotiated $2.50 an hour. My husband later said that I had looked over the ‘garden wall,’ and I was never the same again.”

Women who worked for Halliday were doing great things and making good money, Burleson says.

“I was so entranced with these people because this was a real career, a profession that women could excel in, and I knew nothing about. Ebby opened a lot of doors and set the pace for many of us. She was my graduate school. Can you imagine an opportunity like that?”

For more than 50 years, Burleson has paralleled the growth of the firm from three offices to three brands, 32 offices and more than 1,700 staff and sales associates.

Vera Lucille Koch was born on March 9, 1911, in Leslie, Ark. She later changed her name to Ebby Halliday. Her father, Louis Koch, died when she was 3 years old. Her mother, Lucille, and older brother, Raymond, and younger sister, Virginia, moved to a wheat farm in Kansas, where they lived with Halliday’s grandparents for seven years.

In 1922, when she was 11 years old, Halliday got a job selling Cloverine Salve door-to-door. Her delivery vehicle was a pony named Old Deck. She ordered her product and sold the tins for a few cents more than cost. Halliday learned about profit. She also learned about the importance of customer service and repeat business.

She put herself through the last two years of high school in Abilene working at J.B. Case Department Store and graduated in 1929.  

A sales job transfer from Omaha led her to Dallas in 1938. Halliday sold hats in a department store. In 1945, she started her own boutique, Ebby’s Hats. She designed and sold a lot of one-of-a-kind hats to wealthy Dallas women. One of her best customers was Virginia Murchison, wife of oil magnate Clint Murchison, Sr., who had invested some of his oil money in real estate.

As the story goes, Murchison said to his wife on a hot afternoon in 1945, “The next time you visit your friend that sells the crazy hats, ask her if she has any ideas how to sell my crazy houses.”

Murchison had built 52 new houses on Walnut Hill in North Dallas. His problem was selling them. As it turned out, Halliday had plenty of ideas. She decorated the plain concrete houses and collected her first sales commission of $285. 

She was hooked. This was the beginning of her extraordinary career in real estate.

In 1958, Halliday met FBI Special Agent Maurice Acers, her future husband and love of her life. They married in 1965. The newlyweds took an entourage of 12 people, including Burleson and her husband, on their honeymoon in Mexico City. Maurice arranged for a mariachi band to serenade them at the bottom of the stairway leading into the Braniff Boeing 707. Maurice and Ebby had a lot in common. Both were born into working-class families and both grew up in the Midwest. Both fought hard to find their place in life. And both would become uncommonly successful.  Ebby lost Maurice to illness in 1993. She always said he was the greatest thing that ever happened to her. 

“You want to know the secret of success?” Halliday has asked audiences across the country. “Make people feel that you are interested in them. Make them feel special. Make it real. That’s what Maurice did for me.”

Halliday founded the Dallas Chapter of the Women’s Council of the National Association of REALTORS® and in 1957 was elected president of the National Council. She traveled around the country making speeches to real estate professionals — about 100,000 miles by her estimation.

“When she would come back from a speech, she would say ‘OK, we’re going to send them all a copy of everything we have,’ ” Burleson recalls. “She sent them our forms, what she did . . .  everything. People would say she was crazy to give away her secrets.”

“Ebby would say, ‘Here is a fabulous story. . . ’ ”

“Her uncle raised corn in Kansas, and every year he won the awards at the state fair and gave away seeds,” Burleson begins Halliday’s story. “People would ask her uncle: ‘Why would you give away your seeds? You might not win anymore.’ He told them that if his neighbors had bad seeds, the wind would blow those bad seeds onto his pasture, and his corn would be ruined. If they had good seeds, they’d all benefit. That was Ebby’s pro forma, and that was a great lesson for me personally.”

Halliday is known for many firsts in the real estate world. She was an early adopter of information technology and considers it a high priority to further the industry’s success.

The Dallas Multiple Listing Service (MLS) was launched on Sunday, Feb. 1, 1953. On Friday, Halliday and another broker announced they had completed the first transactions through the system.

In 1960, Halliday helped found the Inter-City Real Estate Referral Service. In 1963, she became the first Texas woman honored as Texas Realtor of the Year.

The National Association of Realtors honored Halliday with the Distinguished Service Award in 1979. The International Real Estate Federation at the Rome Congress honored her in 1985 with the Distinguished Service Award.

Halliday received The Horatio Alger Award in 2005.

One of her fondest memories was, at age 97, being named honorary chair of NAR’s 100th anniversary Gala Black Tie Dinner in May 2008.

Most recently, the Fort Worth Business Press selected Halliday for the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Halliday is a team player, and anytime she accepts one of her numerous awards, she thanks her team and gives them credit, Burleson says.

Roger Staubach, Executive Chairman, Americas, Jones Lang LaSalle, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, knows a lot about teams. The former Dallas Cowboy quarterback wrote the Foreword to her book Ebby Halliday: The First Lady of Real Estate by Michael Poss.

“Football and real estate have a lot in common,” Staubach wrote. “Leadership matters. Ambition counts. Heart energizes. Ebby Halliday might have made a good quarterback. Ebby and I have several things in common,” he continued. “Neither of us arrived with plans for starting real estate companies, but good fortune, good friends, and good economic conditions attracted us to the real estate business. We were both blessed with great teams.”

In December 2014, Ebby Halliday Real Estate, Inc. enriched its team with the acquisition of Fort Worth-based Williams Trew Real Estate. Martha Williams, Joan Trew and Marshall Boyd founded Williams Trew in 2000, growing it to become the city’s leading residential real estate brokerage firm. It continues to be branded and conduct business under the name Williams Trew, an Ebby Halliday Real Estate Company, with operations out of its current locations in Fort Worth. Williams and Trew remain in their leadership roles. Boyd assisted with the transition and is now involved in other business opportunities.

“We’re just thrilled that we’re partnered with Ebby,” says Trew. “Our companies share the same values. As I told the agents,  Halliday is our backbone.  They  give us availability for marketing that we could never do on our own and education that we could never provide our agents on our own.”

Williams says joining Ebby Halliday strengthens Williams Trew’s leading position in the Fort Worth marketplace.

“The way Ebby has built her business is by staying focused on the customers — not only her agents’ customers, but the customers of the buyers and sellers she’s working with,” says Williams. “You know, if you think about it, Ebby has single-handedly shaped the way consumers buy houses and has shaped real estate as it is today.”

Burleson says the acquisition brought together two like-minded companies with many years of residential real estate experience. “The timing of this move meets current market needs and positions our company to better serve current and future residents of Fort Worth.”

Halliday loves sports, especially the Dallas Mavericks and the Dallas Cowboys. She writes songs and plays the ukulele. At 99 she was still driving her car and wearing three-inch heels. From her hats and gloves to her Neiman Marcus wardrobe, Halliday was a fashionista before the word was coined. 

Ebby Halliday plants the seed of obligation in her agents: “If you’ve been blessed in opportunities and you had a mentor, you have an obligation to become a mentor and reach out and help other people,” she says.

Every Ebby Halliday office is involved in charity in their local community. The company as a whole raises money every year for the United Way. Ebby Halliday’s focus is mainly on educational initiatives, children and health-related programs.

Two charities particularly close to Ebby Halliday’s heart are the YWCA of Metropolitan Dallas, home of Ebby’s Place, the new YW Women’s Center that serves as a place for poor working women to change their lives, and Juliette Fowler Communities, site of The Ebby House, a new community for young women who have aged out of the foster-care system.

Approaching her 104th birthday, Ebby Halliday is still reaching out to people. What a tribute for her.

Happy Birthday, Ebby.

Go on to Ten Questions for Ebby>>>