Debbie Derryberry-Styles, principal broker and owner of Chattanooga Real Estate & Investments, is the portrait of tranquility. Her voice is soft, her expression relaxed, and she holds herself with the poise of a woman who’s content being in the moment.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Styles purchased Chattanooga REI, a commercial real estate boutique, in January from the founder and previous owner, Barry Wilde. In the high pressure world of real estate, in which minutes count when a client needs something, negotiations seem designed to induce stress, and chaos is often an operative word, how can Styles look as though she doesn’t have a care in the world?
Simple: that’s her choice. Styles answers calls, negotiates well on behalf of her clients, and maintains control – all without breaking a sweat. She learned this from Wilde, her mentor since they met while working at Prudential in 2000.
“Barry is a very even-keyed person,” she says, her voice just a few octaves above a whisper. “I’ve never seen him the slightest bit worried or upset.”
Keeping Chattanooga REI small helps. Instead of managing dozens of agents, all of whom are contending for a bigger and bigger piece of a single pie, she manages four, including herself. While this keeps Chattanooga REI from competing with the larger commercial real estate firms in the city, it also frees the company to focus on its long-term clients and repeat business.
“Commercial agents always have something in their pockets,” she says, smiling. “As long as people like you, they’ll call you.”
A returning client with 11 properties called Chattanooga REI ready to do business. The company has sold nine of those properties, and the client is eager to list the other two. “We might not have competitive natures,” Styles says, “but we know our stuff. It’s about client satisfaction and knowing our customers are represented to our fullest extent.”
Chattanooga REI is also about maintaining the comfortable atmosphere of a boutique at which friends work together. “I don’t want to become an air traffic controller who’s frantically trying to keep up,” she says. “I’ve done some interviews, but I’m not pressuring anyone to join us.”
Sustaining a calm environment became more than a choice for Styles in 2014, when she suffered a heart attack. She says the experience changed her outlook. “You look at things differently when you have a near-death experience,” she says. “Suddenly, life wasn’t about making money but about enjoying being alive.”
Styles is sitting on a couch in the lobby of her business, located in the Hogshead & Hardwick building on Georgia Avenue. Constructed in 1913, the building is a handsome relic, from the grandiose stone exterior, to the small offices rumored to have once been jail cells, to the front door of Chattanooga REI, which Styles says is 100 years old. The business is tucked into the space at the bottom of the right set of stairs that go down from the street when facing the building. It might not be the most visible real estate concern in town, but it suits Styles, who has a passion for the city’s historical landscape.
“I was raised loving old things,” she says. “I especially like Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and the old railroad tunnels.”
Styles grew up in East Ridge under the mentorship of her great grandmother. Her first foray into real estate came as a child, when her stepmother, who was a real estate agent, would take her to showings. “I thought it was the coolest thing,” she says. “I liked how she called it work.”
Styles wouldn’t find out just how much work real estate actually is until years later. First, she married and raised two sons, then she spent four years at Life-Care, where she was the medical records coordinator. She finally obtained her real estate license in 1998 and began a career as a property manager of a 300-plus apartment unit complex.
The company that employed her, Equity Resources Development, eventually moved her to Birmingham, Ala. When she returned to her hometown in 2000, she went to work at Prudential. Crye-Leike on Gunbarrel later recruited her to handle Fannie Mae foreclosures, but she left that position after one year. “It made me sad,” Styles says.
Crye-Leike held on to their Southern gem for a while longer, making her corporate services manager over their third party locations. In stark contrast to the environment at Chattanooga REI, she managed over 400 agents and oversaw the entire southeast.
Three years ago, Styles felt the time to move on had arrived, so she quit her job and called Wilde. He said, “Come on down,” and she’s been there ever since. Styles obtained her broker’s license in 2014.
As the principal broker, Styles believes in the importance of education and earning designations. Obtaining the Certified Commercial Investment Member designation is on her to do list, as is changing the company’s signage, launching a website, and coming up with a slogan that defines her company’s core philosophy.
She likes “Where it’s not about us, but about you,” and “We’re not number one – you are,” but she’s going to give it more thought. “I don’t like slogans, but I’m going to try to develop the company’s brand,” she says.
She’s also going to grow Chattanooga REI – in small increments – in order to better serve the many new businesses that are expanding the economic culture in Chattanooga. But even in that growth, she intends to make sure Chattanooga REI remains a small, easy going real estate firm populated with friends and focused on people.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that picture.