After 44 years, Theodosia’s Sierra Ozark Realty becomes Century 21 LeMac Ozarks satellite office
The most important thing Don Smiley wants friends and clients to know is that he’s not retiring.
Yes, he’s 77. And yes, he’s merging the real estate business he’s owned and operated for 44 years, Sierra Ozark Corporation, with another company that will rename the business. But despite all that, Smiley says he intends to go right on selling Theodosia-area real estate, continuing a career that now totals more than 2,000 pieces of property, including more than 14,000 acres of lake property.
The change, which was finalized Monday, Dec. 3, transforms Sierra Ozark into a Missouri satellite office affiliated with Century 21 LeMac Realty in Mountain Home, Arkansas. The Theodosia office that was formerly Sierra Ozark is now Century 21 LeMac Realty Ozarks, said Jewel Pendergrass, who owns the Mountain Home business with her husband, Ozark County native Mickey Pendergrass.
Smiley has turned in the Sierra Ozark Corporation’s real estate license and will become managing broker of the Century 21 LeMac Realty Ozarks office in Theodosia.
‘I’m going to live in a place like that’
His arrival in Ozark County in 1974 and his opening of a real estate office here wasn’t something you’d expect of an MBA graduate whose thesis had focused on land use and demographic data in Ozark County, a place with no railroads, a mediocre highway system and no heavy industry, and, as a result, little chance that it would grow in population.
It wasn’t that Smiley was a stranger to the Ozarks or inexperienced in real estate. The surprising part was that he came here after a successful run of executive-level positions in big corporations, beginning with Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, a job that came with an office on Wall Street.
Yes, that Wall Street.
Smiley had grown up in Kansas City and enjoyed summertime visits to his grandparents’ small, hardscrabble farm near the Osage River in St. Claire County. The little farm is now covered by Truman Lake.
He graduated from Paseo High School in 1959 and attended what is now the University of Central Missouri on a scholarship, earning a B.S. in economics. After graduating, he applied to Officer Candidate School and spent the next six years as a Navy officer.
In 1966, he volunteered for Vietnam. “My whole group was volunteers,” he said. “It was early in the war, and we didn’t know any better.”
During his wartime service, his left eardrum was blown out, and his left eye was injured. (Forty years later, he had laser surgery that finally fixed the eye problem, and he now wears a high-tech hearing aid that fixes the eardrum problem.) While he was recovering from his injuries in a hospital in DaNang, he thought often of his grandparents, Otis and Pearl Smiley, and the simple life they lived on their little farm tucked away in the Ozarks – the farm where he had spent some summers as a boy.
“I decided if I can get out of here and still function, I’m going to live in a place like that,” he said.
After his discharge in 1969, Smiley earned an MBA at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When he graduated (at the top of his class), he put the idea of a simple life in the Ozarks on hold and headed out into the corporate world.
Dreams postponed ... and then fulfilled
After his job with Ross Perot’s EDS, where he wore a suit every day (“two-piece in the summer, three-piece in winter,” he said), he worked for a development company in Alpine Lake, West Virginia. “In that job, I wore boots to work and drove a jeep,” he said.
Next, he worked for a company that was developing property in Iowa and then returned to Kansas City to sell commercial and industrial real estate. Married by then, he and his wife had a baby girl, Tava, in 1971.
With the memories of his grandparents’ little farm rooted in his mind and experience with large corporations in his resume, Smiley dreamed of two things he wanted to do in life: be president of a successful corporation and live deep in what was left of the real Ozarks. Those goals probably seemed unlikely as he continued living in the city and working with yet another big corporation until, on a Friday night in the summer of 1974, he was while he was driving from work to his home in the Kansas City suburbs, a car broke down in front of him at the traffic light at 35th and Broadway. “The two lanes on either side of me went on, but I couldn’t move,” he said.
Always “a numbers guy,” he said, he mentally noted how many lights turned red as he drove home each day, and since he had to sit through that particular light twice, it “changed the base. Instead of 34 lights, it would be 35, and the percentages wouldn’t be the same.”
Then something in his head clicked. Maybe it was a memory of his grandparents’ farm near the Osage River.
“I looked in the mirror, at that guy with his tie pulled loose and his shirt collar unbuttoned, and I thought, ‘You know, this doesn’t make sense,’” he said. “I went home and told my wife, ‘We’re moving to the Ozarks.’”
Selling real estate ‘in a place I’d said wouldn’t grow’
He set out looking for a place to settle and remembered a couple of men he had connected to when he had done his MBA thesis on Ozark County: L. B. Cook and his son, Bill, owners of what is now Theodosia Marina Resort.
“They were good guys to know,” Smiley said.
It wasn’t long before Smiley had a small office in rented space near the Theodosia Marina in what had been part of the old Theodosia Hills development, which had gone bust.
Referring to that MBA thesis he’d written about Ozark County a few years earlier, Smiley said, “I opened a real estate office in a place I’d said wouldn’t grow.”
With $5,000 total in savings and no real estate listings, he incorporated his company, Sierra Ozark, and elected himself president. And with that, his two big dreams were well on their way to fulfillment. He was president of a corporation, and he was living, if somewhat tenuously, in the heart of the real Ozarks.
Fixed-income retirees coming from both coasts
During his first two years here, “I stayed open seven days a week except Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas,” he said. “And at the end of those two years, I had people coming to my office to list property.”
Also during those first two years, he made the biggest sale of his career, selling the 5,594-acre Anderson Ranch on W Highway near Pontiac for $1,350,000 – “right at $241.33 an acre,” he said.
The large tract had a house, barns, five deep wells, 20 ponds – and a dozen bank liens against it. Smiley worked steadily, approaching the lien-holding banks one by one, working out agreements between each bank and the Tennessee bank that owned the property. In the end, he brokered a successful sale of the ranch.
Most of his sales were much smaller, especially in those early years. “In the 70s, it was mainly retirees who were planning to retire here: five acres here, 40 there. Nine out of 10 of those people never actually moved here,” he said. (Remember, he’s a numbers guy.) “The big mind-changers were health and grandkids. They decided to stay in Omaha or Amarillo. There are several pieces of land I’ve sold several times, and they’ve never been built on for those reasons.”
In those early years, most of Smiley’s buyers came from the Midwest. Today, they come from “both coasts,” he said, plus many from the Deep South. “And lots of them are fixed-income retirees. Military, schoolteachers, cops, union workers – for a lot of people it’s ideal. We have a lower cost of living here than almost anywhere else. Our taxes are lower, and goods and services are more reasonable, whether you’re building a house or renting a fishing boat,” he said. “People on fixed incomes can live better here for less money than they can live in Dallas or Wyoming or just about anywhere. And they also like it because we have a wonderfully low crime rate, especially crimes against persons. They go back to where the kids live, and it’s scary – the traffic, the crime and everyone double-bolts their doors.”
In addition to retirees, Smiley says, he’s now seeing more clients who are buying second homes. “I ask them, ‘Besides being underpriced, what would it look like if you found exactly what you want?’ They often say, ‘I don’t need a lot of land, but I don’t want to see my neighbors.’ They’re looking for freedom from some of the pressures of city living, and they also want a friendly atmosphere, which they find here.”
Transitioning to Century 21 Lemac Ozarks
In addition to changes in his clientele, Smiley has also seen changes in his personal life and his company. After his first marriage ended, he married his current wife Connie, a professional artist who freelances for greeting card companies. His daughter, Tava, an actress and television host, lives in Beverly Hills, California, with her husband, Lauder Robinson, and their 6-year-old son, George Lochlan Hawk.
In 1984, Smiley bought out his sole Theodosia real estate competitor at the time, the late Clem Voss, and moved into Voss’ office on Highway 160. Don’s twin brother, Dave Smiley, was his partner from 1994 to 2008. Several other agents have also worked with him in Sierra Ozark.
Now, 44 years after his humble start, Smiley says he is still enjoying living his dreams, but it’s time to close the door on one of them, the corporate presidency, and “let someone else pay the light bill for a change,” he said, adding that when he started considering a merger about a year ago, LeMac Realty was his first choice as a possibility.
As of Dec. 3, Sierra Ozark no longer exists, and, although the new signs aren’t up yet, the Theodosia office is officially Century 21 LeMac Realty Ozarks.
The original LeMac Realty company in Mountain Home was started in the 1970s by Ronald Lewis and Ray McDaniel, who now lives in Zanoni. The independent LeMac company affiliated with Century 21 in 1985, and in 1989, Jewel Pendergrass joined the company as office secretary. She got her real estate license a year later and her broker’s license in 1996, moving into full-time sales.
She and her husband, Mickey, bought the company in 2001, when the agency had three full-time sales associates, including Jewel, and three part-time agents. Mickey, son of the late Estel and Thelma Pendergrass of Ozark County, and Jewel, a Mississippi native, had met while both were attending Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee. Mickey worked in the real estate business for several years but for the last six years has served as Baxter County Judge, a position akin to county commissioner; he was recently re-elected to a four-year term.
In 2005 the Pendergrasses built a two-story building for their real estate business in Mountain Home, and they opened a second branch office near Wal-mart in Mountain Home a year later.
The company now has 50 agents, six support staff members and, according to its website, “is consistently ranked as the number one real estate company in the Mountain Home / Twin Lakes area for production.”
Jewel Pendergrass said Friday that seven Century 21 LeMac agents are licensed in Missouri, including Debra Schilling Smith of Protem, who will be working frequently out of the Theodosia office.
“We’ve done quite a few deals with Don and felt like this move was a good opportunity to serve our clients better,” Jewel said. “We want people to know they can expect the same quality of service they have had with Don, but we bring a little more to the table. We can help promote his properties, and we’ll help take care of his clients.”
She said the phone numbers and sierraozark.com website will continue to operate but now will link to the Century 21 LeMac system to provide greater coverage.
“Don will continue to be very, very involved in the business,” she said.
Smiley confirms that prediction, saying he expects to keep going for several more years – 16, to be exact. His goal is to disprove a long-ago biology teacher who told the class, “Your body will last until you’re at least 93 if you take care of it – but you won’t do it.”
He’s determined to prove that teacher wrong. So he’s set his retirement date for sometime in the year 2034.