A Legacy of Education

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By Steven J. Smith

David and Joanne Eckel know the value of education their support of students at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee is reaping rewards for both them and the kids they serve.

“We donate to the college on a yearly basis, but more importantly we have hired five interns to work within our company,” David said. “This started several years ago. We’re just so happy to see these young people come in and work with us. And as we help them, we’ve found that they help us. You see, the real estate industry has been aging over time and having millennials in our company has opened up a pathway to clientele we haven’t had before.”

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., the couple has been married for 43 years and currently resides in Sarasota. David purchased Wagner Realty in Bradenton back in the mid-1990s and has grown the business from one to 11 offices with about 250 agents and staff. It’s a full service real estate company that has reaped a host of awards — most notably the 2011 Large Business of the Year, given by the Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce. David runs the business while Joanne acts as the “office mom,” working as a receptionist and making sure the day-to-day operations run smoothly.

“Our people mean so much to me,” Joanne said. “And I like to support the staff in any way I can and keep them happy by taking them to lunch, looking in on them when they’re sick, that kind of thing.”

The Eckels revealed part of the secret to their success lies in giving back to the community — and their involvement with USFSM epitomizes that. David has served as the chair of its Community Leadership Council and Community Affairs Committee. These days, he serves on its regional board and is an advisor to its business school as well.

Last year the Eckels announced a new scholarship program for USFSM graduates, designed to engage even more millennials in the real estate business. The program, which lasts about a year, carries new agents through the lean times and allows them the opportunity to train in the business, earn their license and build a portfolio of clients.

“Real estate encompasses a lot of technology and these young people coming out of college have those kinds of skills, along with their exuberance and fresh ideas,” David said. “Over a year ago, we had two USFSM graduates join our company. We paid them for over a year to learn the real estate industry. We took the edge off for them by providing support, heavy training and some financial support. It’s worked well for all of us. So much so, that we’ve continued those scholarships and both of them are doing very well with our company.”

He added these graduates are now tapping into a burgeoning millennial buyers market that Wagner Realty has never before uncovered.

“They’ve given us valuable insights into that segment of the market,” David said. “And we’re benefiting from that.”

Joanne was quick to point out that improving their own business was never at the forefront of their intent.

“We wanted to give of ourselves through volunteerism and mentorship,” she said. “Our aim was to help these students. We didn’t really expect that they would help us.”

The Eckels’ philanthropy and mentorship efforts haven’t been lost on USFSM. The college’s business school recently inducted David into Beta Gamma Sigma, its international honor society for business students.

“I was the first business person to receive that award,” he said. “I was very happy to receive that honor.”
The couple said they would like to see USFSM expand its size and scope even further over the coming years.

“The school is a valuable asset to our community for a number of reasons,” David said. “First of all, they’re providing highly skilled graduates who will hopefully stay in the community, support our local businesses and help our community prosper. Also, the school provides research facilities, educational services and classes for retirees. We’d like to see the school grow. And it is growing. It’s a real jewel to the Sarasota-Manatee area.”

“I’d like to see the school expand even further in Sarasota and Manatee,” Joanne added. “I’d like to see a larger school with more courses added to the curriculum and dormitories to accommodate students.”

“What I like is the students are now teaching us, after we taught them,” David said. “Everyone needs a mentor and we love seeing them progress. We’re nothing special. We’re just trying to help.”

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