Local real estate firm marks 75 years in midst of tough market
Published 5:34 pm, Thursday, February 2, 2012
Ronald J. Henry Co. is no stranger to bad markets.
When the late Ronald J. Henry Sr. set up shop in Fairfield to sell real estate and insurance, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression.
Seventy-five years later, his family is steering the firm through the country's worst housing market in decades. But Sharon Henry Harder, his daughter, said the fact that the Henrys have lived in town all their lives has played a significant role in the firm's longevity.
"We have long-standing relationships with people in this town," said Harder, who started part-time with the firm in 1976 and went full-time in 1998. "We know our people."
Nowadays, the business is run by Harder, her brother Ronald J. Henry Jr. and Nancy Henry, Ronald Jr.'s wife.
Nancy Henry said their lifelong residencies have also helped them stay in business by affording them a deep knowledge of Fairfield and its families, she said.
"People seek us out for this reason," she said.
Ronald Jr. said his joining the firm in 1970 after college and then staying on board after landing his first "big sale" -- a large commercial building on Commerce Drive owned by Ballantine Beer -- has also contributed to the firm's tenure.
"My joining the business after college was important because it allowed me to continue the firm," he said.
Ronald Sr., who died at age 74 in 1989, founded the firm in 1937 at age 22, moving it to various downtown venues before settling in the 1950s into what is now Reef Road's Firehouse Deli.
Ronald Jr. said his father converted the former firehouse into a commercial space with his office on one side of the first floor, a retail space on the other side and office spaces for other business on the second floor.
"He had the opportunity to get onto the Post Road, which he thought was a better location for walk-ins," he said.
Ronald Sr. left the business to be run by Florence, his wife, for a few years while he served in the Army during World War II. Upon his return, he rejoined his wife in running the business and became an advocate for war veterans, being named "Man of the Year" by the Fairfield News in 1947 for his part in getting veteran housing built off Reef Road.
The business moved to its current location at 1675 Post Road in 1973, a stone's throw from a house on Ruane Street where Ronald Jr. grew up as a young boy.
Fast-forwarding to present day, the three of them agreed that the burst of the U.S. housing bubble in 2007 was not surprising given the high number of sales happening at the time with no credit approvals and no money down.
"The industry for several years was quite good and we really rode a nice wave, but Ron said `How is this going to sustain itself?'" Nancy Henry said.
The calamity, caused in great part by homeowners' inability to pay higher interest rates on their subprime mortgages, has negatively affected every agency out there, Nancy Henry said.
"I think it was a real wake-up call," she said, adding that the bust caused area home prices to decline to varying degrees depending on the neighborhood. "We had New York influence here, so you were getting 20 percent over what you paid for it (before the crash happened)."
Ronald Jr. said area agencies did not get "as hurt" as other firms in other parts of the country as far as declines in home prices and buyer confidence because of the area's affluence primarily from New York's financial services sector.
Nancy Henry pointed out, however, that the area has seen a significant number of short sales and foreclosures.
"We never saw foreclosures like this," Ronald Jr. said, agreeing with his wife. "Now it's the norm."
Looking forward, Nancy Henry said they expect sales will be a "little better" this spring than last, as more people inquire about homes due to low prices and interest rates. Yet sales will probably plateau for the next few years as a result of an unstable economy and job market, she said.
"Job insecurity is a big issue," she said, adding that banks requiring good credit and 20 percent down will most likely contribute to an ongoing sluggish market. "People using their homes as credit cards is gone."
Ronald Jr. said he expects interest rates, now hovering at 4 percent, will continue to remain at their all-time low for the foreseeable future as the government tries to get the economy going again.
"It's up to Congress and the Federal Reserve," he said.
As far as how Ronald J. Henry Co. closes sales during today's very slow and unstable market, Harder gave a very simple answer.
"We work twice as hard," she said.
A real estate firm's ability to stay in business for several decades through good and bad markets is a positive testament to its agents working in the field, said Mary Beth Grasso, president of the Greater Fairfield Board of Realtors.
"Whether you are a boutique or a larger company, it's the agents in the company who make up the fabric of how that company works in the community," she said.