Team Player

Laurel D. Austin

Kathy Koehler works hard, plays hard and wins in a game she loves: life.

Kathy Koehler accepts no limits in life. Not in business, philanthropic endeavors, relationships with family and friends. The petite Johnson County wife, mother, grandmother and award-winning real estate agent is a woman defined by action, passion and an innate desire to be the best in whatever she does.

The top of the ladder is a familiar place for Koehler, who started out selling women’s apparel as a young California teen, in a store called Candy Canes. There was a dreamy angora sweater set Koehler wanted to own and in the process of earning the 12 bucks to buy it, learned from the shop’s owners that the customer is always right.

“The day that Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein said, ‘Kid, you understand selling,’ was fabulous,” says Koehler, who today is perched on the edge of an office chair, dressed in a fashionable suit and heels that cost a considerable few more pennies than that long-ago sweater set.

Koehler, working her way through high school and college, lugged around a Tupperware container of dirt and a Kirby vacuum cleaner, demonstrating the machine’s capabilities door-to-door—a tough way to earn a paycheck for even the most tenacious individual.

A natural salesperson, Koehler claims her style was akin to a bull in a china shop decades ago when she entered real estate. “Back then women in the industry generally weren’t as aggressive as me,” she says. Today Koehler has a reputation as a formidable power broker in residential real estate in Kansas City.

Koehler’s familiar face—along with business partner and daughter Heather Bortnick—smiles from yard signs planted in the front of homes for sale across Johnson County and Kansas City. No house is too small or too big for the 65-year-old superstar to add to the Koehler Bortnick Team inventory. No deal is too insignificant or too large to maneuver.

And certainly no challenge—from moving 12 times with her first husband over nearly 20 years to building a sphere of influence in her first real estate job with KC’s iconic real estate firm, JC Nichols, through cold calling to battling Stage III breast cancer—is too intimidating.

During her initial interview at JC Nichols, Koehler was quizzed about how she intended to build the crucial customer base imperative for any real estate agent. Her answer was quick—and by 1980s standards, unconventional.

“I planned to knock on the doors of For Sale by Owners (FSBO),” recalls Koehler. “They told me that was known as cold calling, and was a method frowned upon for women in the business.”

When questioned about goals, Koehler’s reply was blazing quick. “I wanted to leave my retail job, which came with a company car, and in order to match my income, I would need to do $3 million in sales,” she says, adding that eyebrows were raised.

Eight months following her hiring as a novice agent, Koehler reached her lofty goal and was becoming proficient in the sacred tools of the sales game: networking and relationship building. Four months later Koehler was named the company’s Rookie of the Year.

Koehler knows her days as a vacuum salesperson paid off. “To me selling houses is like selling a bigger vacuum cleaner,” she says. “You earn people’s trust and show them what you can do for them.”

 

CALIFORNIA GIRL

Koehler grew up in Southern California, headquarters for surfboards and sunshiny beach music. She was an extroverted youngster who formed the neighborhood’s DareDevil’s Club, acting as president of the merry band of peers who challenged one another to fearless acts. At age 6, Koehler firmly told bill collectors on the phone that the “check was in the mail” to avoid having her family move to yet another apartment.

Koehler attended Garden Grove High School with a classmate and fellow drama club member named Steve Martin. The comedic and acting talents of Martin eventually earned him a familiar place in television and movies; Koehler went on to find her own brand of success: top banana in whatever she chose to do.

A mantra that has repeated itself throughout Koehler’s prolific career—“Be the best”—has helped propel her to the upper echelon of real estate agents in a highly competitive market. The Koehler Bortnick Team, Reece & Nichols, has been recognized as the No. 1 real estate team in Kansas City; The Wall Street Journal ranks the team as No. 13 out of 400 in the nation. Though Koehler enjoys the rarified air at the top of the ladder—and being part of KC’s largest independent real estate company—she doesn’t rest on her success. Learning is forward momentum for Koehler—something she’s done since that first day on the job at Candy Canes.

Ask Koehler about the detractors, the people who invariably discount another’s achievements. Koehler will tell you critics are the least of her concerns.

“It’s not my business what others think of me,” she says. “I just do the next right thing—for my family, friends, clients, colleagues, causes.”

LEARNING CURVE

Koehler identified early in her career that she wasn’t driven by money. Instead, her hunger and thirst to learn more in order to be the best was her personal motivating factor. Seminars and classes filled her calendar when she started out—and to this day, Koehler remains a sponge for knowledge. Mentors have played a pivotal role in her professional grooming—Koehler has a nose for the best, including legendary KC real estate names like Jack Frost and Lee Harris and Bob Bohlen in Michigan.

Two classes she attended in California and New York promoted the concept of “team” selling in residential real estate. “The idea was to recruit agents to work with you—more ground could be covered,” explains Koehler, who brought the idea back to her Kansas City office. “I went to Jack and asked him what he thought. He said there weren’t any teams in KC—yet. He encouraged me to build the first one.”

At the time Koehler was selling $16 million as a solo agent—but realized the team was an important springboard to help more buyers and sellers achieve their dreams of homeownership.

Frost, who Koehler says was a business and real estate visionary, didn’t have to tell his pupil twice. In 1996, Koehler gathered KC’s original real estate team and started running up remarkable numbers on the tote board. Her team’s sales skyrocketed to $25 million, $50 million. She brought her oldest daughter, Heather, on as her partner and built a team of agents that fit Koehler’s criteria.

“No nervous Nellies, only positive Pollies,” stresses Koehler. “We don’t stop winning or being competitive.”

Koehler’s current mentor is Lee Harris, president and chief executive officer of Cohen-Esrey. They met through the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP); his guidance has added salient chapters to Koehler’s book of knowledge.

“Lee helped me understand bottom line profit, and led me to hire a chief operating officer and a sales director,” says Koehler, whose team now consists of 30 agents, six full-time staff, two partners, a sales director and COO and three locations throughout Kansas City. “I’m blessed to have him as a mentor and a friend.”

 

WINNER’S CIRCLE

“To be successful, you have to have a fire in your belly, a passion, a hunger—things that aren’t teachable,” says Koehler. “And knowledge isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

There are three more requirements on the job description for a prospective agent to join the Koehler Bortnick Team: confidence, attitude and activities to achieve sales. Koehler is frank about the hard work involved—success isn’t served on a silver platter.

“When someone tells me they can’t make money in the real estate business, I tell them to come in earlier, make more calls, stay later and work harder for a piece of the pie,” says Koehler. “If they want two pieces, stay even later.”

The Koehler Bortnick team hires agents twice a year. Seven go into training, and Koehler says three out of seven will stick.

“And two will be superstars,” says Koehler.

Koehler’s hard-working team is a bit ahead of last year’s blockbuster numbers, despite the undulating economy. The year 2010 closed with the Koehler Bortnick Team pulling in $142 million in sales; currently it’s at $120 million in volume.

Just like the thrill of watching her children and grandchildren realize their potential, Koehler delights in her team’s growth.

“What can I say,” shrugs Koehler. “It’s exciting.”

 

LIGHT AND JOY

Koehler’s best friend happens to be her husband, retired builder Charlie Koehler who built more than 4,500 homes in his career. She knew him for five years before they married—and 22 years later the couple has a relationship that she cherishes and never takes for granted. They travel together, talk shop, smother their family with love. They snuggle in bed together at night with the housemistress, Lexi, a 16-year-old wiener dog, cuddled in between.

In addition to Heather, Koehler has a daughter, Amber Heineman, a lawyer who also has her real estate license. But Koehler will tell you the VIPs in her life are four pint-sized, future successful individuals: her grandchildren. Elinor, 11, Joe, 7, Katherine, 7, and Charlie, 5, are recipients of Koehler’s inherently good-natured, fun-loving personality.

“They spend lots of time at our house where we have sleepovers, swim in the pool, eat too much chocolate and go to bed way too late,” grins Koehler.

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When Koehler was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer three years ago and underwent a double mastectomy, she kept going. Despite three surgeries in a week, the unsinkable Koehler missed only four days of work, kept her glass overflowing, kept calling clients, kept making appointments, kept closing deals.

“I was tired,” admits Koehler. “But I made it through that period by doing the only thing I know how to do: keep on going, keep on being positive, keep on showing up at life. Friends, family and never giving up are all that matters. I wake up every day, thank God for everyone in my life and I never sweat the small stuff.”

When Koehler was in New York City last year for the 40-mile Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, she became acquainted with a young man during the trek across the Brooklyn Bridge. Never having met a stranger, Koehler struck up a conversation with him, asking him for whom he was walking.

“‘My Mom,’ he said,’” Koehler’s hazel eyes mist up. “I had my picture taken with him, and I shared with him that I had Stage III breast cancer—and have been cancer-free for two years. I got his mom’s name and number and called her, and told her about meeting her son and my cancer journey.”

That exchange is symbolic of Kathy Koehler’s spirit. She’s tough but fair in business, has high expectations for her teammates, but has the gift to connect on a gut-level.

“I walked for that man’s mother,” says Koehler. “I just kept going.”

And for a woman who knows no limits in any area of her life—including a life-threatening illness—that was the most natural thing to do. Just keep on walking.

 

Trump Encounter of the Third Kind

Once you’ve spent any amount of time with Kathy Koehler—an hour, say, or a day shadowing her during a whirlwind schedule—one thing is apparent: she asks for the order and doesn’t take no for an answer. Koehler’s classic encounter with America’s most outspoken tycoon, Donald Trump, illustrates her tenacity.

One year ago Koehler was in New York City with her band of breast cancer buddies, the buoyant Areola Angels. They were decked out in their bright pink shirts, ready to do the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, and headed over to Rockefeller Center to stand on the “Today” show line, hoping to be in front for the camera to beam their image to friends back in Kansas City.

“We must have looked like big wigs with the Avon walk, and the security detail ushered us to the front, near where Donald Trump was being interviewed,” says Koehler.

The day was frigid, with a hair-whipping wind cutting through everyone’s ‘do except The Donald’s. According to Koehler, Trump looked every bit his reputation in a Brioni suit: a calm, cool and collected media superstar.

Koehler sensed opportunity in the situation, and true to her nature, intended to seize the moment.

“As he was leaving, I hollered ‘Mr. Trump, we’re raising money for Breast Cancer,’” says Koehler. “He continued to walk. I shouted again, ‘Donald, we’re Areola Angels raising money for Breast Cancer’” and when Trump still didn’t acknowledge her, she decided that the third time might be the charm.

“I yelled, ‘We’re walking 40 miles on a wing and a prayer for breast cancer. We need your help.’”

Koehler says Trump wheeled around, walked over to her and pulled from his pocket a gleaming money clip that bulged of folded bills. Without counting, Trump handed the clip to Koehler.

“‘I like your enthusiasm and your cause … good luck,’ he said,” says Koehler, who was left holding $140 of Trump’s money, crisp $20 bills. “The 14 women and I are now all Donald Trump supporters. What a guy.”

For more information on Areola Angels, visit www.areolaangels.com. To reach Kathy Koehler regarding breast cancer, e-mail her at kathyk@kbsells.com or call her at (913) 239-2069.

 

Kathy’s Angels

Kathy Koehler is surrounded by friends—the Mamma Mias, a close-knit group of women who exercise and socialize together; Women Who Mean Business (aka “Mean Women”), businesswomen who take a retreat every February to Cancun; and her pet charity, the Areola Angels. She formed the nonprofit following her breast cancer diagnosis; every year she hosts a golf tournament to support a local charity.

This year’s beneficiary of the golf tournament and auction at Falcon Ridge is Higher M-Pact, an organization that works with high-risk urban youth. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Avon Breast Cancer Foundation, earmarked for medical research.

“We raised more than $108,000 this year,” says Koehler, who gets food and liquor donated by generous vendors such as the Bristol Seafood Grill, La Bodega, Harry Lucas Liquors, NoRTH and Bravo.

The Areola Angels’ motto, “Fighting cancer on more than just a wing and a prayer” illustrates Koehler’s determination in living life, regardless of the situation and her advice to women with breast cancer is concise.

“Attitude is everything,” says Koehler. “I tell women to be prepared to go through the five states of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining with God, depression and acceptance.

“Knowledge is power. Read everything you can on the subject. Get as many opinions as necessary from good doctors. Plan your treatment. Put one foot in front of the other and do it.”

Koehler takes the examples of mentors she’s had throughout her life and applies them to breast cancer. “I am here 100 percent for women with the disease,” she says. “I will take any call and answer any question.”

Not one to be maudlin, Koehler pauses to talk about the words that she wants to be remembered by—someday, decades down the road.

“This is what will be inscribed on my tombstone,” she says.

“Passionate, magnetic, go-getter. She made a difference, and lived life to the fullest. And she never, ever took no for an answer.”

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