A driven, ex-triathlon and marathon devotee, scion of a politically-connected Chicago family and product of three universities–Indiana, Nanzan (Nagoya, Japan) and Chicago, Frank Nolan studied East Asian Language and Civilizations with no clear direction for the future. Modeling and waiting tables in Paris and San Francisco led, via circuitous routes, to a career in real estate and ultimately co-ownership of Vanguard Properties. With 2015 volume of approximately $140 million, he has remained Vanguard’s top producer for the past six years.
On the early years
My dad was well-known in Chicago. He ran shoulder-to-shoulder with Mayor Jane Byrne, and was the city’s Officer of Professional Standards. When there was police brutality, or corruption within the police department, my dad was the attorney who worked side-by-side with the mayor conducting the investigations. Because we shared the same name, he offered me his law firm, “The Law Offices of Francis A. Nolan.” But I didn’t want to be an attorney.
On getting to San Francisco
Given what I had studied, I needed to be on a coast, and close to Asia. I had about $1,200 in my pocket, and, still carrying school loans, towed a 17-foot-long U-Haul from Chicago to San Francisco on Interstate 80. To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect.
I dropped the U-Haul out by Bayshore, hopped on a City bus and wound up in the Duboce Triangle. I pounded the pavement for weeks to find a place because the vacancy rate at the time was less than 1%. I ended up living in a hotel near Bimbo’s Pizza in Union Square before finally landing a modest apartment in the Western addition. I was back to waiting tables at places like Bix while I interviewed for something permanent.
On getting into real estate
I was waiting tables at the old MC2 when I made a random comment that changed my life. A customer, Byron Meyer overheard me say “real estate is so interesting to me coming from Chicago. It’s fascinating.” Byron owned and self-managed $200 million worth of commercial assets in the Barbary Coast, the Gold Coast, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, and up and down California and into Washington. The next day I started working for him at a salary of $26,000 a year– as his right-hand man. He taught me about insurance, leases, triple net– every aspect of commercial property management. I still have the $1,200 pay stubs. I did that for about a year, and then at age 26, started working for a relocation company. There were about 50 agents and I came in as a temporary general manager replacing someone who had just been let go. The first thing I did was get a real estate license. I must have done a good job. Revenues went up by 30-40% and I went from temporary to full time.
James Nunemacher, now the principal owner of Vanguard Properties was a developer as well as a broker and noticed that what I presented to them was different from the rest of the rentals that they were offered. “I’ve heard a lot about you Frank Nolan and I want you to come work for me”, he said. At the same time the San Giacomo family offered me a job overseeing all of their properties and property managers. I was tempted, but chose to go with Vanguard because of James …and the endless opportunity Vanguard provided. I got my first listing in a week and sold it for $950,000 within two weeks.
On the nature of the real estate business today
Today’s market offers more inventory choices and slightly fewer buyers than a year ago. But I remain optimistic. I’ve seen enough ups and downs to know what’s going to happen. I know that we provide a service for which there will always be a demand. As long as you maintain your professionalism and provide good service, there’s always going to be business.
I’ve been working with developers for 15 years and I’ve grown thick skin as a result because they’re a different breed. They expect more. And they’re not your typical sellers, so to get their business and gain their trust, you have to prove that you’re genuinely interested and invested in their business. You don’t just show up when the project is done and say, “I’m ready to work for you.”
I like the Southeast corner of the city—Mission Bay all the way south past Bayview. There’s ample land and there are some beautiful mega projects in planning, either approved or waiting for approval that will change the landscape–not to mention Warriors Stadium.
On his real estate profile
I focus largely on the middle part of the city—Noe, Castro, Mission, Mission Dolores, South of Market, Potrero Hill, Hayes Valley. I also do business in all the established neighborhoods including Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights and Russian Hill. Most of the product I represent is more luxurious, often very contemporary, within a sweet spot of $2 million to $5 million.
I’m the rainmaker and the closer, but I have three full-time licensed team members who each perform similar functions. They’re an extra set of eyes and ears and make the trains run on time while I manage all of the primary functions. But I’m also a big fan of seeing the guys on my team grow. Most of the business you see with my name is my business, but I don’t mind advocating or trying to promote one of my teammate’s careers by adding their name to certain transactions when it’s appropriate.
I’ve met some very influential people—owners of professional sports teams, CEOs, movie stars and the famous. I earned their trust and their referrals because I keep my mouth shut. Performance, with discretion, leads to referral in the celebrity firmament.
On the secrets of success
Three to four months into the business, I knew that there was no need to be afraid. I’ve always been a closer. I get along well with people. And I knew I would succeed because I was having so much fun. I loved, and continue to love, going to work every day. I also love the beauty of what we do. I sell beautiful things. I love the beauty of marketing and the human element of connecting.
Back in 2003, when we went to Thailand to do our annual business and life planning, I told my partner Tom “This year I want to be on the cover of the Real Estate Times.” That same year, I landed a beautiful nine-unit luxury project on Nob Hill and made the cover. That was a turning point. Since then, I’ve experienced continued career growth every year, even during the recession.
On the skills it takes to be a top producer
If you look at all of the top agents, they all operate in a similar fashion. They’re focused and structured. They treat their job as an “all the time” job, just as I do. I’m working even when I’m not working. I have a regimented schedule that I don’t veer from. I’m an early bird. I’m a detail man and I like order. I’m also seriously focused and very competitive. I have to win.
This business is filled with very big personalities and the stakes are so high that people often get emotional. I remember early in my career biting my tongue or being surprised by what other agents would say. As a result, I vowed never to burn a bridge or create enemies. You can raise your voice, but it’s what you say and how you say it. I’m always very proper, even if emotions run high. My job is to make my clients walk away happy and for me to walk away with a solid relationship with the person on the other side of the transaction.
I don’t think there’s any real mystery to getting to the top. The one thing you absolutely have to do is show up. It’s so easy in this business to get sidetracked, to lack accountability—sell a couple of properties and then take a couple weeks off. It’s a discipline.
On Frank Nolan, the man
I like to be in a zone, to feel like my life is in balance, and everything is under control. My relationships and friendships are intact. I have my health, my family and my work. On the happiness scale, I’m 9 out of 10…and trending.
I’ve had four serious mentors in my career—James Nunemacher, Byron Meyer and Tom Murphy, an influential builder in San Francisco who took me on very early in my career. I’ve sold most of his condominium projects, a hundred or more. He trusted me with a lot of his buildings but he expected perfection in return –in service, marketing, signage, paperwork. My father gave me a good work ethic and he taught me a lot about manners. For instance, we would dress up to go on airplanes. He was very strict. But later in life, after he became ill, he would tell me, “Frank, don’t sweat the small stuff.” So, in some ways, I’ve become my dad.
I’ve been in a partnership for 13 years with, and now married for over a year to Tom, who is similarly driven as I am. We’re a perfect match. In 2012 my world was complemented and completed when my mother Bonnie finally made the decision to move from Chicago to Healdsburg after many visits. Two years later, after many trips to Northern California, Tom’s mom, Maryanne, also moved to Healdsburg from Southern California and both moms have become the best of friends. How lucky are we that they get along so greatly and that both have built wonderful lives and new careers in Healdsburg? Having them nearby is amazing for both of us. We get to see them all the time and we get to see our other family members who frequently travel from afar. It’s the best of times with our entire families. What more could you ask for than health, happiness and family?