Her life reads as a novel—ingénue turns movie actress; becomes skilled concert performer; experiences political Revolution; then migrates to a strange land only to become an up-and-comer to watch. With five languages under her belt and a combination of pluck and luck, she continues her rise to the top, driven by an authentic love of the business and a fearlessness and self-confidence that is not uncommon among those who become American citizens by choice and determination. As both a confirmed careerist and family-focused step-mother, she’s staked her claim as a Paragon top producer and, with $220 million in sales to date, a player to watch as she seeks loftier goals.
On growing up, school and coming to America
I grew up in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. Both my parents are gymnastics coaches, my dad at the Olympic level. Both are “high-expectations” parents, but also very nurturing. I was a child actor in three major feature films. And I was very good at music, so I studied viola at the Prague Conservatory of Music for five years. When I was 16, I experienced the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. That opened up the borders and all of a sudden I got to travel. I met a music agent who knew somebody in America, which resulted in a music scholarship to McNeese University in Louisiana. Coming to America was the Holy Grail! I actually ended up performing at the professional orchestral level in Texas before auditioning with and being accepted on training scholarship by the Chicago Symphony under conductor Daniel Barenboim. Once I got to Chicago I worked as a language teacher, music teacher and waitress to pay the way, and graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from Northwestern University, with secondary studies at the Kellogg Business School.
On getting to San Francisco and getting into real estate
I came to visit on one of these glorious days in the fall when the sun was shining. You go over that crest at Hyde Street and look down and you’re immediately in love. I remember it vividly. I got a job running the Mid-Summer Mozart Festival music festival because I needed employment. At this point I got wise to the fact that, “OK, this is where I would like to be and take a run at a life.” I was making $30,000 with no benefits, so I got a Personal Trainer’s license and doubled my income. Anita Head, who was a client of mine, said “get your license and come work at Paragon.”
I thought I had arrived, so to speak, when I sold 2151 Green, yet people were still not taking me seriously. More recently, I competed for a listing and didn’t get it. But the breakthrough in my mind was that I was now competing with the best of class. That’s when I knew that everything was coming together.
On Helena, the person
As a foreigner and now a citizen, I’ve never had to suffer. I would love to have been born here and gone to schools here, but in this business, in this town, if you’re willing to work hard, nothing is beyond reach. I think like an American, work hard like an American, believe in ethics and values that are worthy of my country and profession. But I also retain an appreciation of certain elements of the European ethos and mindset such as elegance, style and life balance.
I’m a straight-shooter; very hard working; very analytical. I ponder the small details, but I also play the long game rather than take the immediate reward. For example, I had a client with whom I skied. We never talked real estate until one day he said, “When you tour Pac Heights, keep an eye out for me.” Nothing more than that. Two weeks later I walk into a home, look around, pick up the phone and say, “I don’t know precisely what you’re looking for, but based on what I’ve seen of your Tahoe tastes, this might be just your speed.” Two days later we wrote an all cash offer for $4 million but the seller didn’t take it because it was listed at $4,500,000. Nothing happened. Two months later he says, “I heard back from the seller. He wants to do a deal with me without agents. How do you feel about that? Will you sue me for a commission?” I said, “No. All I did was show you a house, but give me a shot at your next listing.” And he did. That same client has introduced me to his clients and associates and has continued to mentor me throughout my career.
On what motivates her
Although I work 70-80 hours a week, it never feels like work. It never stops being interesting. No deal is ever the same; no person is ever the same. There’s always the next audition. Money is important to a degree, but, more so than money, I’m motivated by achievement, by winning a listing, gaining a client, negotiating the best price. I’m exceptionally competitive. My dream listing? A $20 + million Gold Coast property!
I’m not a materialistic person. You can never motivate me by a car or a piece of jewelry. I want to build something that leaves a legacy. For example, I’d love to be a developer. A hotel development would be a great first step.
On her mentors and whom she admires in the business
My mentors have been very influential in my life.—Bob Dadurka and Anita Head who have guided me at Paragon; John Schrader at Nova Designs + Build who began as a client and has now become a trusted friend and advisor; Norman Smith changed my life. He was the music director at McNeese State University in Louisiana who offered me the scholarship that brought me to America; and Gary Johnson, my great buddy and Paragon agent who I can always trust without reservation.
I admire Malin Giddings—because she is one of a kind, a grand dame. She’s been in the business for a long time, and she’s still excelling.
On life’s lessons
I’m amazed at how cut-throat the business is once you’ve become visible—the twisting of words; the client sabotage. I had an agent trying to call my clients while I was loading photographs on MLS! It still hurts, but then, if you get too tough, you lose your heart.
I lost a $25-30 million listing because I didn’t ask for help. I was a legitimate contender but I didn’t have the wisdom to reach out and partner with someone who has handled that size transaction in the past. At that price level, experience counts to a seller and my competitors had more than me. Next time, I’ll double team with the right partner.
On the current marketplace
I was a little bit cautious in January but the spring buying season is here in full force. The single family home market remains incredibly strong and we are seeing new highs in all corners of the city. On the north end-Cow Hollow, Marina, Russian Hill and Pacific Heights, it’s the “four D’s” of real estate-someone has to die, divorce, downsize, or develop in order for a house to come on the market. That market will always hold. There is some softness in the start-up tech space, so if you’re talking about $15 million and up, those homes are often not primary residences, and the decision-makers are much more affected by the stock market. That’s a segment that may experience vulnerability.Margaret Fearey Walsh, President and Founder of Changing Places