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Small Business Spotlight

Old South Land Title – A Relationship Driven Industry Leader

Gayle Hurst, co-owner and Vice President of Old South Land Title, was born in South Texas and raised in Southern Louisiana. She was one of those tourists who came to visit and the visit just got longer and longer. Gayle has lived and worked in Okaloosa County for 28 years.

She arrived with a 15-year background in property and casualty insurance. After moving to Okaloosa County, Gayle decided to go to college and become a paralegal.

Years ago, when Gayle needed a title company for a personal real estate transaction, she walked into a local title company to find an employee, a personal friend, all alone. Gayle offered to answer phones. Her offer was enthusiastically accepted. Gayle was working for a lawyer at the time and had two weeks off to help.

Those two weeks of experience prompted Gayle to tell the attorney she worked for that they ought to do real estate closings. So, in 1998 they became partners and opened their own title company – Absolute Title. Gayle got her title agent’s license and surrounded herself with people who knew more that she did so she could learn from them. She started handing out miniature bottles of Absolut Vodka as closing gifts. They were a big hit.

With her background in property and casualty insurance, her paralegal training, and her love of real estate, Gayle felt entering the title business was meant to be. Gayle believes homeownership/real estate is the best investment anyone can make. She recognizes the value in our community and the impact on values created by the continual influx of military personnel.

At one point Gayle called an experienced title person whom she wanted to hire. This lady told Gayle she had just torn up her license. Gayle asked if it was still in the trash and could she tape it back up. Gayle offered this agent freedom to make her own hours if she would come and teach Gayle everything she knew. The agent worked at Old South Land Title.

One day, Mike Chesser, co-owner and President of Old South Land Title called Gayle to ask her to manage Old South. He had noticed Absolute Title. A week later, he suggested a merger. Gayle’s boss agreed to step aside and Absolute Title was dissolved. It made sense since Old South had been in business since 1987.

The market was terrible in early 2000. Gayle suggested she and Mike not take a salary and Mike, as owner of the building, would not collect rent for three months. If they didn’t turn things around in those three months, then they would have tried. Mike Chesser thought anyone willing to do that deserved a 50/50 partnership, not the 25% they had agreed to.

Gayle came into the business during a slow time, survived unprecedented highs, repositioned in 2008, 2009, and during the oil spill in 2010. She listened to the promises of recovery in 2010 that did not materialize until 2012. All these events   caused Gayle to accept the fact that every year you have to evaluate new sets of issues you weren’t planning on.

There were five industry leaders back then. Now there are 160+ title companies or law firms generating deeds in Okaloosa County. Year after year Old South Land Title remains in the #1 or #2 position in the industry. Old South Land Title has done 15,000 closings during Gayle’s 25 years at the company.

Higher interest rates, a pause on military transfers, the economy, and insurance issues are some of the challenges facing the real estate environment today. Gayle knows these challenges will separate those companies who survive from those who won’t. She is always encouraged by the fact that she has seen challenges before. This is not a surprise. If you’ve been here before, you know how to prepare again. Gayle feels it is important to pivot and focus on your areas of expertise.

Gayle is committed to being in the relationship business. She says the procedures may be the same but the people and the properties are different. If you go on autopilot, you will make a mistake. This is a responsibility she does not take lightly. She’s quick to say there is a definite advantage to having a board certified real estate attorney (Mike Chesser) as a partner. There is also value in supporting local businesses. Old South Land Title is a local, home-grown business that supports the families who work there. The money stays in the community as opposed to big corporations from out of our area.

Old South Land Title has three locations and 14 employees. Gayle attributes success to being involved in the day to day decisions and working with staff. Gayle says she was an employee a long time before she wasn’t and will never forget what that feels like. She says, “Life outside the company happens and we are all the sum total of our entire story, not just what happens on the clock.”

All companies have challenges but Gayle feels she and her team are in it together. The title business never gets old. The decision people make to trust Old South is never taken for granted.

Gayle has learned a lot of lessons. She is constantly looking for opportunities to grow and educate, and always remains in learning mode. It is her duty to share the wealth of knowledge she has been privileged to learn. Being nimble is essential. You have to be willing to re-examine and be open to doing things differently. Gayle strongly feels we learn the most when we solve problems together.