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Bob Cartwright: A whale of a real estate tale

By Staff | Nov 4, 2010


KAANAPALI — Over the years, it could be argued, a Chart House cook transferred from California to Maui, who later became a waiter, has become the most influential and successful real estate broker on Maui.

He’s affable, astute Bob Cartwright, co-owner with wife Tess of Whalers Realty Inc., the largest independent real estate firm on the West Side.

In the business of helping people enjoy the benefits of Maui, as he puts it, the hardworking Cartwright has been watching and participating in the mostly ups — and sometimes downs — of West Side real estate over three decades.

After a few stints with other firms, Cartwright ended up in 1982 in the office of Jack Kelley, one of Whalers Realty’s four partners. A short but sweet hiring interview went this way, Bob reported:

Kelley: I hear you want to work for us, and I like the fact that you have a track record representing developers on new projects. I hear you are pretty good. I think you could make a contribution. But let me tell you how it works around here. If you ever come into my office and ask me a question, you are fired.

Cartwright: I’m a big boy. I think I can handle that.

Kelley: Well, get the hell out of here. You’re hired.

In 1981, Bob met Tess Hallmark, an artist, on a cruise ship off Hawaii Island. He was there on business, and she was drawing caricatures, dabbling in real estate and looking for someone to dance with.

The two joined Whalers Realty together and began running ads using the phrase, “Ask for the Best,” patterned after the Biblical phrase “ask and thou shalt receive” to distinguish themselves from other agents.

Kelley, in ill health, later sold them the firm in 1993. Soon, “Ask for the Best” became the slogan of the entire company and applied to all of its agents, who now gather to shout it out in TV commercials.

Fast growth brought the 34-year-old Whalers Realty from six agents in the early 1980s to 35 at the peak under the Cartwrights’ ownership and sales of at least $100 million a year. Agents during this tough market now number 24.

Mellowing after years in the business, riding the peaks and valleys as real estate soared or collapsed, Cartwright’s philosophy is that what Realtors do is not so much selling real estate but helping people with transitions in their lives.

The Cartwrights have seen it all: years when 12 percent interest was considered normal, times of difficult markets in 1982 and 1992 and frenzied times of skyrocketing prices, when almost everything quickly sold.

The first phase of North Kaanapali’s 336-unit Papakea Resort, for example, sold slowly. But a second phase sold out in 1978 before completion. Demand was so high that some second phase units were sold three times before they were finished. The first buyer would sell and take a profit, and the second buyer would profit by selling to a third buyer before anyone had even moved in.

Cartwright said the peak of all peaks was 2005. Across from what is now Times Market, the first phase of the luxury Honua Kai Resort, with some three-bedroom units priced in the millions of dollars, sold out that year in just eight hours. Buyers were even willing to put down the required whopping 20 percent down payment.

“To find other properties for buyers, we literally had to cold call to find people willing to sell, because we had no inventory. Sellers were getting record high prices, and we were still finding it hard to find properties to get new listings,” he said.

As a market peaks, Cartwright explained, sellers hold out for even higher prices. When the market tips, everyone rushes to sell, and high prices fall quickly.

With the bursting of the 2005 bubble and the market collapse, foreclosures have now risen to unprecedented levels. If there is any good news, Cartwright indicated, it is that West Maui has relatively less inventory than other places on the island where development is rampant.

This is because there is a lot of state-owned land in the area, and huge agricultural tracks are difficult to convert to urban use. The development process is more arduous and slower.

According to the broker, the slower process is good.

“I’m in the business. I represent developers, but I am not in favor of unfettered growth. We don’t want to be like Honolulu,” he said.

On the other hand, the Realtor declared that some growth is desirable. “You have to have some growth unless people stop having babies,” Cartwright commented.

So what is next for real estate in West Maui? Watch Orange County, California. We tend to lag what they do by about six months.

(In the next column, Cartwright tells how a certain former cook has been influencing the expansion of Kaanapali, how Maui real estate impacts the lives of buyers and what to expect in the years ahead.)