GULFPORT — Walking into Poul Hornsleth's office is like traveling back four decades.
Desks and chairs resemble furniture from the Barney Miller sitcom, the long-running TV series in the 1970s. Obsolete electronics fill a desk. A window air conditioner pushes cool air.
The offices of R.W. Caldwell Realty & Insurance have been around more than 75 years. It's Gulfport's oldest business and the oldest real estate firm in Pinellas County. Hornsleth has headed the company since 1974.
The former Philadelphia schoolteacher and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania isn't the typical business executive. He isn't connected to work with a smartphone or laptop. His firm just recently started a website.
Besides buying and selling real estate, the firm offers property management and home, auto and business insurance.
R.W. Caldwell Sr. founded the firm in 1936. His granddaughter, April, has been married to Hornsleth for 44 years. They live about a mile from the office and drive separate cars to work. Still, they have shared the same work office for more than 30 years.
Awards from the NAACP litter desks. Thirty-year old pictures of Little League baseball teams fill another wall.
Hornsleth, 68, also has served on the Florida Real Estate Commission for more than nine years. The state board decides discipline for rogue real estate agents, appraisers and instructors.
Early in his real estate career, he immersed himself in Florida politics and became the chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party.
Hornsleth also founded the Equal Opportunity Housing Committee of what was then the St. Petersburg Board of Realtors in 1978. He believes that discrimination still exists in real estate.
He discussed his business with the Times.
The Internet started more than 15 years ago. The firm recently created a website. What took so long?
Over 200 mom-and-pop real estate shops have come and gone in Pinellas County. My joke was that they all had websites. We did enough business without the Internet and survived nicely. We still worked our 70 hours a week.
With my daughter and son-in-law joining the business, they decided to get it up and running. I have all this technology now. More than 100 people want me to join LinkedIn. The younger generation will eventually take over for the fourth generation and take the business to 100 years. It's fun to have a family business that has been in business this long.
Why have you resisted attempts to franchise with nationally known real estate firms?
We've had opportunities to be many franchises. Many have tried to buy us. The nicest thing that has happened to me is to become a member of the Caldwell family. I feel like we earned our reputation. We don't need to buy it. We got it through hard work and appreciation and by respecting all people. …
People walk in the door and say their parents bought their first house with us in 1958.
What motivates you to serve on the Florida Real Estate Commission?
I am trying to elevate the profession. I have worked very hard to raise the standards. It's a lot of responsibility. The law is written that you can give people second chances. With a very careful eye, we do give second chances. If people are cavalier and just take money for their own use, we try to remove those licensees as fast as possible.
There is still not a vehicle for people to file discrimination complaints. Those have to go to (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) in Atlanta.
What's the biggest challenge to running a family-owned real estate firm?
Running a small business is always controlling a crisis. Controlling the overhead is what I call wrestling an alligator. You're always wrestling an alligator. When the market changed in 2007, every broker I knew who had branches closed those offices.
People increase their overhead during the good times. Unfortunately, they don't know enough how to rein it in in the bad times. My daughter just cut out the coffee service that we paid more than $100 a month. She said we can make our own coffee. She got rid of the postage machine. Time is also one of the biggest issues. Real estate is not a job. It's a life based on service.
Why is one of your passions serving on a local chapter of the NAACP?
I have been on the board since February 1974. My wife and I are both board members. I started teaching in the Philadelphia schools in 1967. For five years, I taught at an all-male and all-black and Puerto Rican school. I taught math and ran the neighborhood youth program. It was the poorest of poorest kids. The Thomas Edison High School lost more kids in Vietnam than any other high school in America.
I drove many kids around to look at colleges on the weekends. I helped dozens of kids improve their lives. I saw kids who didn't have a snowball's chance in hell. I always said those kids gave me more of an education than I ever gave them.
What has changed the most in real estate since 1974?
The sizzle and promotion is much bigger. It still comes down to the basics. Buying and selling is still the same. Everyone is using social media to get people. Their ties to their clients are much less personal. I like the face-to-face and eyeball relationships.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.