It may be a “man’s world” in some people’s view, but some women know how to turn that notion to their advantage.

Michael Saunders, the savvy businesswoman behind the successful independent real estate brokerage Michael Saunders & Co., admits her unusual first name helped along the way.

“My name definitely helped,” Saunders said. “People thought I was a man and it let me get my foot in the door and I never removed it.”

Like many real estate titans, Saunders’ first career was in a different field. She graduated college with a history and psychology major and worked as a probation officer before entering real estate.

“I had a guardian angel that co-signed a $5,000 note for me and gave me the capital to open up the company in 1976,” she said.

Being a parole officer wasn’t exactly an ideal situation for a single mother. “Being chased by folks with butcher knives and broken Coke bottles didn’t lend itself to being a single mother,” Saunders said. “The pay wasn’t wonderful, so I had to look at my skills, get my priorities straight and take care of my son.”

Saunders realized some of the same skills needed to be a parole officer would transfer well into real estate — communication, motivation and problem-solving skills. “And I didn’t have to go down to the county jail at 2 a.m,” she said.

Michael Saunders & Co. is based in Sarasota, Fla., and has more than 400 sales associates and 180 staff members in 17 offices in the state from Anna Maria Island to Boca Grande. Last year, the company generated more than $2.5 billion in sales.

Saunders sees large “super firms” as a new threat to smaller brokerage companies. “I think having your name on the door and allowing the consumer to pick up the phone and get an answer to a question is very positive,” she said. “I think consumers are tired of the voicemail run-around. I spent 30 years establishing a company that has the depth and breadth and financial resources so that we can compete against the super firms.”

Michael Saunders & Co. has been recognized as one of Florida’s top independent real estate firms and ranked among the top woman-owned companies in the state. The company offers a range of customer-oriented services, which include residential and commercial sales, new home marketing, commercial property management, resort management and corporate relocation. In addition, the company expanded its services to include MSC Mortgage and MSC Title.

Saunders believes in the power of one-stop shopping in real estate, and Michael Saunders & Co. has expanded its services to include MSC Mortgage and MSC Title. “Having one-stop shopping empowers both the consumer and the real estate associate. It allows the associate not to lose control and prevents the consumers from getting bogged down,” she said.

“There has been a dramatic shift from us being in charge to the consumer being in charge,” Saunders said. “That is a healthy change. The Internet has changed the real estate world. There is no such thing as being a keeper of information anymore; it’s all accessible to the consumer.” Consumers today are more educated, and agents need to be there to help them analyze the information they’ve collected, she added.

Saunders has served on many boards including those of Mote Marine Laboratory, The Argus Foundation and The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Her firm has been recognized as one of the top 500 women-owned businesses by Working Woman magazine. In 2004, Saunders was honored with statewide recognition by Ernst & Young as the Entrepreneur of the Year.

Michael Saunders & Co. also underwrites the Children’s Write-A-Play Program at Florida Studio and has underwritten the H. Lee Moffitt Breast Cancer Awareness Luncheon for the past seven years.

Saunders has one son, Drayton Saunders, who joined the company in 2002 and currently serves as president of MSC Title and MSC Mortgage.

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