CURRENT March/April 2018

Rita Santamaria rushes into the Galleria-area Champions School of Real Estate office on a busy Wednesday morning. Polished and poised, the petite president chides the rush-hour traffic while warmly exchanging hugs with everyone she encounters. Employees, guests and students alike seem to wait in line to greet the diminutive founder.

Santamaria’s gold charm bracelet jingles musically as she waves and says hello to her associates. The charm bracelet, according to Santamaria, was a gift to herself and a reminder of the many life achievements she has tackled. Each golden trinket is a dedication to a personal win or a professional accomplishment.

“I believe you should gift yourself upon reaching your goals,” she said. “I encourage my employees and students to do just that. Whether it’s a spa treatment, a piece of jewelry or even a car, I believe in celebrating hard work and commitment. These charms are my trophies.”

Santamaria has a history of driven performance. Raised in southern Florida, she attended Florida State University, where she obtained a bachelor of science degree in education. After moving to Plano and teaching for a couple of years, she found herself seeking a new career path.

“My father, a vegetable farmer, suggested I try real estate,” she recalled. “I gave myself one year. If I could make the same income as I did as a school teacher, I would make the switch. Well, not only did I make it, but I beat it. That’s when I presented myself with the bracelet and first charm as ‘Rookie of the Year’ at my brokerage.”

Santamaria moved here to Houston in 1981 and received her broker’s license. Shortly after, a unique opportunity presented itself. Representatives from Houston Community  College, upon learning of her real estate knowledge and background in education, contacted her about teaching a real estate class.

“I was in my late 20s then,” Santamaria said. “I accepted, although I had only one weekend to plan. But, I did it, and during that semester, I truly fell in love with teaching adults.”

The confident Santamaria had deftly forged her two callings, education and real estate.

That experience prompted her to partner with Sharon Teusink, a fellow educator with real estate skills, and start a real estate school in Houston’s northwest side. In December 1983, the Champions School of Real Estate opened its doors. The facility contained two classrooms in a one-story business park, located off FM 1960 in front of the Old Oaks neighborhood. The location proved convenient for the two working mothers, who resided nearby and whose children could bike there and complete their after school homework.

With no additional funding yet to hire instructors, Santamaria and Teusink developed the entire curriculum and taught every class offered, be it during day, evening or weekend hours. As one was in the classroom, the other answered phones, registered students and made coffee and popcorn. The two also practiced real estate on the side and presented their programs across the state to help pay for bills, rent and textbooks.

Renowned real estate attorney Chuck Jacobus was the first hired to teach. Santamaria and Teusink were using Jacobus’ textbook in their classes, and they believed he would draw students with his reputation as a quality field expert. Jacobus retired from Champions in 2017. Other instructors with Champions for more than 25 years include Allan Hancock, Peggy Rudolph, Dorothy Haley, Paul St. Amand and Kristin Wilson.

Within four years of opening, Champions School of Real Estate expanded to the Galleria area. Soon after, Teusink opted to leave and become a manager with Gary Greene Better Homes and Gardens, Santamaria then found herself alone at the helm and faced with new challenges. She knew she and the company had to grow to build success. Along with instructors Hancock and Rudolph, she toured and taught additional classes in meeting rooms across the state.

“I literally connected the dots backwards,” said Santamaria. “I began by teaching and then went into real estate and marketing. After that, I grew the company by teaching real estate for years in every Texas metro area. Allan Hancock, Peggy Rudolph, Paul St. Amand, and I were everywhere in Texas.”

Santamaria’s momentum snowballed in the 1990s. With her programs increasing participation, she decided to leave the classroom, write her own Champions’ textbooks and focus on opening more schools in other markets. Ensuring quality instruction in her absence was key.

“There’s a benefit of going through the school rather than tackling certification on your own,” she noted. “Our teachers are still active in real estate. They must have five years of teaching experience and five years in the subject they are to instruct.”

Indeed, Santamaria’s instructors follow a stringent process, including group interviews, observation, presenting and coaching with teacher liaisons, before they are given the green light to teach Champions classes.

In 1998, a very special pros- pective employee approached Santamaria. Kimberly Dydalewicz, her daughter, graduated from Louisiana Tech University and expressed interest in working at Champions. This was a surprise to Santamaria who felt her child should first seek employment elsewhere.

“I felt it might be best if Kimberly not work with mom, but she was determined to get a job with Champions,” smiled Santamaria. “Kimberly knew of a counselor position that would soon post. She came to the house, rang the doorbell, and showed up in her suit with her resume in hand. I rigorously interviewed her for four hours and, ultimately, hired her to manage the Galleria office. She has been great and instrumental in growing Champions School of Real Estate. She has picked up and moved herself and her family to San Antonio, Plano and Ft. Worth to open new campuses.” In 2014, Dydalewicz was promoted to the role of president.

Champions School of Real Estate now includes campuses in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston West, North Austin and Ft. Worth. With 60 employees (more than half with Champions for at least 12 years), Santamaria and her team register more than 50,000 courses per year.

“There are no automated voices here,” comments Santamaria. “No matter what we do, we all answer phones by the third ring. Word of mouth is our best form of advertising. Our career counselors are smart, kind and caring. Our students feel it and return year after year.”

Santamaria’s students get personalized service and select from a wide variety of classes offered in brick-and-mortar schools, off-campus sites and online. They walk into campuses where instructors and proctors work in studios and oversee computer-connected participants as well as lecture in face-to-face sessions. Free coffee and breakfast are provided, since, according to Santamaria, many students are working parents who first need to get children off to school. She also believes students perform better with food in their tummies.

Santamaria enjoys professionally developing her students and watching them evolve into independent real estate practitioners. “I am so appreciative and blessed. I love what I do,” she says. “I see folks changing their lives. Some have been laid off. Some didn’t like previous jobs. People like taking control and being their own boss.”

For many students, the goal is to obtain a license as quickly as possible. Motivated individuals can complete the program in as short as six weeks.

“Eligible students can apply for the state exam and literally change careers within two months,” she said. “They can progress at their own pace. And, they can take online classes from anywhere, as long as they have a computer and can fit it into their lifestyles. I see online students from around the country, taking courses from home offices and porches, with dogs in their laps or children playing in the background.”

Real estate professionals are recognized and rewarded for their accomplishments, as Santamaria practices what she preaches. A Wall of Fame featuring countless photographs of smiling top-performers is prominently situated in the campus entrance, welcoming all who pass. Top-performers are invited as guest speakers in Santamaria’s video shows, in standing-room-only panel discussions and in classes.

With Texas’ real estate market thriving and beating previous years’ numbers, Santamaria keeps her classes current and on-trend. Content introduces students to recent software and technology and details the latest marketing techniques.
“We teach generational selling, social media marketing and leading-edge, artificial intelligence usage,” she mentioned. “Today’s homebuilders offer virtual reality tours that give buyers more product options. Real estate representatives need to know the tools out there.”

Expansion remains Santamaria’s priority, and she uses her Texas model to open new schools across the nation. Live broadcast and online campuses are popping up in Oklahoma, Florida, Washington, Arizona, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois, Maryland and California.

And, while Santamaria adds campuses and executive duties, she still finds time to educate and inform via guest speaking in all industries on “Building Your Own Business Model” and via informative sessions from her ChampionsLive! video studio in her Galleria office.

A Proust proverb written in magic marker decorates Santamaria’s boardroom chart. It reads, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Perhaps this is the heart of Santamaria’s grand quest. Perhaps this is the vision behind each of her gold charms. Perhaps this is the moment she buys another bracelet.

Lisa Bunse is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.