Ken and Karen Speck celebrate Cherie Lindholm’s 40 years



Forty years ago, Cherie Lindholm was the mother of five and the wife of a successful Orcas Island contractor, Art Lindholm. Yet demands for shoes, braces, eyeglasses and the like meant there was “a lot of output and not a lot of income,” said Cherie recently.

She had come to Orcas Island as a child in 1941, and attended school on the island. She worked at the Orcas Hotel for room board and a dollar a day starting at the age of 13, so she was no stranger to hard work, and finding work on “the Rock.”

So in 1964, she asked Sam Buck at San Juan Properties if he could use some help, and when he took her up on it, “it was great fun at first.” She would clean up the office (located at the corner of Main Street and where Orcas Island Realty was located until recently), and soon Buck talked her into taking the state exam to be a licensed salesperson. She didn’t pass the first time, she admits, but after her first sale (for a $60,000) property, she showed her $3,000 commission check to her husband Art who said, “You only worked two days for that!”

The job continued to be “more interesting and fun all the time,” says Lindholm, and within two years she took her broker’s exam and bought the lot from John Mount at the corner of North Beach Road and A Street. Cherie Lindholm Real Estate came into being on March 1, 1968. “When I opened, I was the fourth real estate office and the only woman broker on Orcas Island,” Lindholm said. Charlie Holmes, Dave Church, Chuck Montgomery and Wally Gudgell, Senior worked with her, Gudgell and Montgomery for nearly 18 years.

“The business was very interesting and I learned a lot. I was fortunate to have men who worked with me and made big sales. Bartell’s Resort [now Bartwood] sold three times, and West Beach Resort sold a couple of times.”

The building expanded and Lindholm bought another lot and turned some of the units in the new building into rentals.

“We were all good friends and we met so many wonderful people. In the real estate business, you have to be optimistic, you have to know your material and be outgoing. It was like a game to begin with, and got very serious, but I really enjoyed people, working with and for them. When I first began, a lot of people who’d know me as a teenager were very encouraging, and it gave me confidence and was very rewarding.

“The rewarding fact is that you’ve put seller and buyer together and you’ve made both very happy with the transaction, and with their new placEe.”

Which is not to say it was all a gravy train. “During my years, the business went through four up-and-downs,” says Lindholm, “First in 1972-1973, and then in the ’80s when the interest rates were terribly high.

“It’s just the way it went.”

Lindholm says that her decision in the early 70s to start a rental business was “the bread and butter that kept the doors open in declining sales periods.”

She acknowledges the work Ken and Karen Speck have done in building up the vacation rental program; “I credit Karen highly with that.”

As to the present downturn in real estate, Lindholm, who now divides her time between her homes with Bill Carlson in Palm Springs, Waldron Island, and Bayside Marina on Orcas, says, “It will come back. A presidential election year goes hand in glove with people holding back, waiting to see what happens. And the banking situation is very sad in that people signed up for the variable interest rates and couldn’t make the larger payments and are all of a sudden overwhelmed.”

Ken and Karen Speck left their highly successful midwest radio and TV careers in 1985 to start up a new radio station in the Seattle-Tacoma area. After working for five months to great ratings, but no pay, they traveled to Orcas Island on their new boat to visit Karen’s brother Gary Key, who’d been owner of Key Moped Rentals and Island Chainsaw and Rentals.

Once on the island, they decided to stay, and started looking for work. They went to Wally Gudgell, Sr., then the property manager for Cherie Lindholm, and offered their services as handyman and housecleaner on the four houses Gudgell managed for Lindholm.

“He gave us a shot, and we were reliable, we showed up, and we did the job,” said Ken.

Their partnership with Cherie Lindholm Real Estate was a good thing for all concerned, and Cherie asked the Specks to obtain real estate licenses as, by Washington state law, property managers are required to hold real estate licenses. Within a few years, the business had grown to about a dozen houses. “We were grateful for the opportunity she gave us,” said Karen.

“She had great integrity and a well-respected name, and she was always good to us. She was upfront about giving us the opportunity to take over the business, and when the time came, she was ready to let go and we were ready to step in.”

They never thought about changing the name because of Cherie Lindholm’s reputation, and besides, “It’s first in the book,” says Ken. Three franchises have sought to buy Cherie L. Lindholm Real Estate, but Ken says, “We’re a family, not a franchise. We’ve always treat people like we want to be treated, and it works.” They too recall when deals were sealed with a handshake – “and now it’s 40 pages, and growing!”

After buying the business from Lindholm in 1994, the Specks bought the building in 1998 and renamed it the Key Building.

The Specks note that one element of local real estate that has remained consistent over the years is the decision among island realtors to refrain from posting “For Sale” signs on island properties. “It keeps the landscape uncluttered, and it’s good for the agents, being the ones who provide property information,” says Karen.

She sees the biggest change in recent years is that buyers are much better educated. Along with that is the increase in buyer representation, relatively new in the last 12 to 15 years, Karen says.

“For so long real estate only represented the seller and your duty was to the seller. But Washington state law is a fore-runner in buyer representation, so that most clients are more informed and the situation is fair and honest to both parties.

Ken adds that technology and thet internet has also changed the face of real estate transactions. Buyers can access property information through their computers; it used to be you had to go to the agents. “It saves time in the field, and helps quality buyers to know what they really want, and saves time running around,” says Ken.

Real estate demand is currently for “high upscale homes at reasonable prices,” says Ken. He cites a five to seven-year cycle of huge price increases and sales, followed by a slowdown, and says that only 21 properties have sold on Orcas Island since October 2007.

Meanwhile, the rental side of Cherie Lindholm Realty is going strong; Karen Key Speck has increased the property management business to an average of 100 houses per year, including vacation and long term rentals of residences, retail and businesses.

She is a “strong proponent that rental rates shouldn’t be set to make the owners mortgage payment, but should be what the local community can afford.”

Her job entails credit and background checks, as well as program maintenance and operation, bookkeeping, accounting and taxes.

It also entails inspecting the houses every year and giving reports to the owners. The key to a successful rental business is working with what the owners want. For some the highest rental income is the goal; others want to know that tenants screened by Karen will take good care of the house. “Rental contracts are based “upon the type of owner I’m working with, I have to respect what they want,” says Karen.

As for trends in vacation rentals, “The little funky cabin is rarely in demand. We used to have a lot of them and everybody was happy with them. Now they want a nice, comfortable middle-class home; they still want a bargain, but also more creature comforts, like TV and DSL. Twenty years ago, none of that mattered,” said Karen.

Running the property management business, Karen employs between 22 to 50 people on the island. Looking to the future, as Cherie Lindholm Real Estate’s Broker, Karen would like to hire more agents. “I’m too busy with property management and overseeing the office: we could use a couple more young people.”

Ken says, “It’s a tough business, and unless you have a spouse working or a pension, you may have to weather many months without an income.”

While Ken says that from July to August he may only see Karen about six hours a day, Karen says, “It’s a service business; you have to have answers or find answers and not make the person uncomfortable while you’re doing it.”

A novice artist, Karen’s work has been displayed at Orcas Center, and Ken built her a studio just for painting. Although she imagines it will be many years before her retirement, Karen looks forward to more time to paint.

Maybe after Cherie Lindholm Real Estate’s 50th year in business.