WRITTEN BY LORIE WOODWARD CANTU
In the mid-1980s, early in his ranch real estate career, Joel Leadbetter found himself sitting in a back seat of the Hall and Hall plane. At the time, Leadbetter was co-owner of the Leadbetter Land Company. The group was flying from Montana to Pinedale, Wyoming, to visit a ranch owner whose children had attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Leadbetter, a Cal Poly graduate and rodeo athlete, had been included because of his friendship with the children. Future colleagues Jim Taylor and Doug Hart, brokers at Hall and Hall, were discussing their upcoming schedules and hiring a helicopter to fly a potential buyer prospect over a ranch.
For a moment, Leadbetter, a ranch kid from Ennis, Montana, began to question whether he was over mounted. Then, the chatter on the headphones was drowned out by his dad’s voice delivering a piece of time-tested cowboy wisdom.
“Never yell whoa in a bog.”
Leadbetter knew, then, it was up to him to make things happen. His ability to turn challenges into opportunities and to move deals forward has become a hallmark of his 30+ year career.
“I’m not much of a process guy,” he said. “I tend to be a results guy—and most everybody I work with is hard-wired that way, too.”
In 1988, he became a partner at Hall and Hall where he has been instrumental in completing complicated, high-profile deals such as the recent sale of Texas’ historic 512,000-acre Waggoner Ranch. He represented the buyer, Stan Kroenke, in a transaction that essentially settled a 24-year-old-lawsuit. He also worked with Kroenke, in 2004, to acquire the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, the largest ranch in Canada, which at the time was an asset in the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history. They had to negotiate with Alix Partners, a workout firm from Chicago, and the corporate bankruptcy attorneys while getting approval of the sale by a federal bankruptcy court in New York State.
“Typically in the ranch brokerage business deals that complex are very rare,” Leadbetter said. “We tackled these because Stan has incredible experience dealing with complicated deals in his business arenas. Every day, every deal I learn a lot from him. It has been invaluable.”
While the challenge of the deal invigorates him, it’s the never-ending parade of people that keeps Leadbetter engaged in the ranch real estate business. In any given week, Leadbetter may fly around the country in a private jet with a Forbes-recognized businessman and sit down in the kitchen of an 80-year-old rancher to drink coffee and discuss the sale of his legacy ranch.
“I work with people from every walk of life and every income standard,” Leadbetter said. “Regardless of their bank accounts, character is character. I’m blessed to work with good, good people.”
The Road to Ranch Real Estate
Leadbetter grew up on the Valley Garden Ranch, a commercial cattle operation encompassing 8,000 deeded acres near Ennis, Montana, population 650. While he learned the principles of agribusiness from the ground up, he also learned to think independently.
“When I was a kid, my dad used to say, ‘Move those 300 cows to that pasture,’” Leadbetter said. “That was the sum total of the instructions. It taught me to be a problem solver.
“Growing up, I used to joke that my whole goal in life was finding the easiest route between Point A and Point B. Depending on your perspective, it could either be considered efficient or lazy,” he said, laughing.
In reality, lazy wasn’t an option. An old cowboy who made his living working on Montana’s big spreads once told Leadbetter that he chose his employers based on whether or not they had lights in their barns. According to the cowboy, lights in the barn meant the hands were expected to start work before daylight and keep working way past sundown. The cowboy jokingly said he tried to avoid the places with lights.
“My dad had lights in the barn,” Leadbetter, whose job was to wrangle and grain the horses in the morning before the cowboys arrived, said. “We were ‘strongly encouraged’ to be the first one to the barn and do more than our share.”
His work ethic served him well as he left the ranch to attend college at Cal Poly. He was drawn to the school’s rodeo team and its agriculture program.
“Cal Poly was to rodeo what Notre Dame was to football,” Leadbetter, who competed as a team roper and a calf roper at the collegiate level, said. “Plus, its ag school is top-notch—and at the time I planned on running one of the major agribusiness corporations.”
Interviews with a couple of corporations taught him a thing or two about himself.
“I discovered quickly through the interview process that I wouldn’t like politically correct corporate politics and a staid business environment,” Leadbetter said.
He returned to the family ranch in 1980 and spent his time moving cattle, irrigation pipes and doing all the other chores expected of ‘entry level’ ranch hands. In 1981, Leadbetter ventured into a real estate. It was not foreign territory. His mother worked at a local brokerage and his maternal grandfather had been one of the first licensed real estate brokers in Montana. He joined the firm where his mother worked, but within two years they left to open their own brokerage.
“It was 1983. I was 26 years old,” he said. “I went off and started my own company, Leadbetter Land Company, with my mother.”
In 1987, the Leadbetter Land Company became an affiliate office, of Hall and Hall. One year later, Leadbetter joined Hall and Hall as a partner.
Hall and Hall: The Model
All partners at Hall and Hall share in each other’s successes. Expenses are taken off the top and then all commission income is divided among partners based on partnership shares. The number of shares per partner is determined by seniority and other factors.
“There is no other brokerage in the ranch real estate world of our size and scale that operates in this model,” Leadbetter said. “While we get jokes about our ‘socialist model,’ it’s incredibly effective for our clients and customers. Everyone on our team operates at a very high level—no one wants to be the guy who doesn’t deliver.”
Celebrating its’ 70th anniversary in 2016, Hall and Hall is built on a longstanding tradition of delivering superlative service for its clients. Henry Hall Sr. and his sons, Warren and Henry Jr., founded Hall and Hall Mortgage Company in 1946 as the exclusive correspondent for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, a major lender to the agricultural community at that time.
They headed west seeking opportunities in the booming optimism of post-World War II America, eventually choosing Denver as their new home base. In 1954, Warren moved to Billings, Montana, opening an additional location of the thriving business, while Henry Jr. continued with his father in Denver.
These businesses operated independently until 2000 when the Montana office recognized a need to expand into the southern Rockies and Plains states. Instead of operating in overlapping territories, it made sense to merge the two firms creating an expansive, effective umbrella. Today, there are 13 offices located from Ketchum, Idaho, to College Station, Texas, performing under the Hall and Hall brand.
Through the years, the company added complementary divisions to meet the needs of their growing client base. Over time, it developed into a ‘one-stop shop’ for people who are interested in land as an investment and an enterprise. Today, the service lineup of Hall and Hall includes: traditional brokerage, auctions, finance, appraisal and farm and ranch management.
“They’re all complementary, fee-based businesses,” Leadbetter said. “Each one carries risk of not being successful if the division doesn’t deliver the high-quality services that generate more business.”
The small risk is mitigated by the benefit of having multiple points of entry into the business for potential clients. For instance, clients purchasing a ranch, even if they’re using another broker, may take advantage of the finance services offered by Hall and Hall, which can potentially generate business for the appraisal division and the management division. By the time, the clients are ready to invest in more land or divest of those holdings, they’ve already done so much business with Hall and Hall that the next transaction is a natural progression in the relationship.
“Once we get clients in the door—no matter which door—we do everything in our power to provide the type of service that keeps them there,” Leadbetter said. “Constant contact through all of these enterprises keeps us top of mind.”
The ongoing relationship between Hall and Hall and its clients is initially built on responsiveness.
“In this day of immediate communication, business people have to respond—not a day later, not two days later, but as soon as possible,” Leadbetter said. “People don’t want to wait.”
The other and even more crucial element of building an ongoing relationship is trust.
“I was taught a man’s word is his bond—and I still believe in the binding power of a handshake,” Leadbetter said. “At Hall and Hall, we operate on old-school principles because our clients deserve—and expect—honesty, integrity and personal accountability. Our brand is built on trust.”