When Jim Johansson officially retired at the end of last year, the island native likely ended the longest tenure of a real estate professional who was ever licensed to sell off pieces of the rock.
Amiable and eternally optimistic, Johansson got into the business almost as an afterthought in 1952 and then spent more than 50 years turning property over again and again. And again. In a way, he was born to promote and entice people to join him on the island he loved.
“It was a natural situation for me,” he said recently as he and his wife, Anne, a Bainbridge High teacher for some 30 years, readied to leave their Rolling Bay home for their annual wintertime sojourn to Palm Springs.
“I was born and raised here and knew a lot of people so it was easy for me. When I got started I just sent out notes to people I grew up with or knew, and off we went.”
The son of a maritime captain who settled here in 1914, Johansson graduated from BHS in 1941 and spent most of the next 10 years elsewhere – first as a U.S. Navy officer and then as a law student at the University of Montana. He planned to practice law, but he gravitated more toward sales when it came time to go to work.
Johansson returned home in 1952 and was fortunate to be hired by Henry Broderick Inc., which at the time was perhaps the most successful real estate firm in Seattle.
He was hired “on probation,” but on his first day he sold – to his cousin, no less – a house along the West Seattle waterfront for $18,000 in cash and the probationary status disappeared. He started working on Bainbridge in 1953.
“The idea was for me to work on the island and eventually open an office if everything went well,” he said. “I had to go over to the home office in Seattle twice a week, but my office at first was my car, practically. I worked out of my house and closed deals in Seattle. We opened a full-time office in Winslow after about six months.”
Despite his enthusiasm and ties to the community, he said, the presence of an agent representing a large Seattle company was resented at first by the few real estate companies on Bainbridge at the time.
“But eventually they realized a big company would bring more business to the island and we all worked well together,” he said. “In those days we gave referrals to each other. We were competitive, but we helped out whenever we could.”
The land grab that eventually hit the island was nowhere in sight since the Agate Pass Bridge had just been built and the state was only a couple of years into its purchase of the old Black Ball ferry system.
“It was kind of dead here to begin with because there really wasn’t any development,” he said. “Later in the ’50s, people from Bellevue and Seattle discovered us because it was so convenient for them to take the ferry here for a look-see. But they were mostly buying acreage or small, existing homes.”
He estimated that waterfront lots were selling for around $3,500 at the time, depending on where they were located. Now, those same lots would be a hundred times more expensive.
But the sleepy little island finally came alive in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the community’s fledgling building industry responded to the fact people from the Seattle area had begun to realize they could commute here without a huge change in their lifestyles. It was nothing like the invasion that occurred in the ’90s, but it set the stage.
“By then we had an office in the old Bainbridge Review building down close to the ferry dock,” Johansson said. “People would leave their cars over in Seattle and walk to our office. I think at first it was just a fun day trip, but once they got here they realized it was pretty nice.”
The influx quickly led to larger developments, especially on acreage closest to the ferry such as Wing Point and the uplands.
“That was the most prized property early on and once that started filling up there was no turning back,” he said.
One of Johansson’s most memorable sales was the waterfront property at the tip of Wing Point, which had been owned for decades by Charles Black, owner of Seattle Hardware Co.
Johansson learned in 1964 that Black wanted to sell the five-bedroom house and land at the northeast tip of Eagle Harbor, which he eventually sold to Sen. Warren Magnuson in June 1965 for $55,000.
Johansson made a $4,000 commission off the sale of a home and property that he estimates is worth more than $4 million today.
“Maggie wanted it as a getaway because it was private and he could come and go at night in a helicopter and no one would know it,” Johansson said. The powerful politician, who loved the Puget Sound, held on to the property until 1988 – a year before he died in Seattle.
Broderick sold the island business to Coldwell Banker in the late 1980s and eventually Johansson started his own firm (now Johansson Clark).
“It was always fun or I wouldn’t have been in it,” Johansson said. “The best part was the fantastic people I worked with, that and the fact that we succeeded beyond our expectations. “
He mentions associates Bud Lundgren, Bill Barrow, Julia Minnick and Mary Lou Fiander – just to name a few – as key people who helped keep him in business for so long.
But he saves most of his praise for secretary Betty Hodgson, who worked for him for about 25 years.
“I put an ad in the paper and she took charge as soon as she walked in the door,” he said. “I don’t know why she chose me; she could have worked for anyone she wanted. She was the best. In that business, it’s critical that you have a darn good secretary to cover your tracks.”
It also helps if you know nearly everyone in town.