When Mom is the Boss: Mothers and daughters who work together develop close, supportive relationships

On the walls of Jennifer Shemwell’s sunny office at the Phyllis Browning Company hang multiple plaques naming her as one of the top 50 Realtors in San Antonio. These badges of honor are given annually by the San Antonio Business Journal, and she has received one every year since 1997 except in 2000. Every real estate agent would be proud of such a record, but for Jennifer this recognition means even more. Since her boss was her own mother, she knew fromthe start thatmuch was expected from her. “I knew all along that I had to prove myself,” says Jennifer, now 38 and the president of the real estate agency. “It was good for me to set my goals high. I needed to establish myself on that (Business Journal) list.” Phyllis Browning, who founded the company in 1989, acknowledges that employing her own child made her especially vigilant. “I always worried that the other agents would think that I was partial to Jennifer,” she explains. “That’s why I was harder on her. I wanted the other agents to respect her.”

With a degree in economics and political science from Yale, Jennifer did not at first intend to join her mother’s business. She dreamed of representing the United States abroad someday, perhaps as an ambassador, but a couple of years out of college she changed her mind and decided to settle in her hometown. Instead of being a diplomat, she would become an ambassador for a corporation and use her people skills that way, she thought. After a stint in Spain and a few local jobs, she accepted Phyllis’ invitation to join her company. The young woman’s first job was to help with the growing relocation business. More people were moving to San Antonio, and her duty was to network with corporations and realtors in other cities to get them to recommend the Phyllis Browning Company to their departing clients. Ever cautious, Phyllis paid her only a modest salary. “I had to support myself on commissions until the department became profitable,” says Jennifer. Eventually, she moved into sales, which is really what she loves to do—hence all those wall plaques.

One thing that Phyllis says she founded her company on is relationships, and she has tried to teach that to her daughter as well as to the 160-plus agents who contract with her agency. “The home is often the largest asset people have. You have to feel honored that they want you to represent them in the sale of that home. It’s a very personal relationship with a client. I believe we should treat people the way we want to be treated ourselves,” says Phyllis. A good real estate agent must also be a good listener who understands the buyer’s goals and can help him/her achieve them in a timely fashion. “If you can make it fun, too, you’ll reduce the stress of the situation and make friends with your clients,” adds Jennifer. And happy clients are loyal clients. Judging by the $650 million in annual sales, the Browning approach is obviously effective. The company handles mostly residential properties, but it also has a farm and ranch department and some commercial sales. Following local housing trends, it has set up offices in various “hot” sections of the wider urban area. The newest addition was about to open in Leon Springs at the time of this writing. At the office Jennifer addresses her mother by her first name, like everyone else. “I have to remember that she is my boss,” she says, smiling. The two don’t really see that much of each other from 9 to 5, often communicating only via phone messages.

But there is no question that mother and daughter have forged a very close relationship that transcends work. Jennifer and her husband and children live next door to her parents in Alamo Heights. The two women frequently take evening walks together, deciding ahead of time whether they would be talking business or chatting about personal matters. The families also attend church together and have brunch afterwards. What’s more, Jennifer is not the only child involved with a family enterprise. Her brother Craig works in the family construction company with their father, James Browning. Naturally, Dad helped build the new Leon Springs office and, for good measure, Jennifer’s hubby, architect Bob Shemwell, designed the elder Brownings’ home. The only “black sheep of the family” is the other brother, John Caleb Browning, who is a physician. They laugh as they recount all of that, aware that their family closeness is somewhat unusual these days. “We are very much alike. I know how she thinks, and she knows how I think,” says Jennifer about herself and her mom. “I don’t have a sister; what it comes down to, she is my closest female friend.”

When Susan Beil Connally first arrived in San Antonio in 1972, she experienced a bit of a culture shock. A graduate of Boston Conservatory who had danced on the stages of Boston and New York and toured all over the United States and Canada, she now found herself in a town with no established dance company and precious few visiting dance shows as well. “All the dance shows went to Dallas or Houston, or even to Austin, but not here,” recalls Susan, who is currently the artistic director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Ballet and the director of Connally’s Dance Workshop, a school that offers classes for both children and adults. For a few years, she did a little teaching at the YMCA and took part in musical theater, but Susan eventually realized that if she wanted “to do something” with her dance experience, she had to open her own studio. “I resisted the idea because the hours are not good if you run a dance studio. Classes are mostly in the evenings and on weekends, and it’s tough on family life,” she says. Nevertheless, Connally’s Workshop opened in 1976 and is still going strong to this day. By that time she had two children, including 3-year-old Karin, who accompanied Mom to the classes. Though she was too young to start ballet, Karin was much taken by what she was seeing. The child’s obvious enthusiasm was enough to convince her mother to give her proper instruction “before she developed some bad habits.”

Today, mother and daughter work side by side, both in the company and in the school. Though she graduated from the same institution as her mom, Karin prefers working behind the scenes rather than performing. At 34, she wears several hats, as SAMet’s administrator, Connally’s Workshop teacher and as a choreographer.
Last spring, her piece Dayfull of Song, performed at the company’s Dance Kaleidoscope 2007 show, won her a scholarship to the Craft of Choreography Conference sponsored by Regional Dance America (RDA), a national association of dance companies. During her two-week conference residency, she created a new ballet, which had its San Antonio premiere April 25 during Fiesta 2008. The piece was also chosen by RDA’s judges for inclusion in the RDA/Southwest regional festival earlier in April. Susan, of course, has been the main choreographer for the company since its inception in the mid-’80s. While she can now afford to bring in guest choreographers to expose her dancers to a variety of styles, there is no doubt that she has shaped her students’ and her daughter’s ideas about ballet. We wondered if Karin is still learning from her mom or is Mom, perhaps, learning something from her daughter. “Our training is similar, so our goals mesh pretty easily,” observes Susan. “I have confidence in her knowledge and talent and feel that she has the best interest of the organization at heart, so I completely trust her. When she choreographs a new piece, I may say something about how I would do it, but I don’t tell her what to do.”

“Oh, but you have a great knowledge of dance and dance history that I come to you for,” adds Karin, addressing her mother. “You are still the teacher in that regard. On the whole, though, we balance each other,” she explains to us. “I am more of a technical person.” What she means by the latter is that she does all the computer work in the place, something that’s still foreign territory to her mom. “I am a dinosaur, I don’t handle computers,” admits Susan. “So I can’t live without her.” The two entities they run are set up differently. While the company is incorporated as a nonprofit with its own board of directors, the school is a for-profit business. The two women often work long hours — “from 9 to 9” — on all sorts of tasks the audiences and their students mostly never see. From applying for grants and recruiting volunteers to designing costumes, planning the productions and booking performance facilities, they put in a whole day of work even before the classes start in the evening.

The weekends are reserved for company rehearsals. SAMet produces two major shows a year — a full-length story ballet at Christmas time and the spring Kaleidoscope, which is a showcase for new choreography by local and national artists. In addition, it performs for a variety of charitable events. Because they run a small operation, the Connallys pretty much behave with each other at work as they would at home. Karin addresses her mother as Mom, sometimes to the amusement of the kids in her class, who don’t always realize that the two are related. It’s not a corporate office, they say. This is a business that attracts parents and children; a family atmosphere is desirable. However, with so many moms around during class times, Susan may not always realize that she is the one being called. “Then I call out ‘Susan Connally!'” says Karin, emphasizing the slightly dramatic tone she adopts for those occasions.

Susan’s husband and Karin’s dad, Michael, is also involved in the operation by being the official photographer and helping here and there when needed. While Karin enjoys her work and appreciates the opportunities she has had to develop as a choreographer, she did not join her mom’s studio right out of college. To test her independence, she spent a little time in New York City and later moved to Chicago, where she worked at the famed Goodman Theater, again behind the scenes. She even tried a non-dance-related job for a while. But Chicago’s weather was harsh, and her mother needed a new teacher down here in San Antonio. She moved back and has not regretted it. Still, it doesn’t mean that she has committed herself to being her mother’s heir. “We have discussions about this all the time,” she says while Susan is smiling quietly. “I am not necessarily taking over the studio when she is ready to stop working. She and I have been clear about that, that I must have the freedom to do what’s best for me. I know how hard it is when you own your own business. It’s never-ending. Right now I can’t fathom doing it all by myself.” But that’s something to ponder in the future. For the time being, there is the fall production of Cinderella to worry about and the Kaleidoscope 2009, and beyond that the RDA/Southwest conference they will host in San Antonio in 2010. The latter is going to be a big job for their small operation, considering that about 750 dancers, choreographers and teachers are expected to attend. “You don’t really think of the work so much as about providing this amazing opportunity for the young dancers,” says Susan.

Long-time San Antonians will probably remember the historic 1985 relocation of the Fairmount Hotel. Curious crowds watched and TV cameras followed as the three-story building inched its way through downtown from its original address on East Commerce — where Rivercenter Mall stands today — to its present location on South Alamo without losing a single brick. Among the anxious onlookers was co-owner Virginia Van Steenberg “clutching her St. Jude medal,” as reported by Lewis Fisher in his book Saving San Antonio. A lawyer and an active member of our famed Conservation Society at the time, Virginia got into the project almost by happenstance. “It just happened,” she says today, recalling the move that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. “The Conservation Society was trying to save the hotel. The mall developers said they would be glad to have someone take it off their site, and they gave us a deadline — March 30 (1985). But we didn’t even know if we could find someone who could execute the move. Once we found Pete Friesen and we became comfortable that Mr. Friesen had the know-how to move the building, we decided to go for it.” The “we” in the last sentence refers to the partnership she formed with King Ranch heir B.K. Johnson and downtown property owner Tom Wright to purchase the hotel for a symbolic $1 and undertake the move. She and Wright had long shared an interest in downtown, so it was natural for him to approach her with this admittedly unusual proposal.

Thanks to Overland Architects, they were able to find Friesen, a man with a national reputation for moving huge manmade structures, including a lighthouse. By the time the project was completed — with major assistance from multiple city departments—the total cost came to $1.2 million, but a piece of local history was saved and a downtown parking lot was replaced by a pretty “new” old hotel. “It was tremendously exciting,” says Virginia. (The partners went on to renovate and run the hotel until they sold it in 1989.) Impressed by what she had already orchestrated, then-mayor Henry Cisneros approached her soon after with another bold idea. “If you can move buildings,” he asked, “do you think you could do something to save the Majestic?” He was referring to the Majestic Theatre on Houston Street and the building that houses it. The idea was not just to save the unique 1929 theater that was sitting idle and falling into disrepair. Cisneros was also concerned about injecting new life into downtown by providing affordable, middle-range housing in the heart of the city. For that, the Majestic and the adjacent Brady Building would have to be redeveloped to accommodate a variety of apartments.

“Are you serious?” was Virginia’s answer at the time, but eventually, the brave-lawyer-turned-businesswoman decided to take on that challenge, too. She conceived a complex public-private partnership that would tackle different aspects of the huge mixed-use project. In the end, while others were taking care of the theaters, the company she founded, the Majestic Development Company (MDC), restored and developed the residential, office and retail components of both buildings. MDC continues to own and operate the two buildings to this day. “It was a heroic effort to get it all done, but I like challenges,” explains Virginia. “As I look back, I can see that I undertook things that other people didn’t want to take on.”

Through it all, however, she has had the help of her daughter, Drusilla, better known as Dru. In fact, Dru became her mother’s right-hand helper when she was still in high school. Back in the ’70s, the Van Steenbergs, including Virginia’s husband, Gustav, were instrumental in founding the Monte Vista Historical Association and obtaining a historic district designation for their beloved neighborhood. Dru helped with the massive pre-computer research necessary to accomplish the tasks. It was an education in historic preservation, says Dru, now in her mid-40s. After college, armed with a degree in communications, she worked for a while for the now defunct San Antonio Festival, but when her mother suggested that the two of them form a new entity, the Van Steenberg Enterprises, Dru jumped ship with no regrets. The new venture was picked by the city to design the strategic planning process for Target 90: Goals for San Antonio, launched by Cisneros in 1983. Mother and daughter worked side by side on all the organizational and promotional aspects of the citywide planning process for 18 months. Those were the crucial months that solidified their future partnership. Dru later coordinated the public relations effort in conjunction with the moving of the Fairmount and marketed the hotel to prospective guests. Today, she is responsible for all the financial aspects of day-to-day operations at the Majestic Development Company. “I never felt like I was in my mother’s shadow,” she says. “With her organizational and my marketing skills, we are a great fit. We always did such interesting things!”

The women share offices in the Towers at the Majestic — as they call their buildings— and just about everything else: holidays, vacations, even the charities they are involved in. Echoing the situation with the Brownings, Dru and her husband, Timothy Cone, live only four houses down the street from her parents.
“If there is one thing I taught my daughter, it’s to appreciate old things,” says Virginia. “I did it specifically so she would appreciate the past, something that was instilled in me, too.” Dru nods emphatically to that. “Mom and Dad would take us antiquing all the time,” she adds. “We also drove the streets around here looking at beautiful old houses, imagining how it would be living in one of them; we loved vintage furnishings.” Indeed. Both couples now live in houses built in the 1920s with plaques placed upfront to tell the world their age and historic pedigree.

For Dru, Mom was the only role model she’s ever needed. She is quick to let us know that Virginia expressed a desire to be a lawyer at the time when women were not even allowed to serve on juries; that she was one of the few female students in her law school class; that she is an initiator. She taught by example, explains the younger woman, who also followed Mom’s footsteps by becoming a dedicated member of the Conservation Society. That passion for preserving the past has led Dru to establish a beer and wine bistro recently in the old Olmos Pharmacy in order to keep the “iconic neighborhood place” alive and vibrant. The bar, where she now spends her evenings as the owner-hostess, is also her first independent venture even though Mom “didn’t think I should be going into the beer and wine business.”

As for Virginia, she obviously enjoys being around her daughter. Asked about the qualities that Dru brings to their joint enterprises, Virginia replies, “Her talents speak for themselves, but her personality is something very special. She has a zest for life, a happy spirit. She just lightens the day. But I also know that if I can’t be there to take care of something, she will do it and do it right.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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