By Carrie Resch, Contributing Writer
Leona Brown has always considered herself a “people person.”
Her career trajectory was positioned mostly on what jobs were available.
But ultimately, Brown’s path has woven a web of interconnectivity that has prepared her to be director of the St. Johns Builders Council, a position she has held for 15 years.
“My years of work have been very enlightening, as to a learning experience for different avenues, but all really combined,” she said.
Gregarious by nature, Brown started her career in the hospitality business. She believes her role as director is similar because her top priority is making members happy.
Brown has approached the position as members pay dues to essentially have her work for them.
“If we didn’t have the members, I wouldn’t have a job,” Brown said. “We are a membership organization. You pay dues to put me here to do stuff for you. That’s the way I’ve always felt.”
An undulating career path
Brown was born and raised in the Bahamas. It was there she met her first husband, an American, and the two moved to Miami when she was 22.
In 1972, they began working at the Flamingo Lodge Marina and Outpost Resort in Everglades National Park. Her husband managed the resort and she managed the hotel.
Three years later, the couple relocated to Lake Worth where Brown attended Palm Beach Junior College, studying business administration and management.
A year and another relocation later, Brown went to work for the ITT Community Development Corp. in Palm Coast, managing the Sheraton Palm Coast Resort for two years.
She enjoyed the hospitality business — especially the challenge of satisfying disgruntled customers — but running a hotel while raising two young kids became too much.
Brown requested a transfer and was moved to sales administration, where she processed real estate contracts for the next 10 years.
The other side
Brown left ITT, moved to St. Augustine and took a yearlong sabbatical that included a visit to her parents in the Bahamas.
When she returned, she went to work for the St. Augustine Beach Building Department.
“I had the background in real estate, so when I switched over to the building department, I’m seeing the other side of it,” Brown said.
The builders came in and applied for permits. “The first person they saw was me,” she said.
Brown would check the permit to make sure everything was there to give to the plans examiner.
After about five years, she was lured away by Tom Coates, owner of St. Augustine-based Coates Construction Co., to be the office manager. She worked there for four years.
It’s hard to always be cheerful, but Brown is, Coates noted.
She’s also efficient, has a great memory for detail, always returns phone calls and is concerned about her job and her people overall, he said.
“I really wanted someone like that to work with me and for me and represent my company,” Coates said.
A call from the builders council
In 1999, Brown moved back to Palm Coast and went to work at SeaGate Homes, a homebuilder in Palm Coast.
About a year into the job, Brown got a call out of the blue from Debbie Pacetti, the director of the St. Johns Builders Council, to see if she would be interested in interviewing for the job.
Hesitant at first because of the commute from Palm Coast to St. Augustine, she started getting phone calls from council board members, including Coates, who encouraged her to interview.
“It’s a one-person operation and that person has to be totally independent and responsible,” said Coates, adding he knew Brown was more than capable of running the council.
She has been the director of SJBC, a builders’ council under the Northeast Florida Builders Association, since 2001.
Her background in both real estate and building made her qualified because she understood both sides.
“Builder/Realtor is all connected,” she said.
As director, Brown plans and puts together events and oversees committees for the annual events, including the council’s golf tournament, fishing tournament and the St. Johns County Parade of Homes.
“It’s a lot of planning, phone calling, meeting with members,” Brown said. “And it’s fun; I enjoy it.”
Her enjoyment stems from seeing successful events. She meticulously plans so members “get the best bang for their buck and enjoy themselves.”
The biggest challenges, Brown said, are not only convincing people it’s worthwhile to join NEFBA, but also informing members that they get out of the membership what they put into it.
“There are a lot of people that join and think, ‘Well, just because I’ve joined, I’m going to get all of this business,’” she said.
Not so, says Brown.
“We give you the tools — membership meetings, functions to go to — but you need to go and sell yourself,” she said.
The majority of the council’s members are associates, who join to get business from the builders.
Most of the time, the builders already are doing business with other companies, so it’s up to new members to sell themselves, Brown said.
“That’s the challenge of any of the new members that come in — to convince them to give it everything you’ve got,” Brown said. “You’ve got to go to these meetings.”
Besides networking, membership has a number of other advantages, according to Brown, one of which is advocacy.
A portion of members’ dues goes to the Florida Home Builders Association and the National Home Builders Association.
When an issue arises that would negatively impact builders, the associations will advocate for the industry.
“You have three organizations (including NEFBA) there that are looking out for your interest in the building industry,” she said.
A family affair
On the flip side, Brown’s daughter, Lise Tomlinson, is the membership and education coordinator for the St. Augustine & St. Johns County Board of Realtors.
Like her mother, Tomlinson is outgoing and enjoys working with people.
Tomlinson had just moved to St. Augustine from Alaska when the job opportunity became available.
Brown, whose office used to be in the St. Augustine & St. Johns County Board of Realtors building, heard about the position and gave her daughter a glowing recommendation. That was nine and a half years ago.
“I grew up with a wonderful role model, so it was kind of easy to follow in her footsteps,” Tomlinson said. “If I need anything or have any questions, she’s always there for me.”
The pair sees one another quite often — at least once a month, for sure. Every month, the SJBC board has its meeting at the St. Augustine & St. Johns County Board of Realtors office.
“She’s the most wonderful person you could ever meet,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson’s older brother, Dan Tomlinson, lives in Hawaii and is a captain for Hawaiian Air.
Brown has two grandchildren: A 24-year-old granddaughter stationed at Jacksonville Naval Air Station by her daughter and a 7-year-old grandson by her son.
She also has a stepson by her husband, Jerry Brown, a retired construction network manager for AT&T in St. Johns County, whom she married in 2000.
Her stepson, Steven Brown, works in movie production and lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.