Yvette Acuff of Bluffton is a one-woman think tank. She's nimble with words, insightful about the origins of her progressive ideas and precise about every technological detail that serves her clients.
For the past 40 years, the Charleston native has helped transform the local real estate industry. She almost single-handedly catapulted a multiple listing service that was rudimentary in 1976 - printed sheets of paper that were distributed by real estate agents - into a high-tech, state-of-the-art database service now.
"We only had 13 real estate firms and 76 agents, and they could not really afford and didn't want to take the risk at that time dealing with anything technology-wise," said Acuff, chief executive officer of the Multiple Listing Service of Hilton Head Island Inc. (HHIMLS)
The company now serves more than 200 brokerages, appraisal offices and affiliates, and 1,600 agents in the greater Hilton Head Island-Bluffton area.
In those four decades, Acuff moved at a fast-forward pace, transitioning the industry from mimeographing copies, then publishing and distributing MLS books, to providing online computer services, to amassing internet-based services with multiple ancillary products.
Among the 40 or so paperless technology solutions and services provided to clients via www.HiltonHeadMLS.com are virtual home tours, social media interfacing, complete villa regime data, state tax rolls, statistics and an app.
The privately owned company facilitates $3 billion annually in real estate transactions through its listing platform.
Here's the back story.
Eight years after she moved to the island in 1968, and having earned her real estate broker's license, Acuff was hired to work at the independent HHIMLS a few months after it was chartered as a corporation in May 1976.
"They knew I had an executive background and asked me if I would take a little part-time job," said Acuff, who has a business degree. Before her first year ended, she compiled all of the local listings data, and the company published an MLS book, a charter publication for the industry. Unfortunately, it was outdated by the time it reached clients' hands.
"The multiple listings service started out as loose-leaf notebooks where we got our pages each week and we had to take out the (homes) that sold and expired and had to put in the new listings," said Carl Schroeder, now an agent with Foundation Realty and who was with Bill Jones Realty when it became the first real estate firm to join the HHIMLS.
"The book was sacred," said Charles Sampson, who has been a partner/agent in the north office of Charter One Realty for many years.
The more Acuff learned about the real estate business, the more she knew there was a need for a better way for agents and agencies to share information.
"I saw a need," she said. "We needed a more sophisticated system to communicate and furnish clientele with the tools and technology they needed to move forward in the real estate industry."
In the late '70s, Acuff formed her own spin-off company to fill that need as a vendor to the HHIMLS by providing it with hardware and software services for its clients.
She secured a small business loan from the government, purchased a computer, and installed two telephone lines.
Her new clients paid a membership fee to join and a monthly fee to input and access data.
Sampson, who was the business manager at Hargray at the time, recalls well the circumstances at that time.
"I remember when she came in and got her first phone service and got all the lines for the data," Sampson said. "She had a pretty good sized bill. Like any new business in the beginning, it was tough going. But she kept it together."
"I formed the company for the sole purpose of furnishing a turn-key technology service to the MLS industry," Acuff said.
The board gave her a five-year contract to serve as its vendor and provide services to the company to expand their mission. It also retained her as executive director.
"MLS had no financial responsibility," she said. "I bore the burden of the equipment and everything. It was a high risk for me, because I had to borrow about $75,000 from the bank."
Determination and hard work helped her to dream big.
"I never could have dreamt to the extent that it is now," she said. "I've always been forward thinking though, and so I was always looking for the next tool that would help our industry here move forward and not lag behind."
"Without the working together of all the real estate companies where they share all their information and listings into a central location, we wouldn't be where we are today," Sampson said.
Now, 40 years later, Acuff is hesitant to take credit for all the success in building the company. "I've always kept myself very busy," she said. "It's always been about our membership and our industry, not about what I did."
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.