SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio -- This year, we are profiling people who work hard and play hard, but also give back to the community in profound ways, both through their paid work and through their volunteer efforts.
Cathy and Jim LeSueur of Shaker Heights are known as a power couple in real estate and in community and charity work. The pair, who've been married for 36 years, sell homes through Howard Hanna, a job that often has them working 60 or 75 hours a week.
They are among their company's heaviest hitters, averaging $2 5 million a year in sales. Cathy has won her company's prestigious agent-of-the-year Marcus L. Smythe award, which recognizes professionalism, integrity and service. She's been the top seller in the Shaker office each year since 1998.
More interesting: When they're not helping people in Greater Cleveland buy and sell their homes, the LeSueurs have been involved in causes ranging from Project Learn, to coaching youth baseball, to fundraising for the Shaker schools, to missionary work in El Salvador through St. Dominic's Church.
"If the city calls, if the school calls, if the church calls, if someone asks us to do something, sure, we'll give it shot," Jim said. "Will you coach baseball? Sure. Will you help with this fundraiser? Sure. We don't run from that stuff."
Being involved in the community and volunteering are just part of the life balance for the LeSueurs.
"How can you not do it? We are pretty passionate people," Jim said. "When we have seen a problem or an opportunity, we just kind of jump in. It is really an emotional response. We are truly grateful for what we have. And we are sharing people . . . We all need to open our hearts and give a little more."
"We enjoy giving back," Cathy added. "This gives us a lot of satisfaction. It just makes our lives that much richer."
Jim, 6 3 , and Cathy, 61, came from vastly different backgrounds. Jim grew up in the '60s in middle-class Maple Heights, then a popular community for Italian families, and went to St. Peter Chanel High School in Bedford because he wanted the challenge of a private school. He earned a scholarship to Case Western Reserve University but chose Kent State instead, because Case still would have cost his parents a significant amount of money after the scholarship. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and English and later, a master's degree in business from Cleveland State, and completed two years of theological studies at John Carroll University .
Cathy, on the other hand, grew up in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood during the race riots. She was the oldest of five children with a largely absentee mother and difficult home life. She moved out before she even finished high school at Collinwood. Only years later did she get her GED.
"I think leaving home at a young age and being on my own and learning to do things, I learned how to survive," Cathy said. "Because of the lack of love in my own home and because I had to take care of my brothers and sisters, I have a very nurturing kind of background. I'm all about people."
Jim said each of them had a heart for giving, "but it really took off when we got together." They met while working at a telecommunications company in 1976 and married in 1979.
Jim has been involved as a volunteer tutor with Project Learn, which teaches adults to read. He has also coached rec baseball for more than 10 years. "I liked 9 and 10 year olds because they would listen to you. And with that age, it was a new-enough experience for the parents that they wouldn't get on your case."
Other volunteer efforts:
Cathy has taught classes to children at church, and served on Shaker's Night for the Red & White committee to raise money for arts, humanities, technology, health and fitness in the school district.
Cathy has been recruited by the city at different times to help with community causes, such as serving as an advocate and speaker on behalf of the Winslow Historic District -- a quest that took several years.
The couple has started working with the 1,000 Villages organization, which focuses on improving life in Africa.
The pair have been active in politics, primarily by encouraging people to get out and vote, regardless which candidates or issues they support, Cathy said. "This is your right. This is your vote."
The pair sort of stumbled into real estate at different times. Cathy had worked in retail (as a n office manager and buyer for 13 Naturalizer shoe stores). Jim worked in advertising and marketing. After the shoe stores were sold and Cathy was trying to figure out a career with no formal education, she decided to get her real estate license in 1982 and found huge success.
Jim remained in advertising, even after getting his real estate license in 1995, in part so she had a man to send out on showings when she got a bad vibe. Jim joined her in real estate full time in 200 3 . She mostly handles sellers. He mostly handles buyers, as well as their marketing and advertising.
The couple also launched a side venture in 2006 -- coffee shops in Solon, Painesville and Slavic Village. They unknowingly opened the shops just as the economy was tanking.
By mid-2007, "the media were saying, 'Don't spend $3 for a latte anymore. Make your coffee at home.' " The LeSueurs shifted the focus of the business. They expanded the menu, got a liquor license and started bringing in entertainment featuring local musicians.
"We scratched every way we possibly could to make some money out of that and it just didn't happen," Jim said. The couple closed the shops in 2010 and took a big hit. The venture "hurt us financially," he said. "We haven't been immersed in doing a lot of stuff the last five years because we had to dig ourselves out of debt. We've done that without turning anyone (any charity) away."
They have two grown children: son, Matt, a real estate agent and musician, and daughter Kate, a high school teacher working on her Ph.D.
Here are excerpts from the rest of our chat last month:
Q: What is the best part of your job? Jim: "For me, it's working with Cath. When we were going to work in different jobs, I had a suit on and she'd get all dressed up and we'd be going in opposite directions. But when we were at our peak during the day, she was over there and I was over here and we were missing the best of what the other had to offer. "We'd come home and we're crabby and we're tired and we'd put the sweats on and it wasn't cool."
"It's good to work with your spouse . . . I have to believe that back in the pioneer days, it wasn't one man doing the work (outdoors) and the woman doing the housework. It was, 'We're in this together.' "
The reasons are different for Cathy. Past customers sometimes think she doesn't handle smaller transactions, like $100,000 or so. They'll call her to ask for a recommendation but she quickly tells them she'll handle any transaction, big or small.
"Yeah, I have $1 million listings, I have $500,000 listings, but my joy is finding that right house for someone, no matter the price , " Cathy said. "That's why I like this job. It's still about nurturing. It's still about solving people's problems . . .
"When we had the downturn of the housing market, a lot of clients of ours had to sell," she said. Others have to buy or sell because of divorce or a death. They usually aren't lucrative transactions.
"It's not about the commission for us. Yes, the money comes. But it comes because you care. I have a client right now, his house is falling over a cliff . He bought something bank-owned and we sold his house as land only, I'm making a very small commission on $109,000. But he's getting the same service as any client. It doesn't matter. I take that obligation very seriously.
"You're so much a part of their lives for that period of time. It's not about the money."
"Sometimes we have to be really creative," Jim said. "We've done a number of lease-purchases. We have people who are coming out of a bad credit situation, a divorce, people who had to do a short sale or a deed in lieu of foreclosure . . ."
Cathy added: "We've had many people we've been able to help, with a seller who trusted us and we were able to put a deal together . . . When you're able to help people, and you're successful at that, I get so much pleasure out of that.
"It's funny. Sometimes, when I drive around the city and so many people wave to me and someone kiddingly says, 'Are you the mayor?' And I'll say, 'No.' It's just after 33 years of doing this and there have been so many people we've met and so many we've helped," Cathy said. "I just sold houses to four young couples who are my kids' ages who are moving back to Shaker. Their parents told them, 'You're working with Cathy.' They know they can trust me and that I'm going to make sure they make a good purchase. I'm just so over-the-top nurturing."
Q: Where or when do you do your best thinking? "I do my best thinking when I'm actually lying in bed," Cathy said. "I recap the day in my head. I make notes about what has to happen tomorrow . . . This is the only time I have down time. Other than that, I'm always on. We get emails and phone calls at 7:30 in the morning and 11 o'clock at night. The only time I have to myself is right before I go to sleep. I have an idea, 'We should paint this room this color. We should do this or that. This is the time my mind kind of stops so I can think . . . I'm not good at relaxing."
Jim has his quiet time twice a day, in the mornings and in the evenings when he walks their dog, an 11-year-old, 24-pound schnoodle. They log two to three miles a day.
"He probably appreciates that he can get away for a few minutes and I'm not nagging him," Cathy said. "I always have a list. I'm always moving . . . The walks are his quiet time. He needs that time. I talk all of the time and I always have a list of things to do."
Q: How do you relax? "Well, I have a lot of energy," Cathy said. "I'm not happy unless I'm moving. I really enjoy vacations though (generally twice a year). When we take these vacations to Mexico or Jamaica or wherever, we go to these all-inclusives. I just read and chill and I let someone wait on me, and I re-charge."
"We also own a condominium in Port Clinton, right on the lake," Cathy added. "During the spring market, we'll leave on a Tuesday evening, after the brokers' open day, and we come back the next afternoon. We're right on the lake and I just open up those curtains and look out at the lake. That's my time that I just kind of catch my breath and re-charge. But there's not a lot of down time. People depend on you and they call you at all hours. If you want to be successful in this business, you really have to be accessible almost all of the time."
" We also relax by cooking," Jim said. "I've become a really good cook. It's fun cooking and having people over and entertaining. It can be exhausting. Cathy will plan this great event and then she needs someone to do the work. So it falls on me. But it's fun. We entertain a lot. We have a lot of good friends."
Q: What are your specialties? "Steak pizzaiola, Cajun roast beef, jambalaya," Jim said."We'll just grab something in the cook book and give it a shot. We work together. We do that a lot. It might take us an hour or so. You have to have a good glass of wine too. That's key to the relaxing."
Q: What's your favorite thing about Shaker Heights and being part of Cleveland's business community? "We just really enjoy the city, the people who live here, the housing," Cathy said. "You feel like you're part of something. It's knowing everybody."
Jim added: "When you live in someplace like Shaker, Cleveland Heights, maybe Lakewood, it's an inner-ring community that bleeds out to the city. You are part of the community at large. We love Cleveland. The proximity to downtown is phenomenal, the restaurants, whether it's Detroit-Shoreway, Ohio City, downtown, the Waterloo area. . ."
Q: If you weren't doing what you're doing, what would you be doing? "I'd open a restaurant again," Cathy said. "I'd do a restaurant. I love wine. We did wine-tasting before. I used to do hor d'oeuvres to match the wine. It's about serving. It's about people. We enjoy food and wine and communicating and connecting.''
"I'd like to teach," Jim said, "but I'm too entrepreneurial to put up with things, the politics. I certainly don't want to do a restaurant again. That'd be maddening."