Diane Butler is obsessed with golf. The CEO of Butler Burgher Group has played in eight LPGA Kraft-Nabisco Pro-Am events in Palm Springs, Calif., pairing up with the likes of Annika Sörenstam and Alice Cooper. She has “an insane” amount of golf memorabilia in her home, and regularly hits the links with her good friend and World Golf Hall of Fame member Kathy Whitworth. (Whitworth, who lives in Flower Mound, has won 88 tournaments—a record for both the LPGA Tour and the PGA Tour.)
So when boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard was in Dallas earlier this year for the 25th anniversary of Fight Night, and wanted to go out and play a round of golf, Linda McMahon, president of The Real Estate Council, knew who to call. Butler was happy to oblige. “It was a blast,” she says.
What is it about golf that has her so hooked? “You can’t master it,” she says.
That fierce drive to become the best has revealed itself in Butler’s real estate career, too. Since re-launching Butler Burgher Group in 2009, she has grown the company to become one of the top 10 valuation firms in the United States, with 16 offices and 180 employees.
Growing up in Mississippi, Butler was crazy about sports, and likely could have played college basketball if she hadn’t had so many knee injuries. Her father was an entrepreneur who had a large farming operation. (“He grew rice for Budweiser—how random is that?” Butler says.) He also was involved with a couple of farming-related ventures with Dallas’ Hunt family. That’s what led Butler to the Lone Star State in 1982.
Fresh out of Mississippi State with a double major in finance and real estate, she interviewed with larger financial institutions in Houston, but wasn’t sure how well she’d fit in a structured, 9-to-5 environment. Instead she took a job at a small appraisal firm. Three years later, Butler had an opportunity to move to Dallas and work for Bill Dotson & Associates. “I liked everything about the company; it was very progressive,” she says. “Back in the mid-1980s, most real estate valuation companies didn’t have a technology platform. But Bill had a programmer on staff and a Wang mainframe. That was totally unheard of.”
At Bill Dotson & Associates, she met David Burgher, a North Texas native who had grown up in Highland Park. The two were skilled networkers, and shared a commitment to customer service. Before long, both were bringing in clients, and business was booming. Seeing that his top producers were on parallel paths, Dotson wanted to give them an ownership opportunity.
A separate entity, Butler Burgher, was formed in 1992, with the understanding that if certain parameters were hit, the co-leaders would be allowed to acquire it for themselves. “He had no idea that would happen so quickly,” Butler says of her mentor. “We bought him out after three years.”
The firm continued on a steady growth path and, in 2004, Butler and Burgher were approached by a publicly traded company that wanted to buy them out. Negotiations went on for a year, but at the last minute, Butler got cold feet, concerned about how the move would affect clients and employees. By this time, Burgher was doing real estate development and investments on the side; Butler was handling day-to-day operations of the appraisal business, which had three offices in Texas.
The experience with the suitor caused the partners to look at an exit strategy—one that would work on their terms. Butler focused on evaluating processes, making internal improvements and positioning the company for something bigger. Two big nationals soon came calling. One was LandAmerica Financial Group, which was looking to develop a valuation platform. “They had one, but it was loosely organized and involved a lot of contract staff,” Butler says. “They wanted the client base we had tapped into—the institutions, the mortgage banking firms, the agency clients, Fannie and Freddie. They couldn’t secure that kind of business with a contract staff.”
After the sale in 2007, Burgher left to focus on his real estate investments. Butler joined LandAmerica and was put in charge of the national valuation group. It immediately gained traction—but then the financial markets collapsed. In March of 2008, LandAmerica closed 120 of its 900 offices. By November, it had filed for bankruptcy.
Profitable subsidiaries, including Butler’s group, were put up for sale. Butler rallied core team members who had made the move with her to LandAmerica, and began working on a strategy to buy the operation, which she did, backed by several partners, in April of 2009. “The guy I reported to was going to start another entity,” Butler says. “He was trying to get part of our group to go with him, and I was trying to get them to stay with me. I won.”
The past couple of years have been intense. The re-launch of Butler Burgher Group came at a time when real estate markets were distressed, so the need for appraisals by banks and special servicers was extreme—the greatest it had been in 10 years, Butler says. “We were able to capitalize on the relationships we had for that type of business, then continue to grow when the markets recovered.”
(She re-launched with the Butler Burgher name because of the trust the brand has in the market. It’s currently evolving to BBG.)
Butler also served as the 2012 national president of Commercial Real Estate Women, and as this year’s chair of TREC’s Fight Night. She began throwing herself into nonprofit work in 1999, after surviving a battle with breast cancer. “The day they tell you that you have stage-three breast cancer, your life flashes before your eyes,” Butler says. “I realized that if I wanted to achieve my goals of making a difference, I had better get busy.”
She was a CREW Foundation trustee for two years before taking on leadership posts within the organization. “When I look back on serving as national president, and all of the things leading up to that, what role those things played in my business and professional development, I don’t think I would have been in the position to lead this kind of company if I hadn’t had those experiences,” Butler says. “Getting involved in organizations like CREW and The Real Estate Council can totally change your direction, your career.”
TREC president McMahon says Butler is one of the group’s hardest-working board members and volunteers.
“I have known Diane for more than 10 years, back when she was building the first generation of her company and I was at JPMorgan Chase,” McMahon says. “If we were involved in a transaction for which her company provided the appraisal, she was accessible to discuss any issues personally. She operates the same way now, even though her company has grown significantly, particularly in the past few years.
“Diane is also one of the most savvy entrepreneurial business leaders I know,” McMahon says. “She knows how to identify opportunities and seize the right moment to capitalize on them.”
Opportunities seem to be abounding, now. Butler says real estate sales activity across all sectors is hopping, and that the typical summer slowdown never materialized in 2013. “Managing growth is going to be our biggest challenge,” she says. “There is so much demand for valuation services, and there will be at least for the next two or three years, based on the market conditions I’m seeing now.
“The good thing about the valuation business is when the markets are in turmoil, appraisals are needed,” she says. “And when the markets are good, appraisals are needed.”