by Bill Geroux
Deborah K. Stearns, Executive Director, GVA Advantis, Norfolk
From the window of her corner office on the top floor of the World Trade Center, Deborah K. Stearns enjoys a panoramic view of Norfolk’s downtown skyline.
The view befits a woman whose career has blossomed along with the city’s downtown. Stearns rose from the secretarial pool to become executive director of the Norfolk office of GVA Advantis, the third-largest real estate firm in Virginia and a major player in Hampton Roads.
Her story begins in 1975, when she was working as a secretary at an insurance firm and working her way through Old Dominion University. When her boss told her he did not promote secretaries, she went looking for a more open-minded boss. Stearns found Bob Stanton, then-president of the Goodman Segar Hogan real estate firm.
She switched her major from English to finance, and started selling homes part time, all the while shuffling her secretary job and night classes. When one of Stanton’s brokers left, he promoted Stearns. “I’ve always been willing to say yes and step through doors,” she says.
Stearns set her sights on becoming the leading authority on commercial office space in Norfolk. Her timing was perfect. Downtown Norfolk was starting its transformation from a scruffy collection of old warehouses and oyster-shell parking lots into a regional business center. Banks built high-rise office buildings. The local ports consolidated under state ownership, revving up international business and creating one of Virginia’s most significant economic engines.
It wasn’t long before Stearns became a top producer, achieving $6.5 million in gross volume a year. In 1998, Advantis — which had purchased her old company — chose Stearns as the managing director for its offices in Norfolk and other parts of Virginia.
Despite work weeks that sometimes stretched to 60 hours, she found time for community involvement and service on numerous boards. In recognition of her contributions, she received the Hampton Roads Volunteer Lifetime Achievement Award in April. Currently, Stearns serves as a commissioner on the Virginia Port Authority, the board that is weighing an offer to privatize the Port of Virginia.
“Deborah just has a leadership quality,” says Jack Hornbeck, executive director of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re trying to get something done, you want to get Deborah involved.”
Advantis reshuffled its management last year and reassigned Stearns — from managing to executive director — to focus on increasing business and revenue. The Norfolk office employs 18 brokers and generated about $24 million in revenue in 2008.
Stearns didn’t mind the change. At 54 and with more than three decades in the business, she says, “Change is good. I look at this as a return to my core competency.” More change came this month when GVA Advantis closed six offices. While Norfolk remains open, it closed out its brokerage division. After investing so much of her career with the firm and working with many of its brokers for years, Stearns acknowledges that this change was “surreal and an emotional rollercoaster.“ Still, she managed to land on her feet. She starts a new job soon as a broker with local firm, Harvey Lindsey Commercial Real Estate Services.
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