Most real estate agents will tell you that no matter what courses you take, what certifications you hold and what books you read, nothing beats knowing the market when it comes to getting clients in the right home. That’s probably why, when talking real estate on the Gulf Coast, no name reigns more supreme than Michael Saunders. Since founding Michael Saunders and Company some 40 years ago, the businesswoman in many ways has served as welcome wagon to throngs of people who flock to Florida each year seeking out an idyllic paradise. “I’ve been excited to be involved as people chose Sarasota over other sunny destinations,” Saunders says. Today, many a homeowner living on the Gulf Coast found their property with the help of Michael Saunders and Company, which has grown from a single office on St. Armands Circle to 28 locations in the three-county area, and does billions in transactions every year. It’s quite the accomplishment for the little girl who grew up in a marina on Longboat Key.

The islands to Saunders will always be more than a retirement process. A native of this region where so many business placards bear her name in logo form, Saunders will tell you she spent her childhood “with Longboat Key sand in my shoes.” Before the coastline became dotted with resorts and mega-mansions, before the whole world associated the name Sarasota with paradise and relaxation, the beaches of the Gulf Coast served as a playground to a girl named Michael. She can share with you her memories of a “clickety-clackety” sound whenever the family drove across the old Ringling Bridge, or about the long-gone post office or the skeleton of John Ringling’s abandoned Ritz-Carlton dream.

Saunders’ family moved here when there was little, but adapted as the island changed. The modest home at the north end of Longboat would become a marina owned by Saunders’ father. The family was soon cooking burgers and selling tackle to locals and tourists. “My father embraced the change from this sort of idyllic place to a more commercial one,” Saunders recalls, as Whitney Beach turned into a resort location. When Saunders grew into adulthood, she chose to remain in Manatee County for her profession, but it wasn’t real estate. After a year teaching, Saunders entered the social agency world and spent 10 years as a probation officer. While she has seen the arrival of privileged people flock to the coast, it was here she learned about the lives of the less fortunate. “I’ve always been interested in what makes a difference in someone’s life,” she says. “Helping someone make the right choice for the right reasons is at the core of what I’m doing.” Working in juvenile court, she studied what pushes youngsters off-track and developed communication skills to better draw them back on.

When she entered the real estate field in 1972, that ability to build trust with strangers served her well. When you help someone in a social system bureaucracy, she says, nothing works unless the client trusts you. The same applies to real estate, and she took the work just as seriously. “I never get jaded by what we do here,” she says from her corporate office on Ringling Boulevard. “Next to getting married, one of the big dreams in people’s lives is owning their own home.”

Saunders did well at another agent’s firm but saw early the need for real estate to change and evolve. At a time when agents rarely specialized and usually worked in dank offices with yellowed photos of listings taped to the front window, Saunders decided to break out on her own to sell real estate a different way. Saunders opened her own office in 1976 with $5,000, an amount the bank wouldn’t lend her without getting an old customer to co-sign on the loan. Even in the late 1970s, that wasn’t much in terms of start-up capital, but she was determined to exude an appearance of wealth and success. She opened a tiny office on St. Armands Circle and fashioned the inside to feel more like a hotel lobby. An oriental rug and an armoire borrowed from her mother’s home displayed an as-yet-unattained success. An artist’s easel helped showcase vibrant displays of opulent homes. Affluent shoppers who stumbled in often didn’t recognize the place as a real estate firm, but felt pampered in the environment while they considered waterfront purchases.

Glamorous marketing for glamorous hopes turned out to be a winning strategy. Soon, the office expanded to a second location on Siesta Key, with more opening in Manatee and Sarasota through the years.

Saunders also ended up raising her own child here. After having her son Drayton, Saunders wanted to make sure he had the means and ambition to see the world and do whatever he wanted in life. Today, he operates the firm with his mother, but that certainly wasn’t a plan set in stone in advance. “If you had interviewed me when I graduated college,” Drayton says, “I would have said I will never live in Sarasota pre-retirement, I will never, ever work in real estate and I will never, ever, ever work for my parents.” Rather, he moved to South America out of school to run a culinary business.

Saunders shakes her head thinking about her baby making that move. “As a parent you raise your child so they know they can be anything they want to be, and you pray and pay the price when that comes true,” she says. “So when Drayton said his dream was to run a coffee-bagel store and wholesale business in Santiago, Chile, I only had myself to blame.” She wanted her child to see the world, she recalls, even if she didn’t expect him to stay there. But she took pride to see her son charting his own successes.

But eventually, Sarasota came calling, as it often does for those privileged enough to be raised on these shores but only clear-eyed enough to see it when they leave. “With a more mature, adult perspective, I knew I wanted to be back in the US,” Drayton says. And with eight years of management experience running a successful business and a team assembled that he could trust to take over, he felt the call home. At precisely that time of yearning, his mother called asking if he would return to the area to help run what now was a real estate empire. The younger Saunders now helps run much of the day-to-day business for Michael Saunders and Company. The continuity of leadership in the firm helps further cement the values that make the foundation of the business. Also ensuring those values aren’t forgotten? Little brochures that physically remind agents to always put the needs of the customer first, to remember real estate deals create the worlds in which people will live their lives. Saunders once let a $40-million-a-year seller go as a result of violating those tenets with discriminatory practices. This company stands for more than dollars, and only if those values deteriorate will the firm ever seem a failure to Saunders.

“This is not just a legacy for me—or for Drayton,” she says. “For all of us who work for this company, its about building an atmosphere where you will be treated with respect and appreciation.” Through 40 years of owning her own firm, Saunders also remains committed to keeping it in local hands. She has never considered selling, and never wanted a franchise agreement to put a more nationally known firm’s name on the office window. More than vanity or stubbornness, she knows the islands where she grew up like the back of her hand. Many out-of-towners looking for a permanent place to live here don’t want a firm based in New York recommending which homes have the best views of Sarasota Bay.

Today, Longboat boasts a very different feel from the place Saunders walked with her father, with tourists crowding the shores and lush homes filling once-empty lots. As the first real estate agent in town to open a firm specializing in luxury real estate, there’s no doubt Saunders herself had some hand in the metamorphosis of this place, though she’s quick to skirt credit for driving the change. “Progress was the game changer,” she says. “For us it was a life changer.” Like anyone of prominence living in this town that treats public dialogue like a contact sport, Saunders has taken a certain level of criticism for her role in bringing growth to this region over the years. She’s also occasionally taken heat over involvement in major issues, like eight years ago when she supported an unsuccessful initiative for an elected mayor in Sarasota. But she’s also been heavily involved in programs for underprivileged youth, hosting a class of high school interns from Newtown who helped local offices. Along the way, she also helped create such community-oriented organizations as SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Prepares for Excellence).

Several years ago, the MSC Foundation launched as a dedicated philanthropic arm for her company. It’s not a glory-seeking foundation, but one that tends to look for lower-profile causes, like employment offices in North Sarasota. Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw says those efforts have not gone unnoticed. “She has played an integral part in the growth and the change in Sarasota,” he says. “Michael has a unique capacity as far as bridging the gap between parties in this city.” In affairs civic and social, Shaw credits Saunders with bringing groups together for common goals, something that has netted improvements to the community.

She’s never wanted to be involved in candidate politics, endorsing individuals or flooding contributions into favored politicians’ campaigns. But her leadership in the business community has led to her frequently sitting with state leaders who come to town wanting to get the pulse of commerce in Florida’s key real estate industry.

It’s tough to stand up for something on the Gulf Coast without becoming a target, but she still believes the community can be bettered by the difficult conversations. “If I were thin-skinned, I wouldn’t have done anything in this community,” she jokes. “But I believe there is not any issue or any divergent opinion that can’t be explored with civil discourse and respect.” Whatever news may appear in headlines of the moment, the Saunders legacy in Sarasota seems likely to endure as a force for positive change.

Today, she still works on her real estate empire and remains engaged with community causes. Drayton now has a baby daughter being raised on the Gulf Coast, and Saunders gets to play the new role of grandmother, watching another child prepare to conquer the world on her own terms. And what does Saunders think her name will mean in the long run? How will people view the way this local firm transformed the region from the sleepy island town where she herself was raised? “Hopefully, we played a good part in what was bound to happen,” she says. “With or without us, this area was bound to develop. My hope is to have a positive impact on all of this, on what makes Sarasota different.” So with every dream home found or built, every real estate office opened and every transaction closed, Saunders’ firm has brought thousands to her home town ready to shape their own future in paradise.