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9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

Harley E. Rouda Sr., founder of HER Inc., Realtors, calls his longtime family friend Patrick Grabill a “lousy fisherman.”

Grabill, president and CEO of King Thompson, Realtors, is quick to return the jab: “It’s pretty hard to have a contest in fishing,” he points out. “The fish like me better than him.”

Fish tales aside, the friendship between competitors is just one example of Grabill’s skill in the relationship business.

“Both of us have gone fishing together for years, and we have a ball, knowing full well the next day both of us will go out and beat each others’ heads together trying to win something in the marketplace,” Rouda says.

Relationships, in fact, have helped Grabill build King Thompson. After founding his own real estate company, Patrick M. Grabill & Co., Realtors, in 1976, and merging it with dozens of others over the years, he now heads a firm of nearly 600 sales associates who collectively expect to exceed $1.3 billion in home sales this year.

He remembers the meager beginnings, when he had to set his schedule around that of his part-time receptionist.

“We only had one desk, so I had to go out and sell real estate when she came in in the afternoon,” he remembers. “I was too cheap to buy another one.”

Since then, he says, he’s been lucky to partner with and bring in many more talented people. “Hire people smarter than you and it makes you look smarter than you really are,” he says.

At King Thompson, Grabill has a second shareholder, Mike Huntley, the company’s executive vice president.

“First and foremost, we’re friends, and we’ve got a great working relationship,” Grabill says. “He’s probably the only guy I ever worked with who can pick up where I drop something off and I can pick up where he dropped off.”

Grabill also has a partner, John Blust, in a development arm, King Thompson Capital Corp., which has secured some projects in historic Dublin, among others.

The real estate firm’s growth, Grabill says, has been more of a response to the marketplace than a desire of his own. Customers, he says, want to do business with bigger firms because they equate the large size with quality.

“You’ve got to build an organization — whether you’re selling shoes, houses or checking accounts — that responds to where the consumer’s at, not where you’d like to be,” he says. “But it’s still great to go to Roush Hardware and have yourself assaulted by four sales associates who are well-trained and knowledgeable.”

In fact, he adds, his own challenge is training associates to provide that level of service even though his firm is large.

“We sell one house at a time to one family at a time,” he says. “If you lose sight of that, you miss the whole point of what we do.”

Grabill’s emphasis on relationship building is reflected, too, in the local business leaders he admires.

Of developer Bob Weiler, chairman of Robert Weiler Co., Grabill says: “He’s just as committed to doing right as he is to doing well.” Grabill adds to his list “one of the smartest people I’ve ever seen,” Don Shackelford, chairman of Fifth Third Bank, Central Ohio. Then there’s John H. McConnell, who Grabill says built Worthington Industries by treating people well.

Grabill has served countless professional organizations, including the Columbus Board of Realtors, where he was president in 1992, and the Ohio Association of Realtors, where he’s held a trustee chair for 15 years. This year, he finishes serving five years as director of the National Association of Realtors and will continue on the organization’s strategic planning committee.

A Dublin native who, with Suzanne, his wife of 27 years, has a grown daughter and twin sons, Grabill also is committed to the community.

“As an individual, he is sensitive and caring, but at the same time, he’s obviously a very good businessman,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, where Grabill is a board of trustees member. “I think it stands to reason, then, that you need all those qualities, whether you’re running a major real estate company or whether you’re running a museum ... But he also seems to be a wonderful consensus builder on the board.”

Grabill is in his sixth year as a board member of the Columbus Housing Partnership, which provides housing for low income working poor in Central Ohio, and he’s on the network advisory board for the partnership’s parent, The Enterprise Foundation.

In fact, Jim Rouse, who co-founded The Enterprise Foundation with his wife, Patty, has greatly influenced Grabill’s life. Rouse, who died in 1996, founded The Rouse Co., a publicly held real estate development and management firm in Columbia, Md.

“He retired and decided to devote the rest of his life to poor people in inferior housing,” Grabill says. “He could have bought a yacht and sailed around the country and done nothing. That was a life well spent.”

Rouda has similar kudos for Grabill.

“He’s a smart competitor, an honest competitor, an ethical competitor, and he treats everybody and thinks and acts and delivers like a professional,” Rouda says.

“He lives and breathes and will probably die with the golden rule. That’s the measure of success for any man or woman as far as I’m concerned.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.