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December 10, 2017

His 100-Year Journey

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His 100-Year Journey

Jacob Feichter started selling houses the year Amelia Earhart disappeared. But for this centenarian broker-owner, real estate never gets old.
Jacob Feichter

You’ve surely heard the buzz about how artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and drones are on the verge of transforming the real estate business. Ever-evolving technology engenders as much excitement as anxiety for many in the industry. But one broker-owner in Fort Wayne, Ind., isn’t paying much attention to the predicted upheaval. Jacob Feichter VIII is too busy working his territory and building relationships in the ways that have worked just fine for him for the past 80 years.

When the current head of Feichter, REALTORS®, joined the business in 1937—the same operation started by his father Jacob Feichter VII back in 1883—he was enticed with the suggestion from his brother Ferman that he could double his income from selling insurance. So Feichter VIII took a chance. He bought his first house at age 21, and his second three years later with his wife, Lucille. Improbable as it may seem, at the age of 100, Feichter still keeps close to full-time hours and remains a force in greater Fort Wayne’s real estate and civic community.

This is neither a typo nor a misprint. Feichter, the seventh of nine children, started in real estate the year that Amelia Earhart disappeared and Ronald Reagan made his film debut. Gasoline cost 10 cents a gallon and the average U.S. home price was $4,100, though a lot less than that in Feichter’s neck of the woods.

Even as most real estate practitioners focus on staying ahead of the curve amid the myriad disruptions facing the real estate industry, Feichter takes prides in the fact that his family’s brokerage has been a constant in downtown Fort Wayne (the state’s second largest city after Indianapolis) through more up and down cycles than anyone can count. Even with a minimal online presence and a company website that has been on the fritz for the better part of a year, Feichter and his three agents keep a full pipeline of business. At last count, the brokerage had a total of 16 Facebook followers.

Feichter’s specialty is purchasing and rehabbing investment homes that he rents out or sells to buyers on a land contract, a form of seller financing for home buyers who are unlikely to qualify for a conventional mortgage. At the end of the contract, which may last anywhere from five to 20 years, buyers have either paid off the balance or are able to refinance using a traditional mortgage.

“My favorite part of the business is helping families,” Feichter says, from behind the large wooden desk in the office he still comes to nearly every day. “I’ve helped three generations of the same family. Many are veterans and other people who would not have been able to afford to become homeowners any other way.” While some of his clients have walked away from their residences before assuming ownership, many are thrilled with the life-changing opportunity he has made possible for them, he says.

Over the years he has owned about 600 investment homes, many of which he built with his business partner, Bud Feichter, a nephew who died in 2003. They built log homes and cottages and developed three subdivisions in Fort Wayne. “I enjoyed naming one of the streets Lois Lane, using my wife’s middle name,” he said. Feichter credits Lucille, his spouse of 75 years who is now 97, with providing the loving, steady support that helped him get through the inevitable challenges of running a business. Lucille herself had a real estate license for a while.

Currently, Feichter owns 52 homes—free and clear—and still oversees property management duties on those homes. Years ago, he concluded he could do without the added headaches of taking care of those responsibilities for homes that were not in his own portfolio. And that is a key to his personal and professional equanimity: He didn’t take on work that he thought would bring him unnecessary stress.

As a business owner, he has always been family-focused. His daughter Kay Feichter, one of the three family members he currently works with, notes that over his 70 years as a broker-owner, Feichter had only one agent who wasn’t also a relative. That arrangement lasted for just a few years in the 1970s and 80s. Kay, who’s worked as an agent with her dad for a mere 35 years, says it was never his goal to grow or manage a larger team of non-family agents. He didn’t need to in order to have the success he wanted, and working with family was a great source of comfort. “My dad always knew what he was interested in doing and he stuck with it,” she adds. And it never would have occurred to Kay to work for anyone else.

Feichter has been no less dedicated to the well-being of his hard-scrabble Rust Belt community. He has been a lay leader at the Crescent Avenue United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne since he was a child (even after the church changed its denomination, he stuck with the congregation) and helped spur its sponsorship of a community center that provided meals, home repairs, GED tutoring, and other social services for the poor. He’s also assisted in building several Habitat for Humanity homes. In the 1970s, he volunteered to work on a land deal to develop the Historic Old Fort and surrounding park in his hometown.

Not only was Feichter an early champion of organized real estate, he was literally one of its local organizers. Feichter became a REALTOR® in 1946, and was one of the first practitioners in Indiana to receive a real estate license when they became available in 1949. He helped create the area’s multiple listing service, which was a successor to a kind of “human MLS” that he was active in called the “traders club.” At the local level, real estate practitioners would gather over coffee and donuts to exchange details about properties they were representing or had potential buyers for.

In 1957, Feichter was president of the Fort Wayne Board of REALTORS®, now known as the Upstate Alliance of REALTORS® (UPSTAR). He’s served on committees as diverse as arbitration, bylaws, strategic planning, and housing needs. As an enthusiastic advocate for continuing education, Feichter has been a proud CRB designee for decades, and for years enjoyed going to NAR conferences—at least 20 of them—“to keep up with trends in the business.” He is still a sought-after speaker at new member orientations.

Feichter is forthright in explaining what being a REALTOR® has meant to him. “The Code of Ethics is a good thing. It’s always been a cutthroat business. And there are so many ways [the association] helps you be the best you can be.”

Members of his local association marvel at Feichter’s personal warmth as much as his unprecedented commitment to the local real estate scene. “He’s a phenomenon. He has such passion for whatever he does. There aren’t enough words to describe how wonderful he is,” says UPSTAR’s Executive Officer Katrina Kay.

Feichter’s secrets to his longevity in business and in life seem very much in alignment. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink to excess. I’m a great taker of vitamins. Every day I take barley grass,” he says. But his can-do attitude also clearly has bolstered him. “I’ve been through a number of [economic] depressions, but I never quit,” he says. “You have to be a bit of a gambler in this business. And a little brash.”

Feichter moved into his office in 1946. The company’s suite, on the first floor of a roomy Victorian, is homey and understated. The metal nameplate for his nephew and former partner Bud Feichter still hangs on the door of the office he worked in, even though Bud passed away 14 years ago. Another nephew, Dennis Feichter, and a niece, Malorie Campbell, along with his daughter, Kay, round out the current team.

Because he works with many lower-income clients, Feichter felt it unseemly to indulge in a lot of fancy decorating. “We’ve always kept a small profile. We don’t want a swanky office.” He’s long opted for driving a Ford over a Cadillac. And after pulling into the parking lot behind his office in his Ford Windstar minivan, Feichter hopped out of the vehicle with the ease of a man half his age.

A few years ago, Feichter added a wallpaper mural behind his desk that depicts the sort of woods that he enjoyed camping in for decades. He and his wife were well into their 80s when Lucille told him she was no longer up for tent camping. (He also enjoyed regular walks of five to 10 miles.) Feichter has visited all 50 states and treasures the road trips to Alaska that he took with each of his three children.

When he turned 100 last March, Feichter was honored with the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash award from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, which was presented by state Sen. David Long at a rollicking birthday celebration. But it was hardly a retirement party. Feichter still has plenty of work to do. “It’s what I enjoy,” he says simply.

Feichter comes across as a man filled with contentment over his successful business and family life. “I never was one to fly off the handle,” he says. “But when you live to be 100, you don’t need to worry about anything anymore,” he says. Besides giving up tent camping, he has made only a few concessions to age, including his decision to stop mowing his own lawn—at the age of 95. Humility has also served him well. One of his lifelong mantras gains even more credibility coming from a centenarian: “Don’t believe that you know everything.”

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