I didn't expect a storyteller. To be frank, I don't know what I was expecting. Given that I was sitting down with one of the most successful real estate entrepreneurs in the valley - a business woman so engaged in selling the Whistler Dream that she has no time to play in the mountains anymore - I could be forgiven for approaching our conversation with a thin veneer of scepticism. I mean, it's not like we shared the same vision for mountain culture or anything. Nor did we share the same lifestyle, for that matter.
Could I keep my personal biases in check?
I needn't worry. Maggi Thornhill swept my prejudices aside like a tsunami does a beachside shack. And I realized, yet again, what a fascinating group of individuals call this community home.
She is a force of nature; an all-encompassing whirlwind of positive energy that lifts you up and sweeps you into her orbit effortlessly. Resistance is futile. And Thornhill knows it. Her words still textured with the cultured tones of a "proper" British education, Maggi can make even the offer of a cup of coffee sound like a grand occasion. And just like that, you're transformed from a visiting stranger to an honoured guest.
Let me set the stage for you. We're sitting in her suite of offices just above the Starbucks at Creekside. More like the lobby of an upscale boutique hotel in the Alps than a conventional realtor's foyer - with wood-panelled walls, comfy over-sized couches and black and white Whistler photos from the 1960s and '70s - the Thornhill Group's digs are designed for maximum effect. And it works. By the time I get my coffee (superior in all ways to the stuff you get downstairs) I'm feeling mighty pampered...
Our story begins in the northwest of England in 1983. "We lived in a little town called Alderley Edge," she tells me. "Maybe you've heard of it? That's where David Beckham lived when he played for Manchester United." Maggi's husband, David was involved in the family business there. Maggi's sister was married to David's brother. It was all very cosy, she says. Indeed, sounds like the perfect set-up for a British murder mystery.
But it wasn't like that at all. "We'd visited British Columbia two years before and were really taken with it," she explains. And then she giggles.
"Some friends had moved to Vancouver and invited us to come see them. We were already on vacation in California. We looked at a map, saw that Vancouver was barely an inch further north, so we decided to go there too."
A long pause. Another smile. "That's when I learned my first lesson about distances in North America..."
Fortunately for the Thornhill family, they were treated to sunny skies and warm weather for the duration of their Canadian stay. "We did it all," recounts Maggi. "We went up Grouse Mountain, and biked around Stanley Park and spent the morning at Granville Island and dined at some fabulous restaurants. It was beautiful." As they were leaving, she remembers her husband telling their hosts that they'd be back. "I just smiled at that," she says. "I thought he was just being polite."
But he wasn't. When the family business sold, Maggie and David (and 10-year old Olivia and 7-year old Max) suddenly found themselves with a bit of cash in hand and the freedom to go wherever their imagination took them.
"We'd travelled extensively over the years," she tells me, "so we had a pretty good perspective on things." Even so, Vancouver loomed large on their list of potential destinations. "We thought it was a great place," she says. "Mostly, it was the lifestyle that appealed to us. We thought it would be a wonderful spot to bring up kids."
So that's what they did. Seven months pregnant with her third child, Ben (who would later become a standout with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club and an NCAA champion), Maggi and her family moved to West Vancouver in February of 1983. At a loss for something to do - "and because I couldn't find yummy European baby clothing and furnishings anywhere" - she opened up an exclusive baby store. "It was a disaster," she says. And rolls he eyes theatrically. "But I did meet lots of nice people."
Maggi's disappointment with the store led to some serious soul-searching. "I knew I was a natural sales person," she says. "So I looked at my three options; I could sell real estate, I could sell insurance, or I could sell cars." Because the first two required training, she realized she only had one choice. "So that was that: car sales is what I would do."
At first it wasn't easy. "I remember my initial interview. The guy asking me the questions really wasn't into it. Finally he looked at me and said. 'You sound like a fine person. But we've had women try their hand at this job before. And they've never been very good at it.'" She laughs. Rolls her eyes again. "That's when I knew I'd have to find a way to change their minds."
Her opportunity came during a giant three-day auto fair at the PNE. "I got all dressed up and went out to the fair grounds. 'You must need help selling cars now,' I told them. The manager looked me up and down. 'We'll give you a chance,' he said. 'If you can sell some cars during the next three days, we'll consider taking you on full-time.' Then he handed me this whole big stack of brochures - homework." She makes a face like a kid before a plate of spinach. "I hate brochures," she says. "I hate details..."
She struggled for the first few hours. "My first clients were a couple of old guys from the Valley. They told me they were interested in buying a Thunderbird. Puzzled, I asked them 'Could you point out the Thunderbirds?' That's when they realized they'd been fobbed off on a stupid woman who knew nothing about cars."
She sighs deeply. Clearly this is a story that still resonates for her. "I was blushing like a teenager. I was feeling totally out of my league. 'How can I disappear?' I wondered. I felt like a fish out of water."
Obviously selling cars was not for her. Back to the drawing board, she figured. "I was walking towards the exit," she tells me, "when a young guy noticed my sales badge and asked me for help." This time Maggi decided to proceed differently. "I just told him straight out: 'I know nothing about cars. But I'm really good at negotiating. So, here's what we'll do: you find the exact car you want, and I'll get you the best deal I can."
It worked. He bought a car. By the end of that weekend she'd sold 10 more. "It was a really big 'ah-ha' moment for me," she explains. "Selling is about creating trust. It's about integrity. At the end of the day, people don't really care what you know or don't know. What they care about is whether or not you have their best interests at heart."
Maggi insists it's the secret to her success. "I'm not looking to 'make a deal'," she explains. "I just want to help my client find a perfect place." She pauses. "And the people who work with me know that. I truly love people. I truly love sales. And I truly love Whistler. That's why I get so much satisfaction from what I do. And that, in turn, gives my clients a lot of confidence in my skills."
It's at this point that her 33-year-old son Max decides to make an entrance. A realtor like his mother - and the VP of marketing at the Thornhill Real Estate Group - Max is an unabashed Maggi fan. "If there's one theme that should come out in this story," he says, "it's mum's positivity. She's always said: 'If you want something, you can get it. All you have to do is believe in it.' And she's proved it to us time and again. She's amazing that way. I have so many female friends who tell me: 'Your mum's my inspiration.'"
Amazing too, that we've gotten this far in the story and the Thornhills haven't even made it to Whistler yet. "We eventually bought a house in Quail Run," says Maggi. "At first we were planning to use it as a ski retreat." Meanwhile, she and husband David had both been working on their realtor licenses. "Our goal was to work together in the city," she says with a grin. "But the realtor who sold us the house in Whistler persuaded us to join his company and sell real estate in Whistler instead." They made the move north in September 1988. "We never regretted our decision," she says. Even though she'll be the first to admit she's not really the gung-ho outdoor type.
"I skied the first few seasons we lived up here," reveals Maggi. Another laugh. "And I did pretty well at it. But once I got my licence, I started having way too much fun selling real estate. I just didn't have any time for skiing anymore."
And I have to laugh in my turn. Selling real estate more fun than skiing? It's a concept I can't even begin to get my head around. Yet it's just one of many subjects where Maggi and I diverge in our thinking. Whereas I worry for Whistler's future viability, she's entirely optimistic. And while I fear the consequences of the creeping urbanization here, she'd love to see even more big-city amenities in her adopted town. But despite our differences, at no time is our conversation ever acrimonious or awkward.
Au contraire. "That was wonderful," enthuses Maggi after our two-hour exchange. "We need to get more people talking like this at Whistler." And then in true Thornhill fashion: "I think these kinds of conversations are so important. It reminds me of our early years here when people would get together over dinner and discuss the issues of the day. We should revive that practice. In fact, I'd be willing to offer my office as a venue for such a forum." A final pause. Another huge smile. "I think that would be really fun."
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