At first blush, Ralph Burnet’s success story doesn’t scream American dream. But all told, it really is. The Minnesota native, now 71, co-owned a ski shop at 50th & France back in his twenties but was having trouble making ends meet. One day he made his way across the street to Bermel-Smaby Realty, which just happened to be co-owned by Burnet’s former Little League coach. And that’s when he “decided to try real estate,” as he puts it.
He joined the sales force in 1968, eventually rising to No. 1. But one thing was missing: the opportunity for growth. The partners had plans to pass the business along to their kids, which left Burnet out of the equation. And so he struck out on his own, founding Burnet Realty in 1973 with $18,000 in seed money and some colleagues along for the ride.
There were obstacles aplenty, he recalls: “When I started the company, everyone thought I was crazy because it was during a deep recession. There was an oil crisis. And we had an 8% usury law, so basically we had no mortgage money. But if we hadn’t started in hard times, I don’t know if we would have been that successful. We knew nothing but hard work, and we just decided to outwork our competition.”
And all that hard work certainly paid off. “When we started, we were dead last; seven years later, we were No. 1,” he explains. “When we became No. 1 in 1980, we had a party out at Buck Hill and damn near blew that mountain up. I think there are still some people out in the bushes. My god, was that a party.”
Merrill Lynch took notice of the success and acquired the firm in 1982, with Burnet relocating to Connecticut to run the operation. He bought the business back in 1990, transforming it into a one-stop real-estate shop. In 1998, he sold it once more, this time to NRT. That move created Coldwell Banker Burnet, which today enjoys a leading luxury market share. Burnet currently serves as chair.
Behind it all is the philosophy that has driven business since the early days: to be successful, to have fun and, most importantly, to give people the opportunity to grow. “There are people who know where they’re going to be next year, where they’re going to be in five years — and that’s boring,” notes Burnet. “I wanted to start a company where every day is just blue sky and the opportunity is there.”
But despite this booming business, real estate isn’t his burning passion. Yes, Burnet is also wild about sports; he’s a Timberwolves minority owner and is credited with bringing pro golf to Minnesota back in the nineties. And sure, he took that foray into hospitality to fill a need he saw here, ushering in luxury accommodations at Chambers and the W. But what really gets him going? Art.
Contemporary British art, to be specific. He and wife Peggy have long been supporters of the Walker Art Center, which Ralph deems one of the top three contemporary museums in the world. They’ve donated several major works, including a late Willem de Kooning. And Ralph was recently named an honorary trustee after more than two decades on the Walker’s board. It’s this involvement that really sparked a fire in him.
“Ralph has been a generous, dedicated patron for nearly three decades,” notes Walker Executive Director Olga Viso. “I met Ralph and Peggy 20 years ago through their passionate support of the Young British Artists and the Walker’s 1995 exhibition Brilliant!: New Art From London, the first major survey of its kind in the United States. Indeed, it was Ralph who recruited me to the Walker nearly 10 years ago.”
The Burnets are avid collectors, their Wayzata property as much a gallery as a home. Interior spaces are filled with works by Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk and the like. The real showstopper, though, is a 17-foot spot painting by Damien Hirst (unsurprisingly, it’s also Ralph’s favorite). Scattered across the 16-acre grounds are striking sculptures, to which Ralph has turned his attention. “Peggy always asks, ‘Now where are you going to put that?’” he explains. “And I say, ‘That’s irrelevant.’”
One piece in the collection that seems subtle in nature and small in scale has a larger-than-life backstory. The Burnets were in London back in 2002 visiting artists and stopped by painter Marc Quinn’s studio. Explains Ralph: “He was making a diamond. All diamonds are made of carbon, and everything eventually turns to carbon. We’re made of carbon. And if you compress it and heat it, you can manufacture diamonds. So he was fiddling with his 2,000-degree oven, and I said quietly to him, ‘Can you make me a diamond?’ He said, ‘I will, but you need to get some hair.’ So that night we went to a cocktail party at Jay Jopling’s — he’s the biggest art dealer in London. I asked his then wife, Sam Taylor-Wood, for some scissors, and I came up behind Peggy, grabbed her hair and just took a huge chunk off. She was so pissed; she was just screaming because a bunch of artists were there. I got it back to Marc, and about a year later, this one-carat diamond came. It’s called ‘The Perfect Form of Peggy Burnet.’”
All told, it’s been a pretty fantastic ride. And despite his rampant success in business, Ralph takes a decidedly artful approach to it all. “You’re only here for a visit in life,” he muses, “so you better enjoy what you’re doing or get the hell out.”