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Mary Frances Burleson, former Ebby Halliday CEO, dies at 87

She went from part-time secretary to running the show before landing a top-dollar sale of the company to Warren Buffett in 2018.

Mary Frances Burleson, who started her career as Ebby Halliday’s $2.50-an-hour, part-time secretary in 1958 and worked her way up to president and CEO of the Dallas-based residential real estate company, died Sunday morning of natural causes. She was 87.

The graduate of Highland Park High School and Southern Methodist University rose quickly through the management ranks, becoming executive vice president and general sales manager in 1979.

She was running the show as CEO in 2000 — a position she held until 2018.

“I’m an Ebby girl. I want what’s best for this company,” the then 83-year-old Burleson said in an interview in 2018, when she announced the sale of Ebby Halliday Cos. to Warren Buffett’s Minnesota-based real estate arm.

Ebby Halliday listened to the Halliday Elementary School choir with Mary Frances Burleson...
Ebby Halliday listened to the Halliday Elementary School choir with Mary Frances Burleson (left), president and CEO of Ebby Halliday Realtors, and Lew Blackburn, Dallas school board president. They were at the dedication of Ebby Halliday Elementary School on Ebby's 101st birthday in Dallas on March 9, 2012.

“Mary Frances Burleson was an extraordinary woman who dedicated her life to service on every level,” said Chris Kelly, CEO of the Ebby Halliday Cos. “That dedication touched the lives of thousands of people across the North Texas community, the nation and beyond. We at the Ebby Halliday Cos. are forever grateful for her vision, for her leadership and for her friendship. She is and will be greatly missed.”

Burleson helped expand the firm to 1,700 agents in 35 offices across three brands, making it the largest independent residential real estate brokerage in Texas and the 10th largest in the nation. She also led the firm’s creation of its core service business lines of mortgage, insurance and title.

Outside work, Burleson’s passion was breeding and training championship show dogs, Marburl boxers, a pedigree created by her late husband of 54 years, Rufus Burleson. The name is a combination of Mary and Burleson.

“I have vet bills. I have advertising bills. I have a handler bill. I can’t afford to retire,” she said in 2018.

She was a longtime member of Park Cities Baptist Church and was an active participant in the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the International Women’s Forum, the Baptist Foundation of Texas and Buckner International. She was on the board of directors of SMU’s Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series and the Highland Park Education Foundation.

Just how much Buffett’s HomeServices of America paid for the employee-owned real estate company has never been disclosed. But a knowledgeable industry source at the time placed the all-cash deal at between $70 million and $100 million — an attention-getting, top-dollar amount even at the low end of the estimate.

A tidy portion of that went to Burleson, who worked side-by-side with Ebby Halliday Acers — Ebby to the world — for 57 years. Halliday Acers died in 2015 at 104.

“We used to have our management meetings around her dining room table,” Burleson said at the time of the sale. “I want to keep her legacy alive.”

Their partnership was legendary. Neither needed a last name in the real estate world.

Early in her career, Ebby gave Mary Frances what became Mary Frances’ signature hat. It was a black version of Ebby’s white one, and it came with the proviso that black would never replace white.

“Mary Frances did so proudly,” said Cody Baker, director of advertising and Ebby Halliday brand manager, “She even put that black hat in a glass case in her office as a reminder, and it was a deal and partnership that would change the face of real estate.”

Online tributes rolled in as word of Burelson’s death spread Monday.

One called her the “yin to Ebby’s yang.” Another said she was “the cog in Ebby’s wheel.” Someone else said she was “never looking to be the center of attention but [was] always a very sure and quiet strength.”

Many spoke of the opportunities she’d afforded them, including a post by Carolyn Rosson, who was named president of Ebby Halliday Cos. in September.

“In your life you have people come in and take a chance on you,” Rosson wrote. “People who see something you don’t. Mary Frances Burleson was that person for me when I was 29. She saw leadership qualities in me and asked me to be a leader in one of our offices. The agents were [all] much older and more experienced than me. She believed in me anyway.”

Among Burleson’s words to live by were: “Find a good mentor, but don’t forget to return the favor,” and “Get up, suit up and show up.”

Baker thought he was special the first time Burleson called and sang Happy Birthday to him as a new employee in 2005. “Then I found out she did that for 2,000-plus people in the company every year — no matter what day it was or if she was out of town,” he said Monday.

She continued this tradition until her retirement, eventually switching to personal texts instead of calls. She was also a voracious reader of business books and frequently gave her staff and others copies of her favorites.

Mary Frances Burleson posed for a photo on Feb. 20, 1989.
Mary Frances Burleson posed for a photo on Feb. 20, 1989.(Randy Grothe - Staff Photog. / 30065)

Baker, who worked closely with Burleson for nearly two decades, gave this take on her: “She was a tough, no-nonsense businesswoman who could scare grown men with just a look,” he said. “She was stubborn as a mule, loved a good argument, was extremely opinionated and just plain ornery when she wanted to be. But more than all that, she was one of the biggest-hearted, most thoughtful — not to mention smartest — people I ever met.”

Baker said Burleson didn’t want a fuss made when she died. Instead she asked that people enjoy an expensive glass of red wine — accent on expensive — while they remembered the good times they had with her.

Services are pending.

Mary Frances Burleson, who was president of the company then, and Ebby Halliday are shown at...
Mary Frances Burleson, who was president of the company then, and Ebby Halliday are shown at the 50th anniversary celebration of Ebby Halliday Realtors in 1995.(Joe Laird / 84883)
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