Residential real estate broker Phyllis Browning is quick to credit San Antonio with having made her who she is. But she has, in no small way, shaped San Antonio.
Since its founding in 1989, Phyllis Browning Co. has grown into a major player in luxury residential real estate. From its conception, Browning envisioned a business committed to serving both its customers and its city, providing residences that offer private respite while engaging with the city’s organic expansion.
“I’ve always lived here,” she said. “I was born in Alamo Heights and I still live in Alamo Heights.” After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Browning taught for the North East Independent School District and then as a substitute teacher at Alamo Heights High School while her husband, James Browning, ran his own commercial construction company.
With three young children to support, Browning decided to go back to work full-time in 1979. Her architect father had instilled in her a deep appreciation of houses, and her mother-in-law encouraged her to pursue a real estate license.
Browning spent 10 years with another company before opening her own business. “The company was doing well and saw no reason to change, but I felt that wasn’t enough,” she said.
Among her early and most steadfast supporters was her high school friend Robert Sohn, a retired attorney.
“She’s one of the most disciplined, hard-working people I’ve ever known,” Sohn said. “From the start, she was able to visualize how her business would unfold, and then make it happen. She had a sense of the kind of commitment to detail and attention to excellence essential to such a personal service. That’s what distinguishes her.”
The decision to start her own company came at a time when there were few female entrepreneurs.
“I think it’s just wonderful for women today,” Browning said. “When I graduated from UT, my family said I needed to be either a teacher or a nurse, or get married. I’d always signed my name ‘Mrs. James Browning’ until my company opened and everything was in my name. I never felt like a feminist – I just wanted to do things right, man or woman.”
Browning’s enduring vision and drive yielded rapid success in the competitive real estate business. In 1996 she was named “Small Business Leader of the Year” by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. By its 10th anniversary, the business could hardly be called small anymore, with sales hitting the $1 billion mark in 1999. As it has grown, Phyllis Browning has expanded beyond the San Antonio city limits, opening offices in Boerne and New Braunfels.
Starting a company with children at home wasn’t easy, Browning said. “As a parent, you have a natural instinct to rush in and help your kids, but as a working mother you can’t always do that, which is good for their own independence.”
The exemplar of a mother passionate about her occupation inspired her children; two of her three children now work for the company. “The third is our black sheep,” she added wryly. “He’s a doctor.”
In 2008, Browning’s daughter Jennifer Shemwell, herself a mother of three young children, assumed the title of company president, while Browning stepped into the role of CEO and board chair. To this day, however, she enjoys finding properties for friends.
Under Shemwell’s leadership, the company has grown at an impressive rate, opening three offices this year alone.
“I told my daughter she won’t need me anymore, but she said she always would,” Browning recounted.
Shemwell, a Yale graduate, offered heartfelt confirmation: “It’s an enormous privilege to work with her, to spend time with her. My mother is the ultimate mentor and one of the boldest women I know.”
Browning never rests on her laurels, Shemwell said, constantly learning and adapting.
“She’s a resilient person who has created a resilient business,” Sohn said.
Resilience in a business that tends to be cyclical isn’t the company’s only strength. It’s been voted one of the top workplaces in San Antonio for six consecutive years. When asked what she looked for in employees, Browning cited faith in God, “which for us means that you treat people well, both clients and the people you work with. We believe that what’s good for the individual is good for the company, and vice versa.”
What’s good for the company has also proven good for the city. Locally focused philanthropy has been a cornerstone of Browning’s professional and private life.
“San Antonio has been so supportive of me, so it’s been important to me to give back,” she said. “My pet peeve is people making money in the city and then giving it elsewhere.”
Browning encourages her agents to give a portion of their earnings to the cause of their choice, such as the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the San Antonio Public Library, the Arts Fund, or UT Health San Antonio’s Cancer Center. The company then matches every donation penny for penny.
While it’s customary in the real estate world for agents to congratulate new homeowners with a bottle of wine or flowers, Browning prefers to gift memberships to museums and cultural organization, to simultaneously involve new residents in the local culture and give back to San Antonio. “It’s an incredible city. It’s wonderful to see people move here and realize that.”
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When asked what she loves about her hometown, Browning recounted sitting outside with her husband of 51 years the night before.
“I love that it cools down at the end of the day, and that there are so many beautiful places to walk nearby,” she said. “I love how friendly and welcoming San Antonio natives are.
“But what’s really unique is our River, that you can start at the Pearl and walk all the way to the Missions. No other city is quite so pretty, so historical, or so fun.”