Valerie Torelli started out in the real estate business as a bookkeeper in 1970s Los Angeles, but after seeing the salespeople take "six-hour lunches" while making $70,000 a year, she figured she could do the job too — only better.
"I'm taking care of the accounting and I said, 'If they can do this, I can do this,'" she said.
So in 1984, she founded Torelli Realty in Costa Mesa. The Pasadena native started with just a few employees. It was a "scrappy" operation out of some rented rooms at the Piecemakers Country Store in Mesa Verde.
In her first year, she sold about 25 houses. By her second year, she was the No. 1 agent in Costa Mesa. She kept busy with 80-hour work weeks, "at a minimum."
Today, Torelli, 59, humorously calls herself a "recovering workaholic."
Nonetheless, The Orange Park Acres resident — who describes herself as "quirky," "non-conforming," "creative," "impatient," and a lover of "change and innovation" — has no plans to retire after personally selling more than 2,000 homes, mostly in Costa Mesa, over a nearly 30-year career.
"Real estate is not quick money," Torelli said. "Everybody thinks it is, but it's not. Thirteen out of 14 fail because they don't have the skill set, and they don't have a business plan."
Former Costa Mesa Mayor Peter Buffa once called her "super-Realtor Valerie Torelli, who has more than enough energy to power a small city for 180 days."
Since her company's small beginnings, Torelli has greatly expanded the operation. She counts about 20 employees, 17 of whom are agents.
Her company has also been the top seller in Costa Mesa for the past 20 years.
Now Torelli Realty is at 1700 Adams Ave. in a former bank building whose interior decor runs the eclectic gamut found at The Camp and The Lab across town. Torelli says clients love it.
The style even extends to the bathrooms, which have Ken and Barbie dolls on the doors and various repurposed elements inside.
Holes in the wall near an archery and darts setup represent misses.
"You can tell where I didn't do so good," Torelli quips.
"We try to bring serenity to the process," she said of her business philosophy. "People have huge anxiety when they sell and buy. Huge. It's not a shirt. It's not even a car. It's not a baby carriage. It's their home, and people get huge issues."
The homes aren't "just a piece of property," she added. "It's a sacred space. Our level of commitment rises to that. That's huge. I've never heard another real estate company speak about it that way, which I think has led to our success."
She also cites her innovative marketing. When she first started Torelli Realty, she would sometimes patrol neighborhoods with a rented pony or ice cream truck. Parents would get a photo of their kids with the pony or getting ice cream.
"It was marketing. It's absolute marketing, 'guerrilla marketing' in its coolest form," Torelli said. "The idea is to expose yourself, to brand yourself to being a local type of a person."
For the next 12 months, Torelli Realty is donating some of the profits from sold Costa Mesa homes to city schools and the youth sports advocacy organization Costa Mesa United.
Her business knows no political bounds. Torelli has sold homes to Mayor Jim Righeimer and Robin Leffler, who, as president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, often opposes Righeimer's views.
Righeimer said Torelli called him when his Mesa Verde home was up for sale and things moved quickly.
"Within a day, we had the house under contract," he said. "She just knows every house. Every product she knows. She's tied in the community."
Hot politics isn't bad for business, though, Torelli said.
"People know there's passion," she said. "Passion is what is lacking in everything, so I would rather have a passionate city, whether you're red or you're blue, with people believing in their city."