Real estate is the No. 1 game in Orange County, and the player ranks are filled with those drawn by the myth of easy money.
An average home resale price of about $250,000--second highest in the nation behind San Francisco--drives a furious market. So far, the number of homes listed for sale in Orange County is running at least 15% ahead of last year, according to Tarbell Realtors.
But competing for the commissions on those sales are about 35,000 licensed Orange County real estate agents and brokers.
When the dealing is done, most agents are lucky to make schoolteacher wages.
But a few--such as Valerie Torelli, Cherie Hartman, Jeannie Trinh Luong and Vijay Soni--break through to the top of the game where they take home more money than many chief executive officers.
In some ways, these four agents are similar. All pretty much stumbled into the business, but all are willing to sacrifice personal and family lives, and even their health, to succeed.
In other ways, especially in what fuels their ambition, they are unique.
This is Valerie Torelli's refrain, her gleeful chorus, the spur that has driven her into the top rank of the Orange County real estate world:
"They said I'd never make it."
It peppers her conversations, flavors the flyers she leaves in mailboxes throughout Costa Mesa, echoes in the speeches she makes to high school students.
Feeling snubbed and belittled in secretarial and accounting jobs, Torelli, 35, decided three years ago to pursue success on her own terms.
She opened her own real estate company. Last year, she closed escrow on 75 homes for almost $20 million and earned, she said, well over $500,000. Most of the time she doubled her take by representing both buyer and seller on a sale. A few weeks ago, she sold a home in Costa Mesa for $910,000, which is believed to be a record high for that city.
In a field dominated by such giant companies as RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker and Century 21, Torelli has prevailed, and she glories in it.
"In the corporate world, I was told so many times that I had dumb ideas. But I knew I could make it happen on my own. And I did," she said.
Early one recent morning, the Torelli machine already was humming. Clad in jeans and Western-style shirt, she sat cross-legged on her office chair, plowing through her "to do" list with her assistant, Mary Gerber.
Torelli Realty, housed in the Mesa Verde section of Costa Mesa, is made up of herself, her husband, Guy, who serves as broker for the office, seven agents, her assistant and support staff.
A key bit of business this morning was to design a new flyer, one that will join the hundreds plastered on a wall of Torelli's office.
"You've got to keep the name out there all the time," Torelli said. In addition to keeping her name recognition high in her territory of 10,000 homes, the flyers also rub her competitors' noses in her success with such slogans as "It took only six days to create the world, why should it take six months to sell your home?" or "If you don't make dust, you eat dust."
The new flyer will feature the word "sold" in various languages, and Torelli was brainstorming sources of translations.
"Call the chef at La Biarritz for French. Use our dictionary for Spanish. Call that rabbi, what's his name, for Hebrew. Do we know any Chinese?"
In the midst of her rapid-fire decisions and delegations to her assistant, fresh flowers were delivered to her office.
"I have flowers brought in every week for the girls," Torelli said. "I was treated so badly as a corporate employee that I will never skimp. I pay people well. I take the girls to Vegas once a year. Last year, we also all went to La Costa. I haven't had any turnover in three years."
All Torelli's agents and support staff are women. "I probably wouldn't hire a man. I suppose I shouldn't say that, but we all work so well together, I think a man would interfere with that camaraderie. I also think that selling homes is an emotional thing and that women tune in better than men do."
At mid-morning, Torelli headed for what she calls her one real release from the high-stress business of handling up to 20 properties at a time.
At Silverwind Farms on the Orange County Fairgrounds, she parked her Toyota 4X4 ("I'm ostentatious enough. I don't need a Porsche."), replaced her blouse with a T-shirt and headed for the stables.
"This is Troubadour," she said, stroking the flank of a chestnut Dutch Warmblood jumper. "I bought him three weeks ago for $30,000. He's my Porsche."
Torelli put on a helmet and a pair of pink and black chaps ("company colors"), mounted the horse ("I pay an extra $75 a month to have him ready when I get here") and for the next hour, put him through a series of jumps.
She has ridden four years for show and relaxation. And, although 20 years older than most of the other riders in the ring, she rode with equal energy and an intensity they couldn't muster.