Unconventional Career Path Takes Elliott to a Happy Place

Cassie Elliott broke into the real estate industry in 2005, and by 2008 had risen to the level of managing broker at Crye-Leike Realtors’ Bentonville office.

Elliott was recognized as part of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class in 2008, too, but soon would take what some might consider a backward career step. Spurred by a combination of factors, Elliott gave up her managing broker duties and lessened her involvement in the industry.

What might have been construed as an odd professional move, however, turned out to be one of the most rewarding things Elliott ever has done.

“It’s been quite a journey, but I have to say I’m probably happier than I’ve been in a long, long time,” she said.

These days, Elliott remains involved in real estate, as an executive broker at Crye-Leike’s Bentonville office. She splits her energies there between residential and commercial work, including a lot of what she calls “specialty properties” like The Applegate House, other historical homes and bed and breakfasts.

About 80 percent of Elliott’s professional time, though, is devoted to her own business, Visionary Milestones Inc. She founded VMI in 2004, after working as a consultant for about five years.

Elliott’s work at VMI is a continuation of the consulting. Primarily, that means a lot of “grants administration work,” she said.

She typically works with municipalities, funding agencies and engineering firms, and does a lot of projects with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The funding usually is related to things like easements and annexations, water and sewer lines, power stations, equipment acquisition or projects tied to job creation.

Elliott acts as a liaison between a county or city and the state and the corporation.

“I do all of the paperwork — the pay requests, the job tracking,” Elliott said. “If there’s construction involved, I make sure all the labor laws are followed.

“There’s nothing like going to a city and meeting with their city council and them saying, ‘We don’t know what we would’ve done without this grant money. This means so much to our city and the future of our city.’

“That kind of stuff means a ton. You can’t replace the feeling.”

That feeling is what she had begun to miss in 2008, when real estate work was her main focus. Combined with the fact she was traveling frequently to Russellville, where her mother had been diagnosed with lymphoma, Elliott’s desire for more personal and professional happiness led her to shift her focus back to consulting.

“I saw a little niche there, and I knew about it because I had done that before,” she said, “but I just hadn’t said, ‘OK, I’m going to devote the time to growing that part of my business.’”

Elliott concedes the real estate crash also contributed to the shift.

“There was a time in the mid-2000s when your business was going so good you didn’t really pay attention to expenses,” Elliott said. “If somebody called up and wanted you to buy an ad or something, you just did it.

“When you’re getting $50,000 and $60,000 commission checks, you could go out and buy a car. I never did that personally, but I know agents that did.”

Chasing those kinds of paydays is not what Elliott recommends to young professionals.

“I think people just need to have faith and follow their heart, and not necessarily do something that they think somebody else wants them to do or because they think that’s where the money is,” she said.

“I mean, I won’t lie, what I do as a grants administrator can be profitable, but it also can be not profitable. But at the same time, there’s just a feeling about it that you’re making a difference and I think that’s what really draws me to it more than anything.”

Aspects of Elliott’s work as a grants administrator sometimes overlap with her work as a real estate broker, and she’s excited the Northwest Arkansas market seems to be enjoying an uptick. She just hopes all the players, and especially the banks, proceed at a more reasonable pace this time.

“They hold the keys,” she said of lenders. “They have the cash. … Smart, steady growth, I think, is the key.”

Away from work, Elliott, 40, likes to engage in outdoor activities with her husband and two children.

“Running, hiking, mountain biking,” she said. “We love it all.”