John El-Koury & Alexa Wheeler
Alexa – “What I think I am most proud of is that I started Freewheeler; the company wasn’t bought, it wasn’t inherited, it was me and we are still here! I am proud that we have been in business since 1987 and are probably the oldest real estate company in the Upper Keys with the same management and the same owners. We have stability and we have history.
In 1982 my husband and I bought a second home in the Keys; we lived on Key Biscayne in Miami. The house we bought was a duplex and my in-laws lived in the other half. We really liked the Keys, so in the early 80’s we rented our house on Key Biscayne for the winter, and basically we never went back.
We were in the gas business in Miami and commuted, so we sold that and I went into real estate at Jerry Eagan’s. (I had got my real estate license right out of college; I don’t know why, my friends and I just thought it would be fun.) He was a crusty old guy who knew everything about everybody! I started a vacation rental department but Jerry didn’t like vacation rentals, so one day he just told me ‘Alexa, I like you but I don’t like vacation rentals, if that is what you want to do you have to do it on your own’. I had found out by then that vacation rentals was where my love lied, it was most dear to my heart. I love bringing families to the Keys and making them happy!
I started Freewheeler Vacations. My courage to go out on my own came from necessity. I knew it was a viable business and I knew there was money in it. There wasn’t anyone doing it full time. I had some inventory, about 6 houses from working with Jerry, and I just grew from there!
I met John in 1989 when he walked into my office and announced he wanted to work with me. My response was ‘What can you do?’ I told him he needed a license, to go and get it. I thought I had blew that kid off, but he was back a few months later with his license! We have been working together and building this company ever since!”
John – “I was born in New Jersey but my parents moved us to Miami when I was just a little guy. After graduating from high school I attended Louisiana State. I did a couple of years there but it wasn’t clicking for me and I was floundering around. It was a great experience but it wasn’t working so in 1985 I joined the Coast Guard. I attribute the Coast Guard for most of my success. The opportunity was phenomenal. Most of my service was located in Lake Charles Louisiana at a Marine Safety Detachment. Turned out to be a great experience. It provided tremendous work experience, allowed me to expand my education and work with an outstanding group of people; some have remained close lifelong friends. The job primarily consisted of port security and environmental protection.
In 1989 my time in the Coast Guard was complete, so it was time to make a new career choice. I decided to move to the Keys; since my family has always loved and vacationed in the Keys and by now had moved down fulltime, I figured it was a perfect destination. Having participated in the Veterans Education Assistance Program (GI Bill) I put it to use commuting back and forth to Miami continuing my education. This led me to where I am today.
In 1990 I met with Alexa, a family friend and neighbor, and asked to join her vacation rental business as a new associate. I pursued my real estate license opening the door to yet another great opportunity.
My wife Sandy and I have two great girls, Cameron 13 and Brooke 10. I can’t think of any better place to start a family and raise your kids. The Keys has provided a wonderful life.
Alexa – “I remember, in the beginning, we did everything; we checked the properties, we did all the maintenance. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, and we didn’t even have beepers. We had a huge reservation book that we used markers in, every color meant something; green meant paid, etc. It was a double booking nightmare! I had to send our maintenance man (when we got one) out with a pocket full of quarters and he would have to find a pay phone to call us if he needed anything! I had the first fax machine; they were $1600 back then! That was high tech!”
John – “Early on we realized this business had much more to offer. I decided to get my Brokers license and we would pursue the sales market.
The beginning was a struggle due to the fact that we were well known and established as a leading vacation rental company; so in 1994 we aligned with Realty World providing assistance in the sales side of the business. This worked for a while, however, now we are very excited to be affiliated with Leading Real Estate Companies of the World and Luxury Portfolio. I am sure this new affiliation will provide the resources and support needed to excel in today’s market.
Over the past 25 years I have worked hard to establish ourselves as one of the Florida Keys leading real estate companies and I’m not ready to slow down now. We have some of the best sales agents in the Keys and I am looking forward to our growing success together.
A funny story; Freewheeler was the name of Alexa’s boats. Freewheeler means ‘wandering around aimlessly without purpose or direction’. The agents don’t like that for a slogan!! It was appropriate back in 89 when the Keys were even more laid back and free spirited, when it was more live and let live.
We have a new marketing platform; Leading Real Estate Companies of the World which is a phenomenal platform; it gives us a tremendous amount of tools and resources. The high end, properties of a million dollars and above, will fall under Luxury Portfolio. Luxury Portfolio puts your property on 500 websites in 50 countries and 9 different languages. Our new motto is ‘I am local, I am global.’ The most important part, however, is our clients still get to work with us, the local people.
We also just launched a concierge program; it is another level of service we can offer. We can book excursions, shopping trips, whatever the customer would like; we can arrange it!
We work as a team here, we try to keep it a family atmosphere. We employ over 50 people and have 2 offices; Key Largo and Islamorada. We have great agents. The common thread of freewheeler is that we always pull together. We have agents that have been with us for over 20 years. We are a team; a family. We still manage houses that we started with and we meet interesting and incredible people every day; from your average family wanting a vacation to the rich and famous like Hank Williams and Jimmy Buffet! You just never know, and that adds to the fun!
We primarily cover from mm 106 to Lower Matecumbe, but have properties as far south as Key West.
We believe in being involved in the community; we host and cook the breakfast after the Key Largo Bridge Run, we are involved with the Conch Scramble, the Chamber, the Rotary, I am on the board at the Good Health Clinic; a whole list, we have a good program. We like to contribute, jump in with both feet, and the bigger the ideas the better! We like to do things right! That is how Freewheeler rolls.
The partnership between Alexa and me is successful for many reasons. I have enjoyed learning from and working with her over the years. Our strengths lie in the role each of us plays. Alexa’s strengths are in maintaining the company and ensuring our financial soundness allowing me to run a growing and profitable business. This is more than a fulltime job with over 50 sales agents and employees and staying on top of today’s fast paced technology and constantly changing real estate climate.
One of the perks with Freewheeler was the opportunity to earn my pilots license and acquire a plane. I have enjoyed this experience tremendously.”
Alexa – “The plane has afforded me the opportunity to spend time in a second home, a cabin near the Suwannee, and still keep in touch through electronics. We have come a long way!”
John – “My motto is to start you day feeling sharp and ready to win. Without this philosophy you have little chance of succeeding. Some days you get beat up along the way; however the only way to end your day as a winner is to start that way.”
For more information or to contact Freewheeler Realty, visit their website: http://freewheelerrealty.com/
This story was published in Keys Life Magazine, October 2015 edition.