ONE-ON-ONE WITH JIM TOTH
Jim sits down in front of his laptop in his pine-paneled home office, wearing his typical uniform—long-sleeved t-shirt, insulated vest and an ever-present, but always changing, baseball hat. Today’s hat bears the logo of the Grizzly Hackle Fishing Company, a successful outfitter, lodge and fly fishing store he once owned. It’s Friday afternoon, and his casual appearance and relaxed demeanor suggest he might be winding down for the weekend, but make no mistake—Jim Toth is all business, all of the time. Noticeably confident when talking about ranches and real estate, Jim seems hesitant to talk about himself. We decided to kick off the interview with an easy question and start with what brought him to Montana in the first place.
Originally from the Midwest, Jim has been in Montana for the last 42 years. Growing up in Missouri, Jim spent most of his free time fishing and hiking the Ozarks and Northern Missouri plains. Jim’s idyllic perceptions of an outdoor life in the West brought him straight to Montana after his college graduation. “After 42 years, I still have the same excitement about Montana as when I first came out here as a kid from the Midwest.” Securing a job as an agricultural product sales rep, Jim reflects on the way he felt after moving to Montana, “My very first morning waking up and seeing the mountains and ranches, I realized—wow, this is really where I want to be and how I want to live.” He says he still feels the same Montana magic now and can’t see himself ever living anywhere else—but knows that his decades here still don’t really qualify him as a “Montanan”, something his wife Cassandra, who is a member of a fourth generation Montana family, jokingly reminds him of all the time.
Beyond the call of the great outdoors, the other pull to Big Sky Country for Jim was the people and their connection to the land. Selling agricultural products to ranchers and farmers early in his career, he admittedly knew little about Montana agriculture. Educated at the University of Missouri on growing corn and soybeans, he had to get up to speed quickly on the other aspects of agriculture such as surviving droughts, floods, bad commodity prices, rising land costs and how to deal with family disputes. In the process, Jim deepened his appreciation for ranchers and farmers and gained tremendous respect for the commitment that they have made to the land.
“I still appreciate ranchers and farmers as much today as I did when I first moved here, and how hard it is to do what they do.”
Jim’s career has always involved Montana land in one way or another. From agricultural salesman, to fly fishing outfitter, to his current role as a broker of Montana ranch real estate, the land is never far from Jim’s purpose.
Jim notes a quote from a speech he heard Ross Perot make about types of businesses to avoid: “Don’t ever be in a weather-dependent business.” Jim shares the quote and then laughs, saying every single one of his jobs has been at the mercy of the weather. Agreeing with Perot, Jim explains, “He was right, it’s tough. My banker even told me once, when I had my fly fishing shop, that even a dryland wheat farmer makes money two out of every seven years. I felt like I was worse off than that at the time.” Jim speaks about witnessing the effort and preparedness of ranchers and farmers and being in awe of their commitment to their land and livestock, “I truly appreciate it.”
After multiple years in the ag business, Jim decided to explore the recreational aspects of the land. Opening the Grizzly Hackle Fishing Company and Lodge in Missoula in 1988, Jim dove head first into Montana’s sporting world and developed a brand that would become synonymous with fly fishing in Western Montana. He got started in ranch brokerage in 1999 when he founded the Silver Bow Club, a private ranch club on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers.
Looking back, Jim credits his experiences on both sides of the fence for his well-rounded perspective on the Montana land market. Realizing early on that many of his well heeled fly fishing clients were buying ranches in the area for the land’s recreational potential versus agricultural use, he has been witness to the shifting dynamics in Montana ranch real estate for the last 35+ years.
As properties have passed from families who had been in farming and ranching for generations to new owners who were seeking weekend retreats or looking for investment opportunities, Jim’s experience in both industries have helped him “understand the landowner side of it, but also understand the perspective of the high-net-worth buyer, and what they think is important.” Jim’s experiences in both agriculture and fly fishing allow him to appreciate all aspects of the land and convey the associated value to different types of buyers. It also goes a long way in helping sellers understand the future value of their property, whether it’s for ranching or recreation or development. “Not only can you raise 500 head of cows here, but you’ve also got miles of great trout fishery—and that’s going to make your place worth a lot more,” Jim explains.
Jim’s fly fishing experience also made him think differently about his approach to Montana ranch real estate when he decided to leave the brokerage firm he was working for and join the team at PureWest. Just like the fly fishing business, the organizational structure of most ranch brokerages did little to support the motivations of those working underneath the broker.
“Before I was in the ranch brokerage world, I had a fly fishing shop, lodge and guide service. A new, young guide would come in and work underneath the outfitter. As they got better and better, and more and more qualified, there was never a place for them to go in the company—they were always working for the outfitter who was at the top. As a result, as soon as any guide got really good, they went off on their own.”
Seeing the parallels in the ranch real estate industry, Jim wanted to join like-minded real estate professionals who would work as a team, and would benefit from sales as a team—rather than just the person whose name was on the door. This team based approach not only creates a collaborative environment for the sales people, but also benefits clients—giving them access to the insights and efforts of an entire team. It also keeps the individual agents motivated to create new business for the company, since in most cases everyone shares in the benefits from a successful transaction. According to Jim this model has been well-received by clients,
“Some of the biggest listings we’ve had, we won the day because of our team approach.”
Marketing a ranch real estate brokerage with a unique business model brought challenges. “Ranch brokerage is completely different from any residential or luxury real estate business. The marketing is different, the messaging is different, the buyers and sellers are different, and even the transactions are different. There’s an attitude and willingness to work with people that has to be conveyed in a certain way—to be a successful ranch broker you just can’t buy into Zillow or another pre-made marketing package, you really have to develop it yourself from scratch,” explains Jim. It was time consuming and expensive, but a worthwhile endeavor for Jim and his team, “We’ve proven that we’re right up there with the competition when it comes to our marketing and sales volume. We like our position and niche in the market.”
When asked if there was a moment that he realized that he was in the right business, Jim brings up Heart K Land & Cattle Co. “When we listed Heart K, east of Livingston, that was a big moment. We were up against the two biggest competitors in the business, and we were still a relatively new team. Thanks to our team effort, the quality of our marketing, and our previous experience with high-end ranch brokerage, we won the day. When they selected Western Ranch Brokers over our two major competitors, to me, that was a moment of arrival., but we proved ourselves as the better choice and earned—and sold—a $25 million listing.”
Looking at the competition, Jim points out another difference between Western Ranch Brokers and others. “It’s not about us—it’s about you and your land that you’re selling, or you as the buyer and why you’re doing it. It’s not how much I fish and hunt and all that kind of thing, it’s actually about how much I can help the client enjoy the fishing and hunting experience on the ranch or how I can help them expand their cattle operation so that their next generation can continue ranching down the road.”
Jim also notes the work ethic of the Western Ranch Brokers team—not only do they work hard, but they don’t disappear when things get difficult.
“With our previous backgrounds in business, we know how to handle complex transactions. If things get complicated at the end of a deal, with an accountant or an attorney, or if you’ve got a sibling that has an issue with a transaction—we’re pretty good at handling those curveballs. We always try to minimize them, but if we do run into them, we’ve got the tenacity and experience to still get the deal done.”
Jim attributes Western Ranch Brokers’ success to not just the team’s ability to handle complex transactions, but also to their willingness to stick it out, even when things get difficult. Jim says that anyone working at this level in the ranch real estate business is good, and has good marketing, but that at the end of the day it’s about who you want to do business with. “It’s about what we can do for you—and people appreciate that.”
Jim tries to understand the motivations of the buyers and sellers he is working with, saying it’s the number one thing that leads to a successful transaction. Having insight into the “why” of a purchase or sale helps him and his team tailor property searches or marketing efforts. Jim notes, “The biggest challenge, especially with limited inventory, is a client who wants to sell but has unrealistic expectations.” Sellers often demand top dollar prices, not based on market conditions, but because they don’t know what they are going to do next and think an excessive amount of money will give them the runway to figure it out. Jim believes that the more honest and straightforward he can be with clients, the better. He’d rather price the property based on the market and put in the work to help his clients figure out their next step than over-price a property and see it stagnate. Whether it’s looking at real estate investments that will create cash flow, or helping a family exit out of ranch ownership because the next generation either can’t or doesn’t want to continue farming or ranching, he’s there to help his clients navigate the future.
Jim’s advice for buyers? “Help us really understand what you want. Let us pick your brain and understand what led you to wanting to buy a ranch. Is it having a place to go fishing, creating a family legacy, or is it about your investment portfolio? If we understand why you think you want a ranch, we can help you cut through the clutter and steer you towards properties that meet those needs.” He also notes that just as the family dynamics of sellers play a big part in the success of a transaction, there is also often a need to navigate the relationships of more than one buyer.
“There may be one part of a buyer group that is very opinionated, but they may not be the decision maker. If we understand each party’s role and motivations, we can help them navigate not only the sale, but the relationship between them.”
Jim shares that he’s only taken one aptitude test in his entire life and just two things stood out—his interest in helping people and having a good time. “Those were the two parameters that led me to the fly fishing world, and I bring the same excitement and enthusiasm to the real estate transactions I work on. I really want to see the client succeed and a successful deal go down. I have several older clients, and helping them figure out their succession plan—how to get out, how to solve family problems—is important to me. I love unraveling that and creating a positive experience for sellers.”
He also reflects on his own excitement when he moved to Montana over 40 years ago, and how he sees the same enthusiasm in first-time buyers. He knows what this transaction means for them, and wants to help them hit their personal and financial goals, no matter the challenges. “I don’t give up, and I have a great way of simplifying complicated transactions.” Always the salesman, he says, “In sales there’s never a ‘no’, there is a ‘yes’ or ‘not yet’. I’m always the ‘not yet’ guy—we will figure out a way to get your transaction done, and when we do, that makes me just as happy as the financial part of it.”
Before wrapping up the interview, we also asked Jim if there was anything else that people should know about him. He flashed a smile and said, “I like really good bourbon, that’s one thing,” but quickly recovered, saying that he gets “a real joy out of helping people” and expressed his thanks to everyone who has read the Western Ranch Brokers blog and emails and has provided comments both positive and negative, “I appreciate everyone doing that, and look forward to continuing the conversation.”
Continue your conversation with Jim and find out how Western Ranch Brokers can go to work for you.