Coldwell Banker icon Ralph Burnet receives final farewell

Coldwell Banker icon Ralph Burnet died on March 19, after a lengthy battle against kidney disease. Longtime friend and colleague Matt Baker reflects on his legacy.

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A billboard changed Coldwell Banker Realty executive Matt Baker’s life.

It was 1982 and Baker had just graduated from Colorado College. Real estate was already on his mind as a career path, inspired by his father who was an architect. Baker said commercial real estate was the hot ticket to success in the 1980s; however, that segment of the industry didn’t speak to his personality and passions.

“I was very interested in real estate as a segment of the economy, and I was more sort of focused on commercial, but the pace and cadence just wasn’t suited to me,” he said. “I thought residential would be better — the relationships, the fun factor, and dealing with homeowners and helping them with something meaningful. That was much more aligned with what was important to me.”

Still searching for the right launchpad, Baker said a billboard from Burnet Realty caught his eye. Brokerage founders Ralph Burnet and Dar Reedy had sold the brand to Merrill Lynch — a testament to how Burnet had ballooned from a team of seven agents to a full-service brokerage with thousands of sales associates across multiple states.

“The billboard said, ‘You’re not losing Burnet, you’re gaining Merrill Lynch,’” he said. “That caught my attention as a young college grad. I reached out to Ralph and I was quite enthused with his vision. I joined the company as a sales associate.”

Baker worked side-by-side with Burnet as an executive and friend for more than 42 years, until Burnet’s death on March 19 at the age of 78. Burnet’s family hosted a memorial service on April 23, where Baker helped eulogize the real estate icon in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

“He was a very dynamic leader and mentor and entrepreneur,” he said. “His founding principles were an opportunity for personal growth, embrace change, and then a very important one, having fun. We had a culture of work hard, play hard.”

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Ralph Burnet | Photo courtesy of Matt Baker

“Ralph definitely empowered his team, and it was very rewarding to be part of an organization with a leader like that,” he added. “It was fun for me to sort of go through the timeline. We had a lot of emotion — laughter, reflection and sadness — to say goodbye.”

Burnet was always an entrepreneur at heart, with his first business being a ski shop located in the heart of Minneapolis’ business district. A lengthy Star Tribune feature about Burnet said his Little League coach was the person to pull him into real estate sales in 1968.

Five years later, Burnet and Reedy opened Burnet Realty and revolutionized Minessota’s real estate market by embracing ancillary services, including mortgage, title and insurance. The duo added corporate relocation services to the mix, which supercharged the brokerage’s growth and gained the attention of Merrill Lynch Realty, the real estate arm of financial services company Merrill Lynch.

Merrill Lynch Realty acquired Burnet in 1982; however, Burnet and Reedy repurchased the brokerage in 1990 when Prudential announced its acquisition of Merrill Lynch Realty. The company would stay independent for another eight years until NRT — now known as Anywhere Advisors — purchased Burnet. The company continued to expand under the NRT banner, becoming Coldwell Banker Burnet.

“Ralph was always looking for opportunities to improve. His relentless pursuit of excellence fueled our company’s evolution,” Coldwell Banker Realty Minnesota and Western Wisconsin Regional President Brian Bolier said in a written statement shared with Inman. “He saw potential where others hesitated, and he challenged us to think beyond the ordinary.”


Matt Baker

“Ralph trusted his instincts and trusted others to make the idea live. He taught us to be resourceful, to maximize every opportunity,” he added. “His legacy reminds us to be stewards of our resources.”

Baker said Burnet will be sorely missed not only for his contributions as a real estate leader but also as a philanthropist who invested in the Twin Cities through several initiatives, such as the Burnet Senior Classic and the Burnet Fine Art Gallery. He said Burnet was also a family man who took great pride in his wife Peggy, and their three children, Kim, Steph and Ryan.

“Moving forward, I think there’s still a tremendous amount of pride in having been part of Ralph’s legacy and having the opportunity to continue to carry forward the principles that were established half a century ago,” he said. “Because when you think about Ralph’s principles, they’re still very relevant today. He was quite prescient in thinking about what was important.”

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