A passion pursued
by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
When Phyllis York Brookshire rides her American Saddlebred into the ring at the North Carolina State Championship Charity Horse Show this month, she’ll take him through the five gaits that make his breed unique. She’ll do it with the calm, practiced authority she is known for. Odds are, the Raleighite will outshine the competition. This multi-titled world champion equestrienne competes regularly on the national and world level, and has a habit of racking up wins.
“My goal every year is to compete for a world championship title,” she says. “I don’t expect that I’m going to win one every year, but I want to be competitive.” At her stable in Asheboro, exercising her newest horse, the powerful 17-hand Any Night, Brookshire takes him smoothly from a trot to a slow gait.
Looking on are her husband Don Brookshire, a career horse trainer and breeder, and Matt Shiflet, who trains the couple’s horses. “When she rides,” Shiflet says, “she’s fearless, and she works so hard. She’s all in. Just like she is with her job.”
It’s a big one. Brookshire is president of the regional real estate giant Allen Tate Realtors, overseeing all residential operations, including more than 1,400 realtors and 200 staff across four regions. Brookshire got the job after launching and building the company’s Raleigh area operations in 2007, just before the bottom fell out of the real estate market. “The job she did helping us navigate through the longest housing recession in history was second to none,” says Pat Riley, president and CEO of Allen Tate Companies. “The perfection she strives for in everything, coupled with that competitive nature … that drive, determination, and passion … is very special.”
By all accounts, Brookshire comes by it naturally. When she was growing up on land that would become part of Ravenscroft School in North Raleigh, her father, the influential Raleigh developer J. “Willie” York, thought a horse would be good for her. It was the early ’70s, there weren’t many sports available to girls, and the man who built Cameron Village believed caring for and riding a horse could teach his daughter what sports can: confidence, responsibility, and discipline. Phyllis, then 8, jumped at the chance. Every morning, she walked to the farm next door to take care of her horse, and every afternoon after school, she rode it. She begged her father to allow her to compete in a horse show. “He said: We’re not going to show, I just want you to have a horse to ride.”
Brookshire persevered; she won the first class she entered, and soon, her life revolved around horses. After she spent three summers in a row riding in Ohio, her father acknowledged the significance of her chosen sport. “If this is all you’re going to do,” he said, “why don’t we just build a farm and I’ll do it with you. You can do it at home.”
York didn’t know anything about horses, but that didn’t stop him from converting land he owned in Clayton to a horse farm, hiring a trainer, and launching a breeding operation with 20 horses. “He was a businessman,” she says today. “He could figure out most anything.”
Her father must have figured out early on that his daughter had the potential to build an impressive career in any field, including his own – she was a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, after all. But he may not have known at the outset that she would one day become a multi-titled world champion equestrienne. “It was not his plan that I was going to get quite as deep into it,” she says today, “but I did.”
A passion pursued
Matt Shiflet Stables in Asheboro is a pretty hour-and-a-half’s drive down Route 64 from Raleigh. Home to a breed of handsome, muscular horses known for their five gaits (walk, trot, slow gait, rack, and canter), their high carriage, and their versatility, Shiflet’s operation is pristine. Fresh poplar sawdust lines the floors of its barns; raked sandy soil provides sure footing in its rings.
Brookshire and her husband Don keep their horses here and consider Shiflet, whom they’ve known for years, a partner in their equestrian pursuits. A member of the board of directors of the American Saddlebred Horse Association, Shiflet has helped the Brookshires find, purchase, and train their horses for the last eight years.
On this bright, blue-sky summer day, Brookshire and her husband have come to take Any Night through his paces. As Don Brookshire watches his wife ride assuredly past, he smiles. “She loves it for the right reasons,” he says. “Phyllis always liked it because she liked the horses.” But she’s successful, he says, because she takes it seriously. “She’s one of those people: When she’s going to show a horse, she prepares for it. It’s not just a fun thing for her.”
During show season – a six-month span that typically ends in September or October – the two of them are out here once or twice a month to practice with Any Night, Cosa Nostra, or their 3-year-old, Texas Pete, and they’re on the road for a week at a time for horse shows, about six of them a year. The couple has recently bought land down the road from the stables with the plan of building a second home, getting them closer to their horses – and also closer to a good deal of Brookshire’s work, which includes regular travel to Greenville, S.C., and to 42 Allen Tate offices throughout the region.
Brookshire credits the company for enabling her to pursue her passion for horses with the same commitment she brings to her work. “It’s an organization that’s very focused on enjoying your life,” she says, crediting CEO Pat Riley with encouraging all employees to find balance: “You’ve got 168 hours in a week,” she recalls him saying, “how are you going to spend it?” Employees are encouraged to think about their lives as wheels made up of different components: work, family, community, and passions, for instance. “If you get out of whack, your wheel’s not going to turn,” she says. “If you spend way too much time in the work zone, your family’s going to suffer. If you spend too much time in the family zone, work’s going to suffer. It’s all about how to make the wheel run smoothly, and it’s different for everyone.”
Brookshire’s wheel hums when she’s riding. She says a rigorous approach is key: “I’m organized. I’m system-oriented. That helps me do multiple things. I hate the word multitasking, but being able to focus in when you need to, and being able to juggle multiple balls at one time” makes it possible, she says.
So does genuine, heartfelt enthusiasm. “You have to love what you do,” she says. “I love riding. I love competing. I love real estate, and I love my company. I think your mindset is very important.”
Hers is clearly optimistic, practiced, and assured. As she sits straight-backed astride her horse, there’s no doubt who’s in charge. One of her advantages, she says, is that she doesn’t get nervous before a competition, which translates directly to the horse and makes communication with the animal fluid, and success mutual.
Brookshire draws a parallel to her work life, where she relies on her ability to calmly, carefully coach an agent through a challenge.
She credits her father for her ability to remain calm under pressure. “That’s probably the best lesson my Dad taught me: worry about the things you can control; don’t worry about the things you can’t. I adopted that very early on. Because this is a crap-shoot some days,” she gestures to the 1,100 pound animal she needs to coax into a precise performance, “and so are things at work.”
Brookshire has long been adept at handling the unexpected. In 1998, she upended her life as a professional horse trainer with her husband in Kentucky to return home to help take care of her ailing mother. “We don’t have kids, so it made it easier for me to do that,” she says. When her mother passed away not long after she’d arrived, Brookshire decided to shift gears again, going to work for the family business by taking on a few projects for York Properties. “One thing led to another,” she says, and “I fell in love with it.” She was chief operating officer for the company when she decided to leave. She had a “different philosophy of where to go and how to get there,” she recalls. “It was their company, and they needed someone who was going to follow their vision.”
Not long after, Allen Tate came calling. Today Brookshire says she loves the role she’s in with the company. “My job is really to coach and mentor my team,” she says. “My satisfaction is: I’ve guided you, or held you accountable, and you’ve succeeded. When I see people succeed, that’s when I get excited.”
Which is not so different from the pleasure she gets and the skill she brings to riding: “I love the animals,” she says. “I love connecting with them and figuring out how to get the best out of them. I like competing. I like to win. I like to know I gave it my best effort.”
Shiflet whistles and claps his hands as Brookshire glides past on Any Night. The trainer wants the horse to be accustomed to the sounds of a crowd. The horse doesn’t flinch, and neither does its rider. “P.Y.,” as he calls her, is a natural, he says. “She’s got great balance with the horse,” he says, “and a great feel for it. She’s fearless.”
Brookshire will tell you it’s simply who she is. “It’s what I’ve done my whole life,” she says. “It’s how I met my husband. It’s just been great.”