Manager of Eastern Oregon Title Company retiring

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer March 31, 2010 03:22 pm

Lonnie Lester, who has worked in real estate for 40 years andmanaged Eastern Oregon Title the past 11, is retiring April 1. He says he looks forward to puttering around on the family farm. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer
Lonnie Lester, who has worked in real estate for 40 years andmanaged Eastern Oregon Title the past 11, is retiring April 1. He says he looks forward to puttering around on the family farm. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer
Buy a home, a business or a piece of acreage somewhere, and you’d better be sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. Real estate transactions are anything but simple, and the pitfalls are many.

Most importantly, you need to make sure the person selling the property has the legal right to do so. That’s where your local title company comes in.

Just ask a man who has worked at a busy title company the last 17 years, managed it for 11, and is getting set to pull the plug on a 40-year career in real estate.

“We investigate to make sure the buyer’s getting clear title, and that all the liens are paid off,” said Lonnie Lester, the soon-to-retire manager of Eastern Oregon Title Company. “We’re the third party that takes care of the details for the buyer and seller.”

Born and raised in Iowa, Lester moved to La Grande with his family when he was in the ninth grade. He has lived here ever since.

He started out in the real estate business in 1970, when he earned his real estate license and became a partner in the newly-formed Lester Mobile Homes.

He worked at that for 17 years, and then became an agent for Lester Real Estate, owned by his brother Russell. Russell Lester is also the owner of EOT.

Lonnie sold real estate both part-time and full-time until 1992, when he brought his years of expertise to Eastern Oregon Title, which offers among its services title insurance, escrow closings and escrow collections.

He started out at the company doing escrow closings and title searches. In 1999, he became the company’s manager.

Since then he has overseen the daily doings of ten employees, including escrow officers, title examiners, title typists and an accounting service specialist.

The biggest change he has seen in the title business is technological in nature, he said.

“The biggest change is going from doing it long-hand to using computers, but that’s in every industry,” he said.

Eastern Oregon Title is one of two such companies doing business in

La Grande — the other is Abstract and Title on Washington Avenue — and there’s plenty of work to go around. The business environment is fast-paced.

The working pace does vary, though, with market conditions. The staff at EOT hasn’t been idle during the current economic slowdown; they just haven’t been quite as busy.

“Probably we’re a little less busy than we were two years ago because the market’s slowed down. But it’s picking up a little now,” he said.

But the EOT staff is close-knit, said Lester, and no matter how busy things get, the atmosphere is small-town friendly. He said it’s been a pleasure to manage the company.

“Like most small companies, it’s laid back. I don’t have to ride herd on people,” he said.

As Lester retires, he turns the reins over to his niece, Kris Walker, who started work for the company three years ago.

Walker, daughter of the company’s owner, said she finds the title business endlessly fascinating.

“It’s like doing genealogy on a piece of property. You go all the way back to the 1890s and see who first had it,” she said.

Walker said she doesn’t see much need to change day- to-day operations, because a good system is already in place.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she said. “Lonnie’s got everything very organized, and we hate to lose him. I tried to convince him that retirement age is 80.”

But, no. Lester, who officially retires Thursday, is looking forward to a change.

He and his wife, Ruth, own a small farm, and that’s where he will focus most of his energy in the coming years.

“I’m going to putt around on the farm and spend time with the grandkids,” he said. “It’s been about 40 years in the real estate business and this is a nice time to change my way of thinking.”

Traveling, he added, is low on the priority list. He’ll be home more than he is away.

“On a farm, you’ve got animals to take care of. It’s not like you can pick up and go whenever you want to,” he said.

Looking back on his career, Lester said he has most enjoyed having daily contact with the public.

“It’s the people, the public, the customers, and having the chance to do something different every day. Plus, the employees make it enjoyable,” he said.