by Aaron Burns

CORNELIUS – Abigail Jennings had no intention of joining her father’s business, let alone running it, when she graduated college.

But when James Jennings needed someone to head the relocation department of Lake Norman Realty in 1993, Abigail took the job. She’d been working as a bookkeeper before taking over the department.

When James Jennings was diagnosed with cancer in March 1998, he entrusted the company to his daughter. She’s been president ever since.

“It’s been a long 15 years,” Abigail said. “There’s been all kinds of challenges. The (2009) economic downturn was the toughest. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in real estate.”

Jennings, however, did more than keep the business afloat. She formulated an aggressive plan to expand Lake Norman Realty – it now has offices in Cornelius, Davidson, Denver, Mooresville and Statesville – and improved the company’s online presence by putting time and money into its website. She also created a council of agents who became her brain trust.

So much for the economy ruining the business. But Jennings, by nature, is an optimist.

“I kept thinking, ‘It’s going to get better,’’ she said.

The economy improved by 2010. So did Lake Norman Realty, but Jennings said she was forced to lay off some employees before the economy stabilized.

As for Jennings’ secrets to success, she said there’s a couple tricks of the trade to always remember.

“You’ve got to work hard,” she said. “People at first glance might think I had the company handed to me, but that’s not true. My dad was my toughest boss. I networked as much as I could and went out of my comfort zone.

“(Success is) definitely a (time) balance. I plan every day. I know the night before what I’m doing (the next day).”

The Charlotte Business Journal ranked Lake Norman Realty as one of its top 25 real estate companies in the region last year.

However, it takes more than planning to run a successful business. Being active in the community also helps.

“Abigail is an extremely engaged individual,” said Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell. “She has a tremendous heart. Here’s someone who is well-rounded, works well in the business community and is a well-trusted community leader.”

Jennings’ leadership style promotes equality and discussion.

“I really encourage input,” she said. “I’m definitely not a dictator. I research changes and look at the big picture before making a decision. But I also like to get in the trenches with everybody. I’ve done everything (at Lake Norman Realty), so I’m not afraid to do menial things like screw in light bulbs, fix doors, whatever is needed.”

Jennings’ whatever-is-needed philosophy also drove her to work with animals.

She’s the founder of the Lake Norman Lucky Cat Program, a nonprofit specializing in managing stray and feral cats.

“I enjoy giving back in whatever I do,” Jennings said. “I get a lot out of doing things, too. There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from helping someone.”

Facts about Abigail Jennings

• Title: President, Lake Norman Realty

• Family: Husband, Randolph Lewis; children, Genevieve, 7, Ia, 4

• College: UNC Charlotte ‘90, creative arts

• Favorite books: “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

• Hobbies: Painting, gardening, reading

• Quote to live by: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

• Honors: Chosen as one of Charlotte area’s “40 under 40” in 2002 by Charlotte Business Journal, 2010 Business Leader Magazine Woman Extraordinaire, 2013 Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Businessperson of the Year