Howard W. Hanna Jr., founder of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, dies

With a borrowed filing cabinet and a plywood table he made from scrap, Howard W. Hanna Jr. went into business for himself in 1957 and, with the help of his wife — the late Anne Freyvogel Hanna — and his family, built a real estate empire that would become the largest independently owned real estate business in the country.

September 27, 2021

Although Mr. Hanna turned over the day-to-day operations of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services to his three children when he retired in the mid-1980s, he continued to send personal handwritten letters to every new real estate agent hired by the company.

That was part of his philosophy on doing business. In a 2017 interview, Mr. Hanna described his standards, including how he personally addressed all the envelopes. “No using a postal machine,” he said. “It’s more personal with a stamp. Why do I do it? It keeps me busy. It’s a lot of work for me. But that’s my job, and I’m hurt if they don’t send the list to me.”

Mr. Hanna, also a prominent philanthropist and a marketing genius, died Saturday at his residence in Oakmont. He was 101.

“My dad was the smartest guy that I knew, and he taught me everything I know about real estate and business,” said Howard “Hoddy” Hanna III, chairman of Hanna Holdings Inc.

The sprawling empire he launched from scratch with an initial investment of $40 now has more than 13,500 agents and employees working out of more than 400 branch offices in 11 states.

In 2013, the University of Pittsburgh named Mr. Hanna a Legacy Laureate, an honor awarded to the university’s most accomplished graduates, and in 2019, the university named him a Distinguished Alumni Fellow. He was also a proud member of the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning Society.

Mr. Hanna, who earned two business degrees from Pitt, made a gift to the university’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration in 2014 targeted to providing need-based financial support for graduate and undergraduate business students.

“He laid the foundation for what has become one of the nation’s largest real estate companies and one of Pittsburgh’s most successful businesses of any type,” said Mark A. Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh. “His very significant donation to the university advanced one of his most cherished goals — providing educational opportunities to young people.”

Friends and family members say Mr. Hanna’s life was characterized by a determined work ethic, kind gestures and service to others.

“Pittsburgh has lost a business pioneer and a civic leader,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Howard Hanna began in humble beginnings, and through hard work, he changed the real estate industry.”

After only three months in the business, Mr. Hanna led a trailblazing effort in 1957 to transform the way real estate was marketed and sold in Pittsburgh’s east end.

He organized what would be an early forerunner of today’s multi-list database for Pittsburgh agents, so that the greatest number of real estate agents would have a chance to see listings. Prior to the system he helped put in place, brokers didn’t cooperate on listings.

Howard W. Hanna Jr., founder of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services

He also played a role in opening the doors of opportunities for African Americans and women during the early part of his career.

When African American real estate broker Robert Lavelle, founder of the former Dwelling House Savings & Loan, was denied entry to Pittsburgh’s multi-list in 1965 because of his race, Mr. Hanna sponsored the Hill District businessman and fought for him to be admitted even as the Realtors threatened to throw Mr. Hanna out of the multi-list and blackball him from the industry for his activism.

He was not afraid to aggressively recruit women who aspired to work in his company as real estate agents in the 1960s at a time when most agents were men. One reason for that was that it was sometimes difficult to hire men because he didn’t have a big, fancy office. Today, the sales force at Howard Hanna Real Estate Services is only 25% men, whereas in the 1950s and 1960s it was 95% men.

Competing with larger real estate agencies in the early years, Mr. Hanna often went the extra mile to give the impression that his company was bigger than it actually was. He paid the telephone company to make the office telephone ring at home when no one was in the office so that his wife could answer and pretend to be a receptionist.

As fate would have it, when he opened his first small office at the corner of Bayard and Craig streets in Shadyside — which has since been renamed Howard Hanna Way — he planned on naming the company Shadyside Real Estate because it was founded in Shadyside.

But registering a fictitious name with the state would have cost an additional $30. Being short on funds, he settled on using his own name for the company instead.

Pittsburgh attorney Bill Pietragallo II, head of the Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti law firm, Downtown, has known Mr. Hanna for 60 years and serves as the Hanna family’s personal and business attorney.

“When I was 16 years old driving a Hanna family car that slid on some ice and hit a curb and broke the rear axle of the car, Mr. Hanna came to the scene and saw how worried and concerned I was,” Mr. Pietragallo said. “I told him I was worried about how my dad might react to me damaging their car.

“Mr. Hanna said, ‘Why does he have to know? My insurance company will take care of the damage.’ From that moment on we forged a friendship, each being a part of the other’s family.”

Mr. Hanna became close friends with Father Drew Morgan of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh when the Hannas found a new home for the Oratory at Bayard Street and Bellefield Avenue in Oakland.

“The Hannas weren’t interested in merely selling homes but providing hospitality,” Father Morgan said. “That hospitality was the foundation for how Mr. Hanna engaged people of every faith, religion and background. That’s because he was a great respecter of our diversity.

“While visiting his family’s residence in Naples, Fla., about 10 years ago during a time of studies, every morning he would bring me a newspaper, check in with me at lunch, and he would host a dinner with several friends because he had an enormous capacity for friends.

“He would insist on driving me to the airport even though he was in his late 80s,” Father Morgan said. “His family would ask why? He would say, ‘Because he’s my friend.’ He went the extra mile. He wanted to make sure everyone felt his hospitality and the power of his friendship.”

Mr. Hanna graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School and went on to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in business with a concentration in marketing. He worked full time while in college as night manager of the West Penn Auto Club from 3. to 11 p.m.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, colleges across the country, including the University of Pittsburgh, graduated all seniors with no final exams so they could join the military and fight in World War II. Mr. Hanna was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division as an engineer officer.

During his last three years in the Army, he was assigned to India on a mission to build a 2,000-mile road through the mountains leading from India to China due to the Japanese tying up all the ports around China.

When the war was over in August 1945, the Army kept him there an additional year to dispose of U.S. government property, such as B-24 airplanes, jeeps and other cars. Mr. Hanna achieved the rank of captain by the time he left the military in 1946.

When he returned to the U.S., Mr. Hanna attended night school at Pitt for a master’s degree in business marketing using the GI Bill.

He landed a day job working for the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce for a couple of years. He went to Uniontown for a year to run the Chamber of Commerce there. Then he came back to Pittsburgh to work for the Home Builders Association, where he was executive vice president until deciding to go into business for himself.

In 2001, Mr. Hanna was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh. In May 2018, he was awarded the Sen. John Heinz History Center’s 26th Annual History Makers Award for giving back to the community and helping to shape the Western Pennsylvania region.

In August, Mr. Hanna was awarded the inaugural William S. Dietrich II Award, which is presented to a Scouting alumnus for distinguished public witness to the Scout Oath and Scout Law in his or her chosen profession or field of endeavor.

And then there was his affinity for cooking and his secret chef’s heart. In 1991, he was the proud winner of three out of five entries in a Heinz chili cook-off competition.

Although his late wife, Anne Freyvogel Hanna, did not sell real estate, she was a driving force behind her husband’s success.

As a social leader in Pittsburgh’s civic and charitable affairs, she made social contacts for the company and helped create the familiar green and gold logo that can now be seen in yards and storefronts throughout the country.

The real estate company had become a household name in Pittsburgh by the 1960s. Mr. Hanna’s three children — Howard “Hoddy” Hanna III, Helen Hanna Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, and Anne Hanna Cestra, executive vice president and COO of Hanna Holdings Inc. — joined the business and eventually grew Howard Hanna Real Estate into a national company.

The company is now in its third generation of leadership.

In addition to his three children, Mr. Hanna is survived by 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, all of whom referred to him as ‘Bop-Bop.’

Funeral arrangements are by John A. Frevogel Sons, 4900 Centre Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213. Visitation there is from 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Paul Cathedral.