At Mason & Morse Ranch Company, the standard is “live it to know it” and no one lives it or knows it like co-founder and broker Robb Van Pelt.
“My earliest memories are of horses, cattle, family, neighbors and honest work,” Van Pelt said. “That is the foundation of ranching—and that is the foundation of Mason & Morse Ranch Company.”
As a cowboy, outfitter and ranch broker, the Colorado native has seven decades of experience in the saddle and on the land.
“Ranching in Colorado—and around the country—has changed over time as ranch lands transition to the next generation,” Bart Miller, Managing Broker and a principal owner said, noting that all of the agents with Mason & Morse Ranch Company carry deep roots in agriculture and know the recreational lifestyle that comes with the land. “In addition to changing ranch production and management practices, the recreational components of land are becoming very important drivers of value.”
Miller continued, “Robb continues to live the cowboy life he was born into and has always chosen what’s right over what’s easy. Robb has cultivated lasting relationships with the hardworking people of the land and Aspen’s elite. As a traditional cowboy armed with an iPhone, he’s the intersection where our clients and Mason & Morse Ranch Company Brokerage and Auction Services come together in ranch and recreational land sales.”
Founded as a division of Mason & Morse Real Estate in 1998, what is now Mason & Morse Ranch Company was based only in Aspen, Colorado, and consisted of three agents. Today it is an independent firm with 16 agents licensed in 15 states.
“We apply what we learned in Colorado, which is the value of outstanding market knowledge, cutting-edge marketing and honest dealings, to our ranch real estate transactions around the country,” Van Pelt said. “Delivering on our promises has made us trusted partners for buyers and sellers and other real estate professionals.”
The combination is a winner. Since its inception, Mason & Morse Ranch Company has sold more than $1.5 billion worth of farms, ranches and lifestyle properties across the United States.
Van Pelt has agriculture in his blood. One grandfather farmed, the other ranched and his father managed several large ranches south of Castle Rock, Colorado.
“People didn’t have a lot of hired hands then because you had family and friends,” Van Pelt said. “Neighbors pitched in to get the job done for one another. There was a sense of camaraderie and community that is rare today.”
People looked out for one another because they understood the challenges that came from making a living on the land. It was a beautiful life in a beautiful place but it wasn’t easy.
“New yearlings wouldn’t know how to find the feed truck, so my brother and I had to get our horses and push them—sometimes in the dead of winter,” Van Pelt said. “We were just kids in those days—we only had wool socks, leather boots and overshoes. We might as well have been wearing sandals and I still get cold thinking about it!”
His father eventually purchased the feed store in Castle Rock and the family moved closer to town. His background in production agriculture and small business made an agribusiness degree from Colorado State University the next logical step. Van Pelt was 11 hours away from his undergraduate degree when he received a job offer from Colorado National Bank that he couldn’t turn down. For the next three years, he found himself working in agriculture from the banking side with a trust officer managing investments that included agricultural properties.
Colorado National Bank was on the frontlines when center pivot irrigation came to Colorado and farmers began quenching their crops’ thirst from the underlying Ogallala Aquifer. One of the properties in the bank’s land portfolio had a newly installed system. A design flaw became obvious when one of the pivots blew off of the standpipe, the pumps ran on natural gas, and the management team discovered that the shut off valve had been installed next to the pump.
“Water was blowing out of the pump like Old Faithful at 2,500 gallons per minute and we couldn’t get close enough to the valve to shut it off,” he said. “Eventually we had to cut the gas off to the pump, which entailed shutting down a major gas line that carried natural gas from South Dakota to Texas for several hours.”
“The lessons were obvious: don’t install the cut-off valve next to the pump and listen to people when they advise you not to install the cut-off valve next to the pump.”
While Van Pelt was in the banking business he also put the appraisal classes and real estate classes he had taken at Colorado State to use. He bought and sold several properties on behalf of the bank, giving him his first taste of the ranch real estate industry.
Then in 1969, he met Bob Starodoj, who was selling real estate for Mason & Morse Real Estate and eventually became owner. Van Pelt and Starodoj then went into the cattle business together near Crested Butte and leased land near Aspen. Both areas were primarily ranching and rural, although recreation was gaining a strong toehold.
One spring in the early 1970s, the business partners bought two truckloads of high-horned Hereford cows and calves out of Arizona. It quickly became obvious to the veteran cowboys that those girls were used to being handled on horseback not on foot. The first several days the cattle were content to loll around in the pastures near Aspen recovering from their journey. Then they decided to go sightseeing. The cows jumped the fences and the calves crawled through.
It was a quick, but not necessarily good way to meet a lot of people. Angry phone calls began coming in from all over Pitkin County, including one from the golf course and another from the airport. Airport personnel reported Hereford cows and calves on the runway.
The cowboys loaded their horses and dogs, arriving to find six small planes filling the air space because the pilots couldn’t land. The fighting-mad cows had circled up on the runway after “treeing” several deputies and animal control officers in the back of their pickups. The officials had mistakenly tried to herd the cows off the runway on foot.
“Several world records for the 100-yard dash were set that morning as those cows lined somebody out,” Van Pelt said laughing. “We spent much of that summer trying to keep the cows on our ranch. Our country looked a lot better than our neighbors’ land did because our cows grazed their grass.”
When the cattle market broke as it inevitably does, they got out of the business. Van Pelt looked at his string of horses and decided to diversify (and pay some feed bills) by leasing them to the public. He generally ran 80 to 100 head, the number he maintains today. Eventually, this was the genesis of his own outfitting business, Snowmass Creek Outfitters that is based on the Monastery Ranch, one the largest ranches remaining in the Roaring Fork River Valley.
The outfitting business, which includes backcountry guided hunts, trail rides, and overnight camping trips is another bridge between ranch and recreation for Van Pelt.
Throughout every venture and adventure, the thought of establishing a ranch real estate brokerage was an idea that kept resurfacing. With Van Pelt’s understanding of the region, agriculture and recreation it made sense.
“I love seeing new country and learning about how the people who manage it take care of their business in that part of the world,” Van Pelt said. “Agriculture is not a cookie cutter industry any more than land is a cookie cutter commodity. Ranch real estate just seemed like a natural progression in my career.”
The birth of Mason & Morse Ranch Company
Van Pelt seemed like a natural asset to the team assembled by Bill Mason and Wendy Morse under the Mason & Morse Real Estate banner. The company, founded in 1961, specialized in luxury homes, but as recreational ranches became highly sought after it was determined the time was right in the late 1990s to create a ranch division, which Van Pelt is a principal owner to date.
“Bob Starodoj and I worked together to launch the ranch division in 1998,” Van Pelt said. “We purposely started small and slow, picking up momentum as one success led to another and one client led to another.”
The two businessmen’s customer service philosophy is commonly known as the Golden Rule.
Every day in every way treat people the way you want to be treated. My interpretations means that I behave with integrity, I’m honest and I keep the clients’ needs at the forefront of every decision. And I expect everybody who rides with me to do the same.
Square dealing worked. Mason & Morse Ranch Company has long benefited from superior customer service through positive word-of-mouth, client referrals and repeat customers.
“While the days of handshake deals are gone, we’ve always conducted ourselves in a way so that people would be comfortable with a handshake if the law allowed it,” Van Pelt said.
Many of Van Pelt’s contacts came from—and continue to come from—the rodeo world. He began roping as a Little Britches competitor, continuing through high school, college and adulthood. These days, the header spends his winters in Arizona team roping.
“At a single event last winter, I was roping with a guy from Connecticut, one from Virginia and one from Alaska,” Van Pelt said. “You never know where the next opportunity might come from, but I guarantee you won’t find it if you don’t get out and talk to people.”
The parent company and the ranch division thrived. Then the downturn of 2008 hit. While all sectors of the real industry slowed, high-end resort and recreation properties were particularly hard hit. Mason & Morse Real Estate decided to streamline and refocus its interests locally which created the ideal opportunity for Van Pelt, Starodoj and their partners, Rue Balcomb, Bart Miller and John Stratman, to purchase the ranch division and expand Mason & Morse Ranch Company brokerage and auction services nationally.
“We seized an opportunity that occurred at the intersection of the past and future,” Van Pelt said. “The name Mason & Morse has a long proud history in the area, but our experienced team had a vision for the future that would take the name far beyond the borders of Colorado.”
The vision has come to fruition. Today, Mason & Morse Ranch Company has 16 agents across the United States. Though the company began in Colorado, more than half of the firm’s transactions take place outside of Colorado.
“Unlike some brokerages, we are big believers in the brokerage network and system,” Van Pelt said. “We like partnering with other like-minded brokers across the country to conduct business in a way that benefits their clients and ours. We believe if we take care of people, the money side of our business will pretty much take care of itself.”
Because each property and each client is different, every deal is unique.
Again, we don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to ranch real estate because this isn’t a cookie cutter business. Taking into account each client’s goals we work to meet their needs.
Mason & Morse Ranch Company sellers can count on a full press marketing effort, under the direction of Karen Sutherland, the firm’s full-time marketing director, and Kay Muller, the executive administrator, that uses the most current tools available to get their properties in front of buyers.
“We adopted the Internet early, which gave us a competitive advantage from the beginning,” Van Pelt said. “The success we’ve had with digital marketing also taught us to keep an eye on emerging technology and communication tools so we can adopt them, adapt them to ranch real estate and stay ahead of the curve—and the competition.”
Adapting to change in the industry also prompted the Mason & Morse Ranch Company team to launch an auction services platform.
While the Mason & Morse Ranch Company team will never quit scanning the horizon for new opportunities, they will never lose sight of what’s most important.
“Ranch real estate is a people business,” Van Pelt said. “At Mason & Morse Ranch Company we still know the power of the Golden Rule because we live it every day.”