Co-founder of real estate giant Century 21

Arthur E. Bartlett, a consummate salesman and co-founder of the real estate behemoth Century 21, died New Year’s Eve at his Coronado home after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease and other sicknesses, his daughter Stacy Bartlett Renshaw said. He was 76.

A firm believer in the power of the large, corporate brand, Bartlett pioneered the concept of conversion franchising, in which he persuaded independent real estate agents across the country to don the signature mustard-colored jacket and market themselves as Century 21 salespeople.

The formula worked. Seven years after starting the company at the age of 38 with Marshall Fisher, he sold it to Trans World Corp. for $89 million in cash and stock. These days Century 21 is a subsidiary of Realogy Corp. based in Parsippany, N.J., and a global company with 7,700 independently owned offices in 67 countries and territories.


“He really was one of the true pioneers, visionaries, who recognized early on the power of franchising and branding for growing and expanding a business,” said Matthew R. Shay, president of the International Franchise Assn. in Washington, D.C. “He recognized there was a built-in market to expand his brand by going after people who were already in the industry.”

Bartlett was born in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Nov. 26, 1933, the second of three children of Raymond, a truck driver for General Mills, and Thelma, a hairdresser.

The family moved to Long Beach in the 1940s. Bartlett attended Long Beach City College but did not graduate, and worked part-time at a men’s clothing store. He left school to join the Army but was discharged shortly after joining when doctors discovered an old football injury that rendered him unable to serve.

He met his future wife, Collette, at a party, and the couple married in 1955. The pair had one daughter, Stacy.

Bartlett then worked as a salesman for the Campbell Soup Co. and later for the real estate company Forest E. Olson in the San Fernando Valley, first as an agent and later as branch and district manager. Before forming Century 21, he co-founded Four Star Realty and Comps Inc., which he later sold.

Bartlett first learned of the concept of real estate franchising from Fisher, one of his former Forest Olson employees who was working at a rival real estate company, CJS. Over a chance encounter at a diner, Fisher explained the concept and Bartlett became intrigued. In 1971, the pair opened the first Century 21 in Santa Ana.

Through “sheer force of personality and determination,” Shay said, Bartlett was able to convince thousands of smaller, independent real estate companies to become Century 21 businesses.

Bartlett believed that franchising was the right way for a small entrepreneur to survive. His aim was to build the company into a national force, marketing the brand on television and radio, giving what was once a local endeavor national attention.

“Correct or not, consumers have confidence in the big, brand name,” Bartlett told The Times in 1982. “Franchising has been the savior of free enterprise in this country. It has given the small businessman a way to survive.”

After selling Century 21, Bartlett tried carrying his franchising success into the home repair business, founding Mr. Build International, which sold remodeling franchises to contractors. The company did not take off the same way Century 21 did and is no longer in operation, his daughter said. He also served as the president of the Larwin Square shopping center in Tustin and invested in residential real estate throughout the Southland.

His wife, Collette, died in 2002. Bartlett married his second wife, Nancy, his former assistant, in 2005. Besides his wife and his daughter, he is survived by his granddaughter Bella Collette Renshaw, his stepson Larry Wells, his brother Ray and his sister Millie Schneider.

In his free time Bartlett enjoyed collecting classic cars -- including a 1934 Ford Coupe and a 1957 Thunderbird -- as well as boating and taking road trips with his family. He was also a gun enthusiast and enjoyed target shooting at local ranges.

A memorial service is scheduled for Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. at the Coronado Cays Yacht Club.

His family suggests donations in his name to Camp Able, a summer camp for the disabled in Coronado. Information: (619) 594-4044.