When Jenni Utz was sixteen years old, she took control of her own destiny and made a choice that would change her life forever. During her Christmas break from school, she decided to go stay with her father, the man who had been largely cut out of her life since her parents’ divorce three years earlier.
Growing up, Jenni always thought she had a perfect family. Hers was the home where her friends most loved to congregate. She was thirteen when the tone took a dramatic shift. Fighting broke out, and when things fell apart completely, she and her brother and sister were forbidden from seeing their father except on very rare occasions.
Jenni, however, had never been one to relinquish her agency and independence to others. In time, she decided she wanted to get to know her father in earnest and on her own terms. When their Christmas break together came to an end, she decided she wanted to stay permanently. If she hadn’t followed her own heart and judgment, she may never have gotten to know the person who became one of the greatest, most positive influences on her life.
As time passed, Jenni and her father grew closer and closer. At high school basketball and football games, she preferred his company over that of her friends. She loved hanging out with him on the weekends. He was a Maryland State Trooper, and six months into their time living together, she decided to take a snapshot of him standing by his police car. A couple days later, on a Friday, Jenni left for a church retreat in remote West Virginia, while her father left for work.
That day, he pulled over a speeding vehicle on the beltway. As he was standing outside the car waiting for the person’s license and registration, a drunk driver passing by swerved and sideswiped the car. Jenni’s father was pulled under the vehicle, and as it spun back out and sped away, he was left all but dead in the middle of the highway.
One bystander followed the drunk driver, who had no idea he had just mowed down a dedicated community leader and shattered countless lives in the process. Another person pulled Jenni’s father off the road while the ambulance came. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition to undergo a series of surgeries in a dramatic race to save his life.
It wasn’t until the next day, when Jenni received a call on the camp’s main phone line from her grandmother, that she was filled in on the severity of the situation. The state police helicopter almost came to get her, but her mother told them not to, so there was no way for her to get home until the bus came on Sunday. “I remember just sitting in the bunkroom crying,” Jenni says today. “I had no idea what was going on or if he was going to be okay. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of walking into his hospital room the next day.”
When Jenni saw her father, he was unrecognizable—swollen, completely black, hard to the touch, and unconscious.
For the next two weeks, as he fought his way back to life in the shock trauma ward of the hospital, Jenni moved in with the family of her pastor. A state trooper picked her up each day to take her to the hospital, allowing her to stay as long as she needed. “I was so exhausted,” she recalls. “I wanted to be polite and conversational for those rides, but the greatest gift was when I could just put my seat back and sleep.”
Beyond his work as a dedicated state trooper, Jenni’s father had been a long-time volunteer at the Westminster Fire Department, where he served as the fire chief. They were the ones who transported him from shock trauma back home, where a hospital bed had been set up in their living room. “When people talk about the brotherhood in the state police and the fire department, they truly mean it, for better or for worse,” Jenni says. “They truly took care of him.”
But it was sixteen-year-old Jenni that served as her father’s primary caretaker through the next eight months of intensive therapy and grueling recovery. “My father had always been so strong, so invincible,” she reflects. “Seeing him in a hospital bed, with no ability to do anything for himself, was incredibly difficult. It was an experience that helped me grow up fast, and also reinforced my resolve to trust my instincts and follow my sense of what’s right for me and my family.”
Those instincts came into play again shortly after she graduated from college five years later, when her father and sister happened to be taking a course to earn their real estate licenses. “I figured, why not join them in the adventure and make it a team effort?” she says. Her father found that he loved the sales aspect of the work, while Jenni was drawn to operations and the business side of residential real estate. In 2009, with her father’s help and support, UTZ Properties was founded. She has spent the last eight years serving as founder and President, leading the company to success according to the internal compass that has never steered her wrong.
While that compass has led her to undertake some bold and daring entrepreneurial journeys through life, all have taken place within the lines of Westminster County, Maryland, where she’s lived since she was born. “In Westminster, everyone knows an Utz,” she says proudly, alluding to her grandmother and grandfather’s service as Chief Judge on the County’s Orphans Court, as well as her father’s current stint as Mayor. Growing up the middle of three children, she remembers that she and her sister gave up on dolls early on, when her brother ripped all the heads off their Barbies. Instead, they spent long days playing outside, running around with walkie talkies and building forts with friends.
Growing up, Jenni remembers how her mother was a good listener who was always there for her children and made sure they were taken care of. Her father, a visionary who was always posing and pursuing forward-thinking ideas, often worked multiple jobs. They lived close to their grandparents and would often visit to swim and play with cousins. Jenni also had a large circle of friends she knew through regular church attendance, where she learned the kind of moral and ethical standards that last a lifetime.
Jenni was an honor roll student at school, but she was always testing the limits. Anytime she was told she couldn’t do something, she asked why until she got an answer that made sense to her. If she wasn’t convinced, she did things her own way. If she didn’t see the value of certain classes at school, she didn’t see the point of fully investing herself. Even in those moments, her parents rarely scolded her. “They knew it had to be me to decide to fix it on my own,” she says. “They rarely interfered and let me do as I saw best, which created a sense of independence, responsibility, and good judgment, now defining aspects of my personality.”
Jenni was a tomboy from an early age, and sports played a pivotal role in the development of her character and leadership. She played football, soccer, and basketball with the neighborhood kids, holding her own with the boys and often beating them. She began playing softball at age eight and joined the traveling team at age ten, which meant up to ten games in a single weekend. On that team, she formed a core group of five girls—short stop, third baseman, first baseman, outfielder, and Jenni as pitcher—that played together all through her formative years. “We were incredibly close and had a blast together,” she says.
To help their daughter master skill and precision, Jenni’s parents set up a five-gallon bucket in the backyard and let Jenni practice pitching dozens upon dozens of eggs. If she didn’t make the pitch into the gallon, which was smaller than her strike zone in softball, she wouldn’t strike the batter out. She practiced pitching balls through the rungs of a ladder, mastering arc. She had one coach who was a particularly good influence, and who also coached her travel basketball team. “I remember laying on the court floor side by side, practicing shooting motions with our hands, making sure our gestures were sending the ball in the right direction,” she says. “He was always coming up with new ways to help us hone our craft. We made it into the world series, and we went undefeated in some years. I loved it; sports were my life.”
Thanks to this rigorous commitment, Jenni became an all-star pitcher, embracing her role as the leader of the team—always cognizant of every player on the field, and always directing the team to victory. When she entered high school her athleticism and leadership translated well into field hockey, which she picked up her freshman year of high school. By her sophomore year, she had made varsity—a testament to her commitment to throwing 100 percent into any task she picks up.
This steady rise in sports was brought to an abrupt halt with her father’s tragic accident. After eight months of recovery, he was able to return to work in a desk job, but things never truly went back to normal. School was the last thing on Jenni’s mind at that point, and though she still got good grades, she was able to retain information only long enough to get through her tests. With the weight of the world on her shoulders, it was hard to concentrate and learn, and even harder to relate to the teenagers around her who were living normal lives with normal issues. “I was no longer interested in boyfriend drama and the typical things high schoolers are concerned about,” she recalls. Though she often missed school to care for her father, she managed to graduate a year early, eager to leave the trauma of her high school years behind and move on with her life.
“I didn’t know what to do, so my dad told me to put on my big girl panties, call them up, and stand my ground,” she laughs. “As funny and trivial as it sounds, that was a turning point for me. From then on, I was really empowered in my vision of how things were going to be. If things weren’t right, I was going to make them right.”
Jenni started college at McDaniel College, where her mother worked, with goals of becoming a physician’s assistant. She enrolled in tough biology classes that prompted her to give up field hockey, but soon decided to switch to a dual degree in business and economics. She also joined a sorority when she moved on campus for her junior year. “I made great friends who I’m still very close with today,” she says. “Those years were a time for me to recuperate after my father’s accident.”
Things got tough in her senior year, when her mother decided not to sign the paperwork that would allow Jenni to get free tuition under the employment agreement she had with the college. Jenni had to struggle to pull together student loans, but she made it to graduation. She continued the process of growing up after college, and still remembers vividly the time an erroneous charge popped up on her first credit card. “I didn’t know what to do, so my dad told me to put on my big girl panties, call them up, and stand my ground,” she laughs. “As funny and trivial as it sounds, that was a turning point for me. From then on, I was really empowered in my vision of how things were going to be. If things weren’t right, I was going to make them right.”
Jenni made her foray into the professional world in a job with a telemarketing mortgage company, which first sparked her interest in real estate. She obtained her residential real estate license, and though she loved the sector, she found she was less than impressed by the leadership style and company cultures of the various businesses she encountered. “My dad and I would work as a team under a given company, and would assemble our own team of realtors under us,” she recounts. “He would be out selling, while I would run everything. We set up our own systems within our team and made sure they matched the company’s policies and procedures, which only worked as long as the company itself followed them. Surprisingly, they didn’t always do that.”
Jenni particularly remembers an instance when she approached the owner of a company to ask why he hadn’t followed his own rules. He told her that he had changed the rules, but never told anyone. In fact, the revised guidelines were sitting at home on his printer at the time of the conversation. “In my opinion, that was no way to run a company,” she says. “If you expect people to follow your policies and procedures, of course you need to let them know what those rules are! I decided to get my broker’s license so I could start my own company, where I could set my own tone for how to do things.”
With that, Jenni launched UTZ Properties as UTZ Real Estate in 2009, which happened to land her entrepreneurial efforts square in the aftermath of the housing market crash. Fortunately, she and her father had always marketed and branded themselves as Team Utz Real Estate—professionals committed to excellence. They maintained this brand as they transitioned out on their own, keeping the same logo and color scheme to help with brand recognition and consistency. “All we knew at that point was how to work hard, and that we could no longer put out a listing and expect it to sell in a day,” she recounts. “We had to hustle.”
Jenni threw herself into the challenge, mastering the systems, procedures, marketing, and advertising pieces needed for success while her father built a team of realtors. They sold very well those first couple years, but noted an influx of calls looking for rental assistance. They kept turning them away until a lightbulb went off and they decided to tailor their offerings to market demand, launching UTZ Property Management in 2011 to supplement the work they were doing through UTZ Real Estate. They brought on additional staff for the new division and purchased a small property management company to increase their portfolio, venturing into homeowner’s association (HOA) and condominium management.
Through that time, Jenni continued to pursue her own education and skills mastery, pursuing classes and designations to advance her expertise. “I’m a firm believer that, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do justice to whatever task sits before you,” she says. “It’s important to me to do things justice. Whatever I commit to, I give it a hundred percent and always strive to do my absolute best. And I couldn’t have done it without late-night discussions with my father, who has always been my sounding board and biggest supporter. No matter what happens, he’s always been my constant, telling me I can achieve and succeed at anything I put my mind to.”
Jenni responded to market demand again when she struggled to find reliable maintenance services staff to serve their property management company. She launched UTZ Handyman and Remodeling in 2011 as well, and today, that division does just as much business as the other two divisions. Demand for remodeling work has been especially high, and UTZ now employs four full-time employees that accommodate a steady stream of home remodeling work. “Each of our divisions has blossomed into their own strong companies, with fourteen employees total,” Jenni says. “We’ve had strong growth of 20 to 35 percent every year since we launched, and we don’t plan on changing that track record of success any time soon.”
Along with overseeing the smooth functioning of those divisions, Jenni now focuses her time on growth prospects, with an eye to acquisitions in Maryland, Southern Pennsylvania, and Northern Virginia. As a leader, she is oriented around a sense of gratitude for the trustworthy, reliable, committed team that enable Utz’s success every day. “You can’t be a leader without having great people underneath you,” she affirms. “I’m grateful for them, for my father’s unwavering belief in me, and for the opportunity in general.” Her leadership and vision have landed her recognition as a National Association of Realtors 30 Under 30, Baltimore Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, National Association of Professional Women’s Woman of the Year, and Maryland Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year.
These days, Jenni’s internal compass has led her through an amicable divorce with the father of her son and daughter—a friend she has known since the age of sixteen. She now lives in a beautiful home on fourteen acres of land, where she treasures the life she has with her partner and children. “I love that I can come home at the end of a busy day and just clear my head,” she says. “Instead of traffic and neighbors, we have chickens, dogs, cats, and solitude. That’s my work life balance. I’m a big family person, and I love hosting dinners to get everyone together.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Jenni warns against the dangers of an entitlement attitude.
“You don’t deserve anything unless you earn it,” she says. “Just as importantly, if you have a vision, don’t’ give up on it. There was a time I was making $9,000 a year, living on ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches because I knew what my end result was going to be, and I was going to do everything I needed to do to get there. Achieving success doesn’t happen overnight, but if you’re willing to work hard and overcome obstacles, staying true to your own compass and your own path, you’ll get there.”