Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker
This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.
As chairman and CEO of Bethesda, Maryland-based commercial real estate lending firm Walker & Dunlop since 2003, Willy Walker has grown the company from a privately held family business worth $50M to a public company with a $1.6B market cap. The company, ranking as the No. 2 Fannie Mae lender and the No. 3 Freddie Mac lender in 2016, has seen its share price more than quintuple since its 2010 initial public offering.
Walker, named the 2017 Financier of the Year by Commercial Property Executive, also wields influence in Washington, having held meetings with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan about tax reform. In addition to his role leading one of the nation’s largest commercial real estate finance companies, the Harvard Business School graduate also serves on the boards of the Federal City Council, the Children’s National Medical Center, the Mortgage Bankers Association, Blue Drop and St. Albans School.
Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?
Walker: I run a commercial real estate finance company. We finance buildings like that (I point to whatever apartment building, office building or mall is within eyesight).
Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?
Walker: I’ve been in many industries — investment banking, private equity, venture capital, aviation and business process outsourcing. The sector doesn’t really matter to me — it’s having the opportunity to build a great company, work with wonderful people and create shareholder value.
Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?
Walker: I had a really nasty boss mowing lawns one summer on Martha’s Vineyard. No fun. But it paid the rent and bought the beers.
Bisnow: What was your first big deal?
Walker: That way proceeds W&D, so it’s meaningless to Bisnow readers. But at W&D, buying AIG out of their 49% ownership in our Fannie Mae DUS business in 2006 was the first move to building what we have created today.
Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?
Walker: I’d say not buying ARA when we had the opportunity. I thought they were more of a franchise than a company, so we passed. I was wrong — they’ve been a great company ever since.
Bisnow: How do you define “making it”?
Walker: There was a great commencement speech given by a Navy admiral at UT several years ago who said, “Make your bed every morning, because if you accomplish nothing else all day, you’ll at least have a made bed to climb into at night.” So, I try to “make it” every day.
Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?
Walker: People using technology during meetings. If you want to check emails or text with someone else, have at it, but don’t do it when we are having a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue at hand.
Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?
Walker: I’ve been blessed to have several incredible mentors. First is my father. Second is Don Brown, who started JBG. And third is Jack Hennessy, the former CEO of Credit Suisse.
Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?
Walker: Best was from Jack Hennessy. I was starting an airline in Argentina and showed him the business plan. He read it and said, “Looks good. Just make sure you get as many scars as possible (i.e. fail) and learn from them all.” I did! Worst? That’s hard — I’ve had lots and lots of people tell me things we should or shouldn’t do, and I’m just thankful that they took the time to share their thoughts, right or wrong.
Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?
Walker: I am a firm believer in the statement that the perfect number of bikes to own is N + 1.
Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?
Walker: Probably Zafferano in London. I was just there over Christmas with my family.
Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?
Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Walker: I am asked often where my entrepreneurial drive comes from. And it doesn’t come from some great vision. It comes from having parents who always loved me, win or lose. They also provided me with a home that I could always go back to and have a roof over my head and a warm meal. With that, you can afford to take risks and know everything is going to be OK, regardless of the outcome.
Bisnow: Whose work do you most admire?
Walker: There are so many CEOs that I greatly admire. Andy Florance at CoStar Group. Strauss Zelnick at Take-Two Interactive. Arne Sorenson at Marriott. Glenn Youngkin at The Carlyle Group. All brilliant minds that lead their companies by example.
Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?
Walker: Everything and nothing. I sleep well, and wake up around 5:30 a.m. to walk our dog and exercise.
Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?
Walker: My friends would say biking and skiing. I’d say my wife and three boys. And spending time with my friends and family is where I’m happiest.