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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With American Real Estate Partners CEO Doug Fleit

This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

In 2003, Doug Fleit and Brian Katz founded American Real Estate Partners, a Northern Virginia-based investment firm focused on buying, repositioning and managing properties in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

The firm has now invested over $3.5B and acquired over 16M SF of properties. It has bought over 7M SF of real estate in the D.C. Metro area, over 2M SF in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, 1.8M SF in Philadelphia and 1.5M SF in Baltimore. 

Fleit, now CEO of AREP, previously spent 22 years with Cushman & Wakefield, where he co-founded its D.C. office in 1981 and grew the regional operation to $50M in annual revenue. 

American Real Estate Partners CEO Doug Fleit and principal Michael Gribbon

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?

Fleit: We have a very complicated business model. I simply tell people that we are value investors who buy buildings. We make everything a little better than we found it with what we do. People can understand that even if they don’t know our business and it certainly seems to resonate with them.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?

Fleit: If this were 10 years ago, I would have said running a large hedge fund or private equity fund. Today, my answer is probably totally different. I was a drummer growing up in high school and worked my way through college playing in bands that toured New England. I would go back on tour and be a drummer in a band. Ah, just a fantasy. But I still play on my electronic set through a mixing board every week. With a couple of thousand songs, I get to emulate my favorite drummers and it pushes me to be better every time I pick up the sticks.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Fleit: In college, I spent a summer working for a moving company. I had menial jobs from when I was 15 (actually delivered papers when I was 10 and cut lawns till I was 14), but the moving job that summer was the hardest, most backbreaking work I ever did. It has given me a total appreciation for all the people in our buildings who work for us and the hard work they do. Never forgot, never will.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Fleit: My first large deal was with a company called Mantech. A guy walked into my office back in 1979, asked me what space we had, looking for 20K SF. He left after a while and never gave me his card or his company. I went "all detective" and spent two days tracking the man down, having only his name. Remember, this was before there was anything around published to help me. When I found him, turned out he was working on a lease at the very first to-be-built Skyline office building. I went down to his office and pitched him on a build-to-suit. It eventually turned out to be a much larger deal when we were done and we closed my first build-to-suit in 1980 on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria … when it was a landfill. That deal gave me the feedback that persistence and commitment is a substantial amount of dealmaking. And, by the way, Mantech is one of our largest and most valued tenants today.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Fleit: Actually any deal that we did not close. I am driven by a sincere fear of failure and use each experience to improve what we do. The hardest lessons are the ones where we did not succeed. We either learn from them or we will truly fail. See, I avoided anything specific … too painful!

Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the commercial real estate industry, what would it be?

Fleit: Probably a great number of things, and I can see that a lot will change over the next few years. This is a service business and everyone is focused on new services and amenities but the new sea change is really about creating experiences and creating a social community that is seamless between work life and personal life. I am looking forward [to] the next decade, and the folks who don’t get ahead of the new world we live in will be left far behind in the end.

American Real Estate Partners CEO Doug Fleit and President Brian Katz

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Fleit: When someone says to me "I didn’t have time." That is rarely true and often a lame excuse. They could have said, "I spent time on another project," "I didn’t prioritize well," or simply "I forgot." But if you tell me "I didn’t have time," that says to me it wasn’t important to them. You always find time for things that are important. No excuses.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Fleit: You made me think about that one and, once I did, the answer was obvious. My sons, Kyle and Jason. That is probably a different answer than you expected. They both work with AREP and offer me incredible insights every day on business and personal matters. Working with them, I find myself listening intently, really listening. Their perspectives always hone in on the right issues that matter, cutting right to the chase. I learn from them every day and only wish that I was that bright at their age.

Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?

Fleit: The best advice was from a former partner who simply said, "think bigger." He meant more than doing larger deals. He meant think beyond your boundaries. Don’t be limited by your experiences. But don’t forget to do larger deals. The worst — I was told when I was 22 that I was not cut out for this business. Instead of pushing me down, it simply motivated me to show that I could be a success in the business.

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Fleit: Now, perhaps flying private jets or charting a yacht in the islands ranks right up there. But candidly, it is as simple as sharing a great bottle of wine with people I enjoy. Wine is a sharable experience. Fortunately, I have a few of those bottles. The simplest pleasures are really the best.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Fleit: The one that was my favorite closed: Cello in N.Y. The chef left and founded BLT Steak, good for him, bad for the rest of us. Cello was an incredible restaurant and stood among the finest in the world, without seeming stuffy. My favorite place in D.C. is probably Del Mar. Fabio and Maria Trabocchi do an incredible job running their business. Maria told me that she didn’t want Fabio to open up another restaurant so quickly after the last but I am so glad that they did.

AREP CEO Doug Fleit and Shooshan Cos. Chairman John Shooshan

Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?

Fleit: I would tell him that what you say actually matters. The world pays attention to the words you use. Presidents lead by example, though, not just by words. Being Republican, I have hope … in the long term.

Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Fleit: In hindsight, none of them seemed like big risks at the time. White water rafting down the Gauley? Hiking and camping commando style in the freezing White Mountains? Leaving a neurochemistry job at NIH to go into real estate? Finding the woman I loved and jumping into a relationship that lasted 40 years? Leaving a stellar lucrative advisory practice to start a new investment business from scratch 15 years ago? We takes risks every day, make the decisions we make. Life.

Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit in your hometown?

Fleit: I was born in D.C. and grew up here. I love to watch it change and explore it. It has truly been an amazing transition, especially the past 15 years with all of the new neighborhoods blossoming. This has been one of the great renaissances in D.C.’s history and free-flowing capital helps. It’s not that I haven’t a favorite place, it’s kind of all my favorite place. Sounds corny, but I am proud to be from here.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Fleit: It used to be the fear of what I was not doing — that fear of failure thing. Now, it’s more that I have a lot of ideas and initiatives I believe we need to implement and my impatience drives me to stay up and think through them. Maybe it’s just thinking of how to stay ahead of my competition. Gotta move faster. 

Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?

Fleit: My wife, Trudy, would say work! Outside of work, I have a lot of passions and am an avid collector (or pack rat to some) of antique maps or rare books. Trudy rolls her eyes when we pass a rare bookstore. There goes another hour wasted in the stacks. Maybe it’s a phase, but in the meantime, let’s sit down over a bottle of wine and discuss where the world’s going.