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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Madison Marquette Chairman Amer Hammour

Madison Marquette Chairman Amer Hammour at the October grand opening of The Wharf

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

Amer Hammour founded Madison Marquette in 1992 and has built the company into a nationwide development and investment firm with over $6B in assets. The developer is behind massive projects such as The Wharf in D.C., Pacific Place in Seattle and Asbury Park Boardwalk in New Jersey. 

Madison Marquette has been expanding rapidly over the last year, announcing two separate mergers. The firm in June closed its merger with Houston-based PMRG. The combined company is headquartered in D.C., with 12 additional offices across the U.S. and a total of 600 employees. The company has over $6B in its investment portfolio and provides management, development and leasing services to 330 properties across 24 states. 

Last month, Madison Marquette announced it would merge with The Roseview Group, a Boston-based real estate investment and advisory firm with 20 employees. The merger is expected to close in the coming weeks. 

Leading the firm through multiple mergers and major developments has been Hammour, a Syrian native who lived in Lebanon and France before moving to the United States in 1978 to attend college. He received a bachelor's degree from the Georgia Tech and a master's degree from MIT's Sloan School of Management. 

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

Hammour: My job, first, is to build excellent teams — smart people who will work well together to find great property investment opportunities, transform them, reimagine them, develop them, lease them, activate them and make them thrive. We actively add value to the properties we manage. We fix "broken" buildings. We revitalize urban areas. We create exciting destinations designed for all ages and economic backgrounds, where people can live, work, enjoy modern accommodations and be entertained. The easiest way to describe our job is to show people our projects, Bay Street in Emeryville, California, Asbury Park Boardwalk, The Wharf in Washington, D.C. They can see how we combine all these development and conceptual disciplines to bring life to areas that were once neglected, make a significant positive impact on the communities we work in while creating value and returns for our clients and investors.

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

Hammour: Because I love performing arts and the cinema, I used to imagine that I would be a film director. That profession is similar to what we do in real estate — putting together a great team of artists and performers, and coordinating the work of many specialists to create what looks effortless.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Hammour: There's never been a "worst job." I learned from every job I ever had. My father had me filing his letters and telexes (yes, there was such a thing) when I was a teenager, and I would read them and learn about his job. I worked in property accounting and I thought it would be boring, but I managed to correct the way many leases were being billed on my first assignment and realized the value of a single person contributing to a project. I thought that was fun. As long as I am working in a good team, the job can’t be bad.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Hammour: I don’t think in terms of "deals." "Making deals" is not what we do. We are in the service business. We serve our clients and investors. I take no pride in the size of projects we work on. I take pride in the returns we deliver to our clients. So the best investments we are involved in are those where our team puts together a great plan and executes well on it. A few years ago, we acquired the Hechinger building on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. It was a vacant, but historically designated former Sears department store building. Initially, our team only wanted to lease the property to a few retailers, until we looked further into the building. It was situated right on top of a Metro station, and the structure was sound enough to allow for additional construction on top of it. We converted the rooftop parking into a platform over which we added 200 apartment units. We created a lot of value in this property, very high returns, but I remember best how our team worked effectively together, combining individual expertise to completely transform the site and its use.

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

Hammour: I remember one property we invested in which had four companies working on it: a major retail REIT, a major office developer, one of the large private equity funds and us. It was well-located property in Montreal, which we planned on turning into a shopping destination. On paper this looked like a slam dunk. However, because there wasn’t one central team running the project, the management of the different pieces were very disjointed and dysfunctional. There was no one that could take responsibility for the whole project. This is where I learned the importance of having a small, focused, local team and strong leadership at the center of every project. We came late into that investment, so we did not lose a lot of money, but it was a real learning experience to see how four great organizations could fail if they are not well-coordinated.

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

Hammour: I think our industry, our world and the way people use properties will experience great technological disruption. I'd like to see the commercial real estate industry be quicker to accept the change and adopt technology effectively. Instead of reacting late to the way retail, living spaces and working environments are changing, we should acquire the technological means to transform business through innovation and by making data transparent and ubiquitous.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Hammour: To be typecast for only the latest project. We are very proud of some of our "iconic" projects, such as The Wharf, or Asbury Park Boardwalk, or Bay Street Emeryville. But our company is not limited to only these properties. We currently manage and develop over 350 properties. We focus and pay attention to each one of them and would like to showcase what our teams are accomplishing in each of them.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Hammour: My father. I learned everything good from him. Everyone around me admires him, but he has great humility. I learned diplomacy. So often, my father will start on an idea, but then allow someone else to complete and take credit for it, so they feel it came from them. I have been fortunate to work with him, and I am still amazed at how he analyzes each situation in sufficient detail to arrive at sometimes surprising but wise decisions.

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

Hammour: Best advice I have received: Develop your skills and don’t try to fix all your weaknesses. Work where you enjoy the process and the people. You can always be more effective if you take pleasure in what you’re doing. The worst advice is to plan for retirement. I will never retire. I don’t understand the concept. I want to stay engaged as long as I live.

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Hammour: Travel. I love to travel and visit different destinations around the globe. I also like sharing this experience with my family. We often have 20 or more people in our family traveling together between my parents, my siblings, our kids and our friends. At least once a year we choose some great destination around the world. I have learned a great deal from experiencing the different cultures and stories all around the world.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Hammour: These days, it would be the great restaurants at The Wharf, since our offices are now at 1000 Maine: Del Mar, Mi Vida, Officina, etc. We have world-class food, wonderful service and great atmosphere there. I never tire of them.

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

Hammour: I would say, "Mr. President, since you have decided to focus on politics, why don’t you turn over your real estate operations to us? We’re really great investors and developers. Frankly, we are the best. We’ve built the greatest projects. Just give us a few weeks, we’ll turn around your hotels and properties and make them all great again. We’ll make your investors happy again."

Madison Marquette Chairman Amer Hammour and Southwest BID President Steve Moore at a 2016 Bisnow event

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

Hammour: Every project we undertake has a certain amount of risk. But we compensate for this risk by being expert in terms of site selection, understanding demographics, economics and other underlying trends that affect the short- and long-term value of any project. We deploy local teams to evaluate potential sites, and we spend a tremendous amount of time doing the analysis required to minimize exposure. As a result, our track record for return on investment has always been high.

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

Hammour: Since I have adopted Washington as my home away from home, I'd have to say The Wharf.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Hammour: I worry about whether we are going to be able to leave this world a better place for our children and grandchildren. Without wanting to be trite, I think we are living in challenging times — there is a rise in autocratic regimes and violence in many parts of the world. I hope that democratic principles and human rights will be strengthened, not compromised in the days ahead.

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

Hammour: My family. I have four children and five grandchildren. My daughters are great mothers, but they also find the time to be creative and productive. One of them has recently built a great fashion brand. I have one son working at an emerging software company, and another son at private equity firm in Southeast Asia. I feel I have so much to learn from them all.