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Beyond The Bio: Bisnow's 16 Questions With Southern Land Co. Founder Tim Downey

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

Southern Land Co. founder and CEO Tim Downey began his career as a builder of individual houses in Nashville more than 30 years ago. Since then, his company has worked on 22 projects nationwide, with more than $1B under development, including apartments, commercial projects and master planned communities. Southern Land's flagship is the 1,500-acre Westhaven, a neighborhood under development in suburban Nashville that boasts resort style pools, a fitness center, a resident playground, a golf course and a university. The company also has projects in Denver, Philadelphia and Dallas, and plans to expand into new markets.

Southern Land Co. founder Tim Downey and his wife, Denise

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

Downey: I love my work — it’s part artist, part coach and part financier.

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

Downey: I would love being a middle school teacher and coach.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Downey: One summer at the age of 13, I had a job sickling a hillside near a marina, before the days of weed-eaters. I would sickle an entire hillside for $1.50 per day.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Downey: It was a 20-lot single-family development in Hixson, Tennessee, in 1986. The whole deal was worth $350K, which was a big deal back then. Today our biggest deal is a development in Philadelphia that will cost $300M.

Southern Land Co. founder Tim Downey holding latest catch with the fishing guide

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

Downey: There is a community I developed which is the only one I lost money on. However, I’m proud of how it turned out. I am proud that we hung in there, stayed with it and didn’t walk away despite the recession in the economy or losses. Now, today it looks great and people really enjoy living there.

Bisnow: How do you define “making it”?

Downey: I don’t really think of life as “making it,” but I truly value family time, quality of life and a balance of balancing family, work and play. To me, money is not about “making it” — it’s simply about paying the bills.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Downey: You can’t play Christmas music all year long.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Downey: I never had a mentor who was around daily, but I did have many people I admired from a distance. I tried to emulate what I admired in them. One of the most notable is Sen. Bob Corker. We were in a business together a long time ago and I thought he had the highest level of integrity of anyone I had ever met — I try to live like him!

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

Downey: The best advice came from accountant Joe Decosimo. He told me that he has seen so many people quit right before they were about to finally become successful in what they do, but they gave up because of struggles or hurdles. What they didn’t realize was that those very struggles and hurdles were exactly what they needed to succeed, and signified learning experiences that they needed to make it to the next level. I don’t know that I’ve really gotten terrible advice, but every time I didn’t trust my gut and instinct on a decision I seem to regret it.

Southern Land Co. founder Tim Downey and his son Connor

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Downey: My wife Denise — 38 years of marriage.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Downey: Scalinatella Restaurant in New York. It’s an Italian restaurant where everything on the menu is good, from their Italian dishes to the seafood and prime steaks, and they kind of make up the menu as they take your order.

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

Downey: I would tell him that the country is starved for good leadership, and I would advise him that he has a great opportunity as our leader to set an example of integrity and character and to please manage it.

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

Downey: Starting our Westhaven project in Franklin. The company was very small and I kept acquiring land that wasn’t zoned, which was a great risk. I was spending money on the land and the rezoning process without any guarantees. I just kept adding more and more parcels even though I didn’t have the money to buy them. Thankfully that risk paid off in the end.

Bisnow: Whose work do you most admire?

Downey: I read a lot of biographies, especially about different historical figures. I love to read biographies because they look at people who have dealt with adversity. No one is perfect, we all have flaws, and I enjoy reading about how others have overcome those flaws. I really admire Winston Churchill’s leadership and resolve to get England through the Second World War, how he rallied and led his nation against Nazi Germany. Another more recent figure that I admire is George H.W. Bush because I thought he was one of the most thoughtful presidents [when it came to] bringing together both sides of the aisle.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Downey: I’m the world’s biggest worrier. I worry about my kids, my job, my company and our projects constantly. I do my best worrying at night when I really should be sleeping.

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

Downey: I value integrity and character in people, and I am worried that, as a society, we don’t value those principles as much as we used to. Heroes of the past had integrity and a strong character, and it seems that many heroes of today are becoming more about serving themselves. I would love to see all of us get back to those heroes of old and prioritize those values once again.