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Ten Powerful Execs Who Started at the Bottom

National Other

For this special national issue, we traversed the country asking top execs how they got their start. (Already having reporters in nearly every major city meant no airport bars were needed—or harmed—in the making of this list.) Come see who you recognize—then commiserate with their early career choices.


Cresa CEO Jim Leslie

Jim, who's based in Dallas, started selling seeds and greeting cards door-to-door at age 12. (Diversify your deliverables.) In high school, he progressed to oven man at a pizza place in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb. The first job taught him how to make things happen, while the pizza job was about letting things happen, he tells us. He learned in his role as CEO that there are both of these types of people inside an organization, and each is important to success. You have to respect that or you’re not going to effectively lead them, he says. “My parents taught me that no matter what your role in life, you should always appreciate and respect everyone's contribution, because together they make a winning team."


Camden Property Trust president Keith Oden

Houston-based Keith's first job was a paper route for the Pasadena Citizen in sixth grade; papers were delivered to his house daily at 5am and had to be rolled, loaded into carry bags, and delivered by 6:30am. He rode his bike to make deliveries and was paid a fixed amount weekly, but a penalty was deducted each time a customer called saying they didn’t receive their paper. It taught him these important lessons: Good customer service is and should be expected. If you do things correctly, it evokes no response. If you get it wrong, you will hear about it and suffer the consequences. And it's far more efficient (and profitable) to do things right the first time. Fixing mistakes requires too much time and energy.


Federal Realty Investment Trust CEO Don Wood

Under Don's watch, Rockville, Md.-based Federal Realty has built some of the nation's most transformative retail projects, such as Santana Row in San Jose, Calif. and Bethesda Row in Maryland. But Federal isn't the first venture Don has led. At 15, he started his own lawn-mowing business in his hometown of Clifton, NJ, with a catchy slogan: "Professional Results Without a Professional Price." He started the biz as a way to make some extra money but ended up keeping the service going through college in the early '80s at Montclair State. (The beauty about cutting grass is that it never stops growing.) "It taught me everything about customer service and how to deal with different types of people," he says, adding that how he handled customers and managed a small staff won over a recruiter at Arthur Andersen, his first job out of college. The business also gave him experience in cutting deals: After taking the Arthur Andersen job, he sold the lawn-mowing service for a five-figure sum.


Silverstein Properties chairman Larry Silverstein

In the summer of 1951, Larry (who's based in NYC) washed dishes at a camp for young potential leaders in the Jewish community, working for a no-nonsense boss he had no intention of seeing again. Too bad her parents invited him to her surprise 19th birthday party, and in those days, he says, one always accepted a party invitation because it meant a free meal. Soon after the meal, the couple began dating. (The way to a man's heart is through his stomach... and then forcing him to wash dishes.) After college and through law school, Larry followed his classical pianist-turned real estate broker father to meetings, eventually renting a loft or doing some other project on his own and earning enough money to buy an engagement ring. And five years after they first met (58 years ago), Larry married Klara, the woman he had never wanted to see again.


CBRE New York Tri-State CEO Mary Ann Tighe

Arguably NYC's top broker, Mary Ann (snapped with Real Estate Board of New York prez Steve Spinola and Jack Resnick & Sons chair Burt Resnick) came to the real estate world relatively late, at 36 years old. After college, she landed a research job at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. She soon joined VP Walter Mondale’s staff as an arts advisor and by 29 was deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Her contract said that for three years, she couldn’t work for any org to which she’d awarded funds (more on that later), so she moved on to launch A&E Network for ABC. Later, seeking a job with less travel, she met a retired broker who introduced her to Manhattan real estate magnate Seymour Durst, who acquainted her with Ed Gordon (founder of CBRE predecessor firm Edward S. Gordon). Since she launched her real estate career at his company, she’s won REBNY’s Deal of the Year Award a record eight times. Mary Ann tells us that many years later, she learned that she could have requested a waiver from that NEA contract clause. That means she could have stayed in the arts—and New York City would have been a much different place.


Prime Property Investors Co-CEOs Barb Gaffen and Michael Zaransky

Barb's first job was at Chestnut Court Bookstore in Highland Park, Ill. She learned the importance of one-on-one customer service (this was pre-Internet), made book recommendations based on talking to people, and delivered them by hand. While PPI, based out of Chicago, is now a national platform, it still leases apartments one at a time, largely through in-person conversations, she says. Michael entered the working world as a caddie at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood, Ill., and quickly learned to be a chameleon. Each golfer/client needs a different club for each shot, and each green putts differently. PPI succeeds by constantly evolving, Michael says: Each deal is different, renters’ amenity desires change, and market conditions and investor requirements vary.


Chiofaro Co co-founder Don Chiofaro

At age 10, Don sold the Sunday Boston Globe in front of St. Joseph’s Church while his dad, a police officer, directed morning traffic. In his Belmont, Mass. neighborhood, he mowed lawns and shoveled snow. (A manual labor for all seasons.) And for the Lions Club’s support of eye research, young Don carried a duffel bag filled with boxes of orange pekoe tea to sell near home; he did so well that he won a trophy, became an honorary Lion, and learned how to knock on doors, work hard, and be persistent and consistent. “That’s what I do now,” says the developer and manager of Downtown Boston's top office complex, International Place. He's also planning a $1B mixed-use project at the waterfront.


Ritchie Commercial president Mark Ritchie

San Jose-based Ritchie Commercial prez Mark Ritchie's first real job was a busboy at San Francisco's infamous Hippopotamus restaurant, a local landmark that served up about 60 types of hamburgers from 1950 to about 1990 at Van Ness and Pacific. He was able to start at age 14 because he fibbed about his age. (The eccentric owner knew his family, and it was the freewheeling '70s in S.F., so no one cared, he says.) He took further advantage of that hippie, lawless era: He worked the 8pm to 4am shift and drove himself to and from work. The burger gig taught him to be very quick on his feet and deal with every manner of odd behavior, from the public and coworkers. That's a great life skill for any business—especially real estate, he says.


Carter chairman Bob Peterson 

Bob jumped right into commercial real estate after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, working for Rubloff in Atlanta (where he's still based today). He joined the industry just because he thought it was interesting, he says, and chose Atlanta because it was close to his wife's Florida home. But that mere interest soon turned into infatuation. He started out as an industrial leasing agent, spending his first four years cold calling and falling in love with the business. Soon, he got into investment and bought two warehouses with personal and family money. That was his impetus to start Peterson Properties, which eventually merged into Carter. What he's learned: Work with a group and team you enjoy and focus on your strengths. Be patient, because the journey is definitely a marathon.