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Four Powerful Execs Who Started at the Bottom

Washington, D.C.

We traversed the country asking top execs how they got their start. (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.

Federal Realty Investment Trust CEO Don Wood

Under Don's watch, Rockville-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 here 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.

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."

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.

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.