Several years ago, after finally gaining approval for a large master plan project that required several city council and planning commission meetings, a client and I shared more than a couple beers over absurdly large steaks and talked about why we do this work. He was very successful and a veteran of many projects. I have always been interested in soaking in his experience and knowledge.
I asked him why he continued to put himself through the stress and struggle of land development. His response was striking and took a few minutes to sink in. Even though it was easy to think of himself “owning” these properties, he had come to this conclusion: “I own it once. The community owns it forever.”
My client had progressed from developer to steward. He was embracing the role as someone who didn’t just buy and sell real estate for an ROI, but rather someone who brought that real estate to a higher use that would stand the test of time. He had learned that the quality of your work (or lack thereof) is on public display for years and years after you finish it.
Trait 8: Successful developers make quality development their primary goal
Quality Helps Break the Land Developer Stereotype
The title “Land Developer” isn’t often glorified by the public. Not many parents dream of little Johnny growing up to be a big land developer someday. The stereotype, unfortunately, is of a scheming land developer who hopes to snooker some little old lady out of the land her family has farmed for generations only to fill its wetlands and hastily slap up overpriced cracker box houses for insane profits.
That is too bad, because in my experience, the stereotype is not reality. The “hit-and-run scheming developers” are out there, but they don’t last long because they focus on the wrong things (and because they regularly violate the Eight Traits of Successful Developers).
My client enjoyed breaking people’s stereotype of the land developer. To him, quality is good business, and he had gotten good at it. It can be fun, not just stressful. The best part is, building a quality development today makes the next city council hearing easier because you can have a track record and build trust with that community.
Quality Leaves a Legacy
That night, my client spoke about the perseverance it takes to do good land development work. The public is rarely, if ever, supportive. They accuse you of every trick in the book (as if there is a book on how to ruin the lives of good people through land development). You spend significant time and money to thoughtfully plan your project and develop renderings of your vision for the community to take comfort in. You hire engineers to find solutions to all the stormwater, traffic, and other infrastructure service challenges to protect both existing and future residents. You hire attorneys to articulate your compliance with the regulations and refute any meritless appeal.
All of that just to get your project approved and permitted! Only then can you actually build the damn thing and hope the four horsemen of the developer’s apocalypse (The Weather, The Economy, Interest Rates, and Ugly Change Orders) don’t consume all your margin by the time you’re finished.
Sounds fun, huh?
I understood taking these risks the first few times, as there is the opportunity to build substantial wealth. But my client had been doing this a long time and had made more money than he needed already. Why sign up for more abuse?
His motivation, and the motivation of great developers everywhere, came from something higher than the bottom line. It was about his legacy, and he wanted to be sure he left a good one. Yes, the work is addictive and exciting, but it’s also something you can be proud of when done right. The best developers are able to drive by a finished project with their families (including their own mother) and be proud of what they have accomplished. A high quality development can be your lasting legacy.
I have been fortunate to work with many outstanding clients over the years who have taught me many lessons. I have had other similar philosophical conversations with land development clients, but to this day I have never forgotten the primary lesson of that night, and so I gladly pass it on to you in the hopes it will provide inspiration:
“I own it once. The community owns it forever.”
I am extremely proud to work in the land development industry because our work has a huge impact on the way people live, work, and play. What we do is important, so I think it’s important to share how good land development happens.
I am struck by how much I have enjoyed writing this series. It has opened dialogues and some debate with readers who have differing perspectives than mine and thereby broadened my thinking. I have reconnected with a few past clients and met new people doing good work. In addition to sharing my experiences and conclusions working in land development these past 25 years, it has also established another path for me to mentor the young land development professionals rising within our own company. Writing this series has in many ways increased my passion and pride for land development as a profession. Thank you for being part of this journey.
Read the entire Eight Traits of Successful Developers Series HERE.