9/11 and a Leadership Lesson

I remember distinctly where I was on 9/11.  I was living in my studio apartment in West Vail.  I had a great job working for the developer of Beaver Creek.  I had my own place for the first time, no roommates.  I was driving my shiny new red Tacoma truck around a great mountain town, skiing all winter, mountain-biking all summer, catching as much live music as I could.  Life was good.

I woke up that morning to the sound of NPR on my clock radio.  It must have been about 7:30 AM Mountain time when the alarm went off.  I could not make any sense of what they were talking about.  They were panicked and something big had happened.  I drifted in and out of sleep.  I had an answering machine and a friend from New York called.  She started talking about something, and left a message I couldn’t understand, either.  What the hell was going on?

I got up and turned on the television.  Planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York?  And the Pentagon, too?  I just could not process it and had no idea of the significance, so I showered , dressed, and went to work. 

photo credit to http://www.foreignpolicy.com

Not much got done that day.  By the time I got to the office, all the team who had decided to come in were gathered in the conference room, watching the news, mesmerized and in complete shock.

Again, I was working for a development company, had a nice office in Beaver Creek.  We felt very safe and far away from any danger.  I remember feeling like the Rocky Mountains were fortress walls all around us.  I had lived in New York and still had some good friends there, but it felt a world away.

photo credit to http://www.summitdaily.com

Some of us would occasionally go to our offices or cubes and pretend to work but you couldn’t distract yourself and no one was working in an office anywhere in the country.

The man I worked for at the time was one of the best leaders I’ve ever known and someone I consider a role model to this day.  He was hyper energetic, fearless, creative, sincere, fair, generous, and an excellent communicator.  Despite his busy schedule and important business, he never walked by someone without saying hello.  He made everyone feel included, important, and valuable to his organization and because of that was able to attract tremendous talent around him.  He and his leadership style are worthy of another blog at another time.

But I remember something distinctly about how he reacted on 9/11.  He was popping in and out of the conference room on that day, too.  I think we were all in the room when the first tower fell, and I remember a woman in the office started crying.  I just couldn’t imagine what had happened.  All I could think of was my favorite view of the towers when I lived in the city, from Mcdougal Street in the Village.  Looking south they were framed perfectly on the horizon, looming over trees in the Village and the low buildings in SoHo.

photo credit to http://www.cnn.com

But the leader of our group that day was focused on the President.  He was so frustrated by the fact that no one knew where the President was.  We now know he was flying around the country on Air Force One, avoiding the possibility of being a target, but I cannot remember the public knew that any time that morning.  But our leader at work thought that was terrible leadership and it bothered him tremendously.  He thought the President should be on the ground, unafraid, making decisions, and communicating with the country in a traumatic time.

photo credit to http://www.sogoodly.com

I don’t think anyone else in the office was thinking that.  We were thinking, “OK, whatever they tell us or don’t tell us, the President needs to be safe”.  I am certain none of the rest of us were anywhere near our company owner and leader on the leadership intelligence spectrum.  His reaction was different, he was thinking about how to lead in a crisis, and I’ll never forget that.

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The Great Recession

The Great Recession happened right in the middle of my career.  I worked for a real estate development company on a large-scale project that was about 7 or 8 years into a 25-year master plan.  And it was high-end, second home resort development in California.  It really could not have been worse.

We started on several golf and ski resort communities in 2000.  We were taking a model that had worked in the high-end mountain resorts of Colorado especially well during the convergence of the late 90s tech bubble and empty nest baby boomers arriving at the peak of their vacation home purchasing potential.

photo credit to http://www.beavercreek.com

We adopted the model to California resorts with high hopes that the market was ripe for some new development.  The plan included two brand new golf course communities, a high-end luxury hotel with a residential component, and an 1,800-unit master planned community at the base of and on the ski resort, and a club to bring it all together.  Entitlements and planning took a couple of years but when the first real estate was offered it was obvious the plan was right.  In 2002 we began delivering finished lots and townhomes, and by 2005 we were delivering a multi-story mixed-use base ski village that was the nicest in the state. 

photo credit to http://www.thetahoeweekly.com

At both the golf course communities and the ski village we had oversold lotteries to allow potential buyers the opportunity to select lots or units based on architectural renderings and site plans.  We had people threatening to sue because they showed up at a fancy hosted party and were unable to get their chance to plunk down a hefty deposit for a lot that hadn’t even been built.  That was the peak and we all now know that money was just too easy to come by and that was the real source of the hyper-competitive market for any and all real estate. 

We were writing the term sheets for construction loans and delivering to the banks, knowing if they didn’t take our proposed terms another bank would.  We created three different Community Facilities Districts with local utility and community services providers based on appraisals showing sales in the billions of dollars over the next 20 years.  Based on the way real estate was selling at the time, the assumptions were correct.  We had taken out every loan available, including the biggest loan the company had ever closed on to build the 5-star luxury hotel.  The loan was so big it took a consortium of four major international banks to deliver the funding.

photo credit to http://www.rgj.com

None of this was easy.  There was so much effort put in by smart and hard-working people.  We had folks that had relocated from around the country, experts in construction, sales and marketing, land planning, architecture and design, and finance.  The machine was humming, and the future was bright.

It was all too good to be true.

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