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Meet Doug Imber of Essex Realty Group in Lincoln Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Doug Imber.

Doug, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I graduated college in 1987 with a liberal arts degree and without a career plan. So I decided to go to Alaska for three months where I spent the summer hiking, canoeing, kayaking and spending half of the small savings that I needed to help me get started after graduation. On the very last day of my trip, I was on a ferry ship from Glacier Bay back to Juneau and started talking with a man who was there on vacation with his family. I was so inexperienced I didn’t recognize that our long conversation evolved into an interview.

And before we arrived in Juneau, he offered me a job in his real estate business. This was surprising for a lot of reasons, including the fact I hadn’t showered the whole summer and looked like hell. It was also surprising because I didn’t appreciate or understand that he was one of the largest apartment investors and philanthropists in the country, and as further testament to my inexperience, I declined his generous job offer.

But as a testament to his tenacity and character, he selflessly followed-up with me and became a critical influence in helping me get my first job in Chicago’s real estate industry. That random and fortunate encounter was the first link in the chain that led to my starting Essex in 1990 in a basement apartment in Lakeview.

And in 1993, I enrolled in Kellogg’s evening MBA program, while simultaneously trying to find enough traction to keep Essex moving forward. Even though Essex is starting our 28th year in business, it feels too soon for me to be focusing on the reflection in the rear-view mirror, and instead, I need to stay focused on looking through the windshield at what’s ahead. But I do think it’s important to frequently take stock and I’m profoundly grateful, and a little surprised, by how far we’ve traveled.

Essex’ team of 25 professionals has earned the leading market share in Chicago’s multi-family brokerage market. Our 2017 pipeline consisted of approximately 140 transactions worth nearly $500 million. In addition, along the way, I’ve been able to acquire 5,000 apartment units across the country. Best of all, I’ve been able to watch the people at Essex develop their own brand of success.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
When I drove to Alaska in 1987, the 1,400-mile Alcan Highway was still gravel from its World War II construction. As a result, I had a number of flat tires, a cracked windshield, and two broken headlights. I think that’s a lot like how starting a business feels. It’s a long and rocky trip and you have to be prepared to get dinged-up. But if you intend to take the road less traveled, you should know those are the driving conditions.

In terms of challenges along the way, we’ve had to be hyper-vigilant in a very sophisticated market that is full of competition from large, national organizations. In addition, like any business, we work in a fluid market that is continuously evolving. For example, in 2003 to 2007, a great deal of our business focused on the demand from developers for properties they could acquire and convert to condominiums.

From 2007 to 2010, most of our business was focused on representing banks in the sales of their distressed assets or notes. And from 2012 to 2017 a great deal of our business was representing condominium associations that wished to sell the entire property to apartment investors. Each of these audiences have their own nuances. We have to maintain our core values and still remain nimble enough not to fall into the trap of thinking tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Essex focuses on the brokerage of mid-market investment real estate across the Chicago metropolitan area. Our niche has been multi-family properties typically worth between $1 million and $40 million in value; which means we work with a breadth of different clients ranging from small owner-operators to very large institutional investors, and everyone in between.

In addition, we acquire apartment communities across the country using a variety of strategies ranging from individual investments, fund models, and tax-deferred exchange solutions. I’m often asked how a company our size generates this level of transaction volume. Although it is an overused and under-implemented business expression, the simple truth is it’s entirely a result of teamwork. We have also created a very entrepreneurial culture that promotes a constant state of motivation. It has also helped tremendously that we have incredibly low staff turnover.

As a company, we work extremely hard at developing and maintaining the right culture. In addition, we preach reputation. It precedes you, follows you, defines you, and is the only thing any of us will truly ever own. To that end, I’m most proud of our culture and the quality of the people we’ve attracted. In terms of what sets us apart from others, I’m not sure I can really say; It’s enough work for us just to stay focused on what we should be doing to keep improving.

What role has luck (good luck or bad luck) played in your life and business?
Anyone who thinks they can be successful without tons of help and a lot of luck is plain kidding themselves. There’s not enough space in this magazine for me to express the ways I’ve been lucky. I’ve been fortunate beyond words to have had incredible partners. In addition, many of my clients and investors have become among my closest friends. And above all, I’m immeasurably lucky to have the family I do.

I occasionally wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t thrown some caution to the wind and traveled to Alaska. Similarly, I occasionally wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t had so much help from others. While I’ve always tried to express my gratitude, the only way to really say thanks to the people who help us, like the man on the ship in Alaska, is to pay it forward to someone else. I think that’s how life, not just business, is supposed to work.

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