An Executive Interview with Chris Foley

The Executive Summary is a brief video series in which Bay Area real estate and land use professionals discuss the arc of their careers, personal interests, and the impact of ULI on their careers.

An Executive Interview with Chris Foley


Chris Foley is a Partner at Polaris Pacific, a west coast sales and marketing firm. Chris specializes in entitlement, financial analysis and land acquisition. Chris works with some of the largest clients in Northern and Southern California including Tishman Speyer, Lennar Urban, TMG Partners, Morgan Stanley, The Pauls Corporation, CIM Group, Trumark Urban and others. Over the past decade, Chris has brokered and consulted on land transactions involving over ten thousand condominium residences and apartments. Since 2012, Chris has brokered over $400 million for Polaris Pacific clients in the San Francisco area. Chris spends his time and expertise helping non-profit organizations such as the Homeless Prenatal Program, Sword to Plowshares, Family House and United Playez; he is also a board member at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco.

Chris has spoken on numerous panels for ULI. He has often been a Mentor in the Young Leader Group event Learn from the Best.

Full Interview Transcript

First Job in Real Estate

You know it’s really interesting, my mother started selling real estate when I was 5 years old, and the most important person in my life (my mother), started buying old houses and duplexes in the University of Indianapolis, Indiana, where I grew up. So, I was kind of raised by it.  I used to do open houses with my mother when I was 5 and 6, and then the second most important person in my life actually helped me start to work on these houses when I was 14 – 15 and I actually bought my first one when I was 18.

Best Career Advice

Going back to both my mother and this person who my mother starts selling homes to and who helped me get into the business and helped me get involved in real estate.  They said to me, they said, “If you go to work and you work hard every day and you think about the right thing to do, and if you don’t know what to do, you actually go ask somebody the question and you are honest, you will be successful.”  And that seemed to have worked – that’s actually seemed to have work so far.

Proudest Career Accomplishments

So what I historically do is, I help people to put land together. That’s the majority of my business at Polaris Pacific. Specifically land, debt/equity strategy and when problems arise.  And in land transactions what you have to do is you actually have to get the sellers of land to get very comfortable with you – that you are honest, you work hard, you tell them the truth – kind of going back to the original.  The buyers of the land are almost in certain respects conflicted with the sellers in certain times.  So you actually have to help both of them find common and then transact because the majority of my land transactions are in high density urban cores like San Francisco, like LA, so that’s really – I would say my most proudest accomplishment and most the thing that I do on the professional side, which is so great, is convincing a lot of disparate people to do something together. And just as a quick example, I had 33 people who own three different parcels to do a high rise on and none of them liked each other; and at the end, they all sent me notes saying thank you very much.

Toughest Career Challenge(s)

In 2008, I was on a vacation with my sister and it was her first adult vacation in 10 years. And I woke up and the small bank called Lehman Brothers collapsed, and everything I do is real estate, land, and finance.  My life kind of imploded.  So I went back to what we talked about earlier (question on best career advice) and that is you work hard, you do the right thing, and you are honest.  And, we all made it through and it seems that that’s gone really well.

Impact of Forces: Past & Future

What’s really happening, in fact I was at a PCBC seminar the other day and this very successful gentleman, whose company just went public, was doing a speech, and he was talking about – he first walked up and he goes, “you know what the problem with our industry is?”  And everyone is like, “what?”  And he goes, “the problem with the industry is look at this room, look around, we are all bunch of white men – old white men”.  And he goes, “we need diversity, we need women, we need African-Americans, we need Asians, we need new blood”.  And, I have actually been talking about that at our company for the past 4 years, and the interesting thing is probably, gosh, on the corporate side, over 50% of the firm (Polaris Pacific) is women with a cross-section of diversity from a cultural perspective – multiple languages, multiple views on life. And I think that is really the way coming in. I think that’s going to provide significant changes.  The other significant change is we are an archaic industry.  And what do I mean by that?  I mean that when you look at any other trillion dollar industry, which is what we are, they actually do this thing called innovation, change, look at big data, look at technology, and apply best practices to our profession on the sales and marketing side.  So we started investing in big data and big data analysis and technology about 3.5 – 4 years ago and people asked us, “Why are you doing that?”. We said, “Well, the world actually is going to get better and when we have the time now to actually investigate this and work on it, it’s the time to work on it. So when the market starts to get strong again, we are actually ready to apply these things.”  So really big data, technology, and diversity in bringing different energy into the industry is really what’s going to provide these changes.

Favorite Places and Buildings

I love high density urban infill; I love it.  So when we talked about visiting different places, where do I go to?  Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, right?  New York.  I love going there and seeing these amazing buildings and this amazing stuff.  I think – and then the funny things is even though I like new and modern and high density infill, I love Gaudi.  So one of my favorite places to go is Barcelona and see all of Gaudi’s work.  It’s like crazy.  I mean it’s truly the crazy stuff I’ve ever seen.  I think that the church that they are working on (La Sagrada Familia) is longest construction project now in demand and it’s going on 300 years or something. But when you look at what he designed and when he designed and how he designed it and how he figured out how to get it built, it’s over the top.  The guy was genius, right.  Then I think, so that’s probably my favorite – one of my favorite set of buildings in the world.  I think locally what’s happening in the Transbay right now, it’s really Transbay, it’s not – I don’t want to point at one building.  It’s what happened with the city working together, the developers working together, and all of sudden you see this explosion of construction and when that’s actually built out we will become – we say world class city now –  when that actually all gets built out, we will now become a world class city in San Francisco.

How do you unwind?

I have a 7-year-old daughter and I pick her up everyday after school.  And I have been doing that since she went to school and I got divorced, so I have been doing that for 4 years.  And you don’t only think about work because if you pick up the phone, she is like “well, daddy we’re talking. Well, daddy”.  So between having this fabulous, wonderful, young lady in my life, that I hope she –whatever she does in her life, she is happy and successful, hopefully she will come to real estate have that change we talked about.  And then tying that to travel because I am literally leaving tomorrow to go to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok, the Maldives, Singapore, and Japan and I will travel with my daughter in Shanghai where she is actually doing a 2-week Mandarin immersion course at YK Pao.  And I am on the Board of the Chinese and American International School. My daughter is a fluent Mandarin speaker. And then we will finish that.  We will go to Bangkok, spend 3 days in Bangkok.  We will go to the Maldives. Hang out there on the beach for a week and then go to Singapore. And all those different places what happens is I get to see the world from her eyes.  And I get to see everything new, right.  It’s not just kind of the old white guys in the room doing real estate. It’s like what’s happening to Japan, what’s happening to China.  So I just got an e-mail from my daughter’s mother and my daughter and they talked about all what happened in Korea because they just got back  – they went from Korea to Japan and now to Shanghai and they basically sent me an e-mail about what happened differently in those countries and how the cultures were different and that’s how I relax.

ULI’s Impact on Career

You know that’s actually a pretty simple question.  We were a small shop, Polaris Group was a small shop, and we looked around in the industry and we said, where can we learn more things and where can we learn more regionally – locally regionally, nationally, internationally. And really that was ULI, and you got meet a lot of different people.  You got to learn a lot of different skill sets. You got to see what people are doing in different areas –not only in different areas of our industry, but actually regionally and nationally and around the world. That has allowed us as an organization to really up our game, to meet higher caliber people, to bring higher caliber people into the organization and really with that, elevate the organization. I think that’s been, that’s been a game changer. ULI has been again a game changer for Polaris Pacific.

The Executive Summary: Season 2 was developed by Rob DeWaters, Virginia Rocha, Ashley Camps, and John Means. It aims to foster wider professional and personal connections across the ULI San Francisco membership.