An Executive Interview with Alan Mark
Alan Mark is President and Founding Partner of The Mark Company. An industry leader, innovator and entrepreneur, Alan saw the need for a creative, strategically focused, full-service real estate consulting firm that would partner with developers to bring urban residential projects to fruition. Through his passion for branding and design, Alan has transformed living in the most prominent markets of the Western United States.
Alan is co-Chair of the Residential Product Council for ULI San Francisco and sits on the ULI San Francisco Executive Board. He has often led ULI tours of his buildings and served as a speaker for many of ULI San Francisco’s marquee events.
Full Interview Transcript
First Job in Real Estate
I had worked in New York for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and started to buy houses to renovate – first as a place to live – and I was doing that in Connecticut in Westchester County. There was one summer I lived out here (San Francisco) when I was in business school for an internship, always knew I would move out of here. When the time was right and the market was slow, back East I contacted friends and I ended up in this career.
Best Career Advice
One, I would say, it can always be done better, and that should keep you on your toes, along with that I would say, hire slowly, fire quickly because when you read any interviews with people of, let’s say, in the Business Times and you ask what their challenges, it’s often about personnel. I think if you follow that caveat, you can run a pretty great company.
Proudest Career Accomplishments
I would say having The Mark Company for 17 years. We started that, went through downturns, I feel very proud of it. We have done a lot from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, Seattle, and now Dallas. Also, I have two great partners and I think that’s great accomplishment to find people like Geoff Herrick and Krysen Heathwood and the people I work with.
Toughest Career Challenge(s)
I would probably roll back the clock and say when it was renovating houses. I thought the real estate market was liquid. I was getting financing from the banks who would do drive-by appraisals and 125 percent financing, so it kind of gives you an idea where the market was. The economy dropped – should say housing prices dropped by a third and I was living off of credit cards. I had to pay four mortgages. I also had tried to sell real estate, but what the entire office usually sold is what the entire town I was living in Connecticut sold. So, it was tough. I would say one week i went to dinner with a friend. If it was 60 bucks for dinner he gave me his 30 and that was my money for food. It went on for about half a year and you learn and I thought better at that age than I had friends whose parents were going through their own hell, and that’s when I was encouraged to just find something and that’s why I moved out of here. So think you kind of weather that and then you realize it’s always better and it really has helped in me teaching a lot of developers about the bad market, especially if they haven’t done it before.
Impact of Forces: Past & Future
Well, to start with, let’s say with the BRE, Bureau of Real Estate, it used to where in State of California contracts were only good for a year, so that really hindered anything more than a mid-rise if you are pre-selling. People would be at a contract within a year. So now I would say the extension of contract documents is a major change. One thing that does hinder us, I think, in California is that only 3% can be taken as nonrefundable earnest money. That’s questionable. I would say the lack of financing for condominium developments has been a big sea change in the last number of years. It’s definitely coming back, but it’s still slow for big developments, and I would say a real positive thing is Gen Y wants to live in the city, in urban areas, does not need a car, does not want a car, does not have a car, and then baby boomers also moving back and forth to the city. So it’s kind of like a barbell and I think that portends for lots of development and vitalization in a lot of downtowns.
I always start a project with developers and I did it today, saying it’s going to be a really bad market with lots of competition, so let’s sit down and get started. I think the big fallacy developers have is either they are developing in a big market or they are doing a development in a market where they have two successful ones under their bell in a good market or I (the developer) only have 30 units to sell – I only have 50 units to sell. From what I went through years ago dark clouds start rolling a good deal before the economy goes sideways and, if you have a nose for it, the signs are there. You just have to face reality and I think a lot of people don’t.
Favorite Places and Buildings
Yeah, I am an urban person but I love West Marin. I think the greatest thing about the Bay Area is the proximity to a phenomenal city of cities and then 20 minutes away you’re in gorgeous, breathtaking country. So I think it’s a balance of having great environment, but also having that untouched environment, and it’s pretty miraculous. We have Mt. Tam nearby, Point Reyes. I think Santana Row, for an urban place in terms of what’s created that works. Fourth Street, Berkeley. Our great streets – Hayes Street, the transformation of Valencia which I know could be controversial that’s right here in the city. I’d say downtown LA. I believed in Downtown, LA, for a long time. It’s the second largest city in America in the state that could be the 6 or 9th largest economy in the world and it’s finally coming about, and I love the grittiness of it and there is always something to find, and I think there is a parallel to Oakland. It’s not an ersatz city. There is a real fabric there too.
ULI’s Impact on Career
ULI is a phenomenal organization and I’ve belonged to a lot of different organizations over the years. But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same camaraderie, the ability to share information. It’s continual. I’m always learning from people. People are always open to share information and it’s not just being a member. There is a kind of connection one has when you go to, whether it’s spring meeting, or the annual one or the local one on the executive level which I love. And there is always something for learn, the markets are changing. For me, it’s a vital part of who I am, what I have learned, and where I am today.
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.