An Executive Interview with Jim Curtis

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 Jim Curtis




James J. Curtis III is a Managing Partner and a founder of Bristol Group and has been an integral part of all of the firm’s activities since 1980.

Mr. Curtis is a member of the Counselors of Real Estate, Lambda Alpha and the Wisconsin Real Estate Advisory Board. He is a former board member of the Counselors of Real Estate and a former Trustee for the Counselors of Real Estate Foundation. He is a lifetime member of the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate at the University of Wisconsin and a former board member of the Stephen Hawk Center for Applied Securities at the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Curtis was co-founder of the University of Wisconsin Real Estate Alumni Association and U.W. Applied Real Estate Securities Program. He has received the Counselors of Real Estate Landauer/White Lifetime Achievement award and the University of Wisconsin’s Graaskamp Distinguished Alumni Award

A member of ULI for 30 years and a trustee for 13, Curtis has served the institute in many capacities, including terms as chairman of the ULI council program, the ULI Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition, the Small Scale Development Council, and the Awards for Excellence Management Committee. He has served on ULI’s Awards for Excellence jury, Inclusivity Task Force, Executive Committee, and Policy and Practice Committee. He recently served as Chairman of the ULI Foundation and is a current Foundation Governor and a member of the Foundation’s Legacy Circle.

Full Interview Transcript

What Led You Into Real Estate

The independence and the ability to control one’s future and then number two to have a direct ability to shape the future.

Best Career Advice

Two best pieces of career advice I ever got was one was from my father who really instilled in all of his children that it was really important to do something rather than to do nothing.  If you do nothing, you got a 100% chance nothing will happen.  Even if you do something stupid, you can get lucky.  The second piece of career advice would be from Tom Clausen, who was the president of Bank of America at its height of stature in the global financial markets who said, any road will get you to nowhere, always have a plan so you’ll always know when you are detoured and you can recognize when you are detoured, how to get back on your original plan.

I would move to a Chinese proverb which has been an incredible life savior multiple times and the Chinese proverb is, always have three holes to jump into.  So, always think three dimensionally or five dimensionally and you will always have a set of possibilities which allows you to be persistent, tenacious and passionate in terms of moving towards your ultimate goal.

Toughest Career Challenge(s)

The biggest challenges have come in two areas – one is with entitlements and number two has been leasing in down markets.  In terms of entitlements, the big lesson learned was being more inclusive and acknowledging what James Rouse and Harry Frampton always espoused, which is the real estate process is not about buildings, it’s about people, and the more you can engage people the more successful you will be in obtaining your entitlements and in building a best of class project.

In terms of leasing in down markets our successes come from being able to define what’s the worst 20% or 30% of space in a building, not trying to treat every square foot in a project as equal and then moving that space and discounting it so that you have your best space to lease at the end of the project rather than trying to build momentum in giving away your upside with your best 20% or 30% of the space in a project.

Impact of Forces: Past & Future

Well, as a dinosaur, it’s tough to believe this, but one of the three biggest forces in my career was the institutionalization of real estate, and real estate being designated as a legitimate asset class in an asset allocation.  This number two factor had to do with technology and then the third factor was globalization, which could have never taken place without the advances in technology.  The three forces that I think are going to affect the future dramatically in the 21st century will be food independence, energy independence and surprisingly is going to be quality of life factors.  I think people are going to place tremendous premiums on livability and green livable spaces and I don’t think it’s going to vary whether you are in a super urban area or in a suburban area or even in exurban area, those factors are going to manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways, but they will be the decision points.

Exciting Developments

I think there’s a couple of factors that really excite me today.  I think that there is a going to be a much greater emphasis relative to quality of life and health in all of our future projects and it’s going to be a much higher decision priority by both the communities, the tenants and by society.  Number two, I think people are waking up to the fact that infrastructure is a very under-appreciated asset and that we’re going to have to be much more focused on our choices relative to how we live, where we live, how we work, where we work and how do we move our goods and services.  All of those decisions will affect our health, our economic productivity and lastly, our ability to compete on a global basis.

Favorite Places and Buildings

A couple of my favorite places in San Francisco are North Beach, Washington Park, Chestnut Street and if you take that and move it either nationally or globally, it’s going to deal with three to five block retail corridors areas similar to the Back Bay of Boston or Cherry Creek in Denver, Colorado.

How do you unwind?

Live in San Francisco.  We have a national portfolio and we don’t have a square foot in the Bay Area, yet the quality of life and the ability to live in indoor, outdoor lifestyle and then have all the benefits of living in a world class urban environment is unmatched.

ULI’s Impact on Career

What ULI has done for myself as an individual, for our firm and for the communities in which we have built is allowed us to build best of class projects.  We have been able to do those projects because ULI allows each one of us to make better choices – choices as consumers, choices as members of a community and choices as the producers of product.  So, I personally believe ULI is a university without walls and it’s a lifelong learning platform that’s almost unmatched anywhere else.

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.