A Professional Engineer (P.E.), Drew graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in civil and environmental engineering. Drew spent the first eight years of his career, post-college, working in the engineering consulting field, while simultaneously building the infrastructure to launch a real estate operation. Drew managed and worked on some of the largest civil engineering projects around the country such as the Dan Ryan Expressway, Tri-Level Interchange in St. Louis, Monfayette Expressway in Western Pennsylvania, and I-80 throughout Northwest Indiana. Managing these billion-dollar engineering projects helped Drew develop superior skill sets in the areas of diligent project management and analytical assessments.
Starting with his foundation in project management and analytical assessments and drawing on his passion for real estate, Drew founded 33 Realty in late 2008. Drew’s vision of an integrated real estate services model, where clients can obtain all their real estate needs, has been accomplished as the company provides “Best in Class” services in the areas of leasing, property management and brokerage operations.
Drew is primarily responsible for the company’s property management operations. He is also uniquely focused on the company’s infrastructure to ensure that service levels remain impeccable as the company continues to grow. Drew understands that to stand apart in the relatively-saturated real estate industry, you must provide impeccable service and employ the most talented and professional individuals.
Tell me about your early career.
I went to school and earned a degree from the University of Illinois in civil and environmental engineering. Upon graduation, I went into engineering consulting, designing $1 billion+ roadway projects. While I have a ton of respect for my fellow engineers, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be a lifelong endeavor for me. Then I read the book that forever changed the way I thought and frankly changed my life. Who knew Rich Dad Poor Dad would have such an impact? Shortly thereafter, I went out and bought my first investment property and things started to snowball. After buying that property I said to myself, “I know I can be a better real estate agent than the agent that helped me.” So I rushed out and got my license. While still working as a consultant, I would help my friends and colleagues find homes or investment properties and then I would turn around and buy more buildings with the money I was making on the side. Yes, the money was important to me but that was not my driving factor. The driving force was my passion for real estate. My wife knew how much I loved my second career so she called me every day at work asking me, “Have you quit yet?” So with a brand-new house, no insurance and a 2-month-old baby, I made the plunge. Looking back now, it actually seems a bit crazy but I had a foolish confidence at the time. With input from my wife and my future partner, Eric (who was my longtime broker partner), I wrote the business plan at my kitchen table and I am proud to say that seven years later, the full business plan has been realized. We are now a vertically-integrated firm, but we had to start building the individual business lines based on the economic climate at that time and with limited manpower. With the vision to have an investment real estate brokerage, leasing, construction, property management, and distressed real estate consulting business, we did the logical thing and concentrated on the business lines that would thrive in the collapsed real estate market of 2008. Leasing and distressed real estate consulting were the business lines that made sense to build because there was NO construction or investment sales happening in the continental United States. As my wife, Marta, and I were building those businesses, we knew we had to hire extremely-talented people which is extraordinarily hard when you don’t have an office, a website or any money. The only way to convince good people to “take the plunge” was to sell the vision which is now 33 and Cubed Construction. I look back to a pivotal moment in the business when a former investment banker applied to be a leasing agent at 33. I will never forget where I was, and I remember reading Susan’s resume on my phone. I remember thinking, “Why would a former banker specializing in M&A want to be a leasing agent?” There must be something wrong with her. Well, we met at an Italian restaurant for lunch the next day and we had a three-hour conversation about building the business, the vision for 33, our goals and how she would fit into the organization. It was obvious from that first lunch that we both shared the passion for building businesses and real estate. Of course, I couldn’t pay her to do any of this, so she helped build the infrastructure of the business with me while working as a real estate agent only making commissions. I literally didn’t pay her for the work and she was not a partner yet. Wow. Who does that? I thank God that we crossed paths because our firm would be light years behind where we are today without her selfless attitude. As our business grew and the economic climate started to change, it was time for my long time brokerage partner to take the plunge as well. Eric left a high-paying consulting job to follow his passion in real estate, just like Susan and me. There is a very common thread there. We all love what we do. With all three partners in place, we were off to the races. I look back at that moment as another pivotal moment to accelerate the growth of 33. Eric brought a tenacious drive, a refined attitude, and would accept nothing but the best. All together we had the manpower to launch our construction and investment brokerage business lines to complete the vertically-integrated concept. With all the business lines running in full force and providing cross selling opportunities for our firm, we started to experience exponential growth of our business. It definitely hasn’t been easy but I was proud to say that in 2016 we were featured in the “Inc. 500” as one of the fast-growing companies in the nation and one of the top 10 fastest-growing companies in Chicago. I look back at my career thus far and feel lucky that I was able to align myself with amazing people who share the same passion for building something special.
Where did the concept for 33 Realty come about?
I love real estate and I knew I wanted to have a real estate business. However, who would start a real estate business during one of the biggest real estate crashes in recent history? (A funny side note. My mom was scared to tell her friends that I quit a “safe” engineering job to start a real estate company during these times. She was sure all her friends would talk behind her back that I was fired or had lost my marbles.) During these times, I saw some of the most successful real estate tycoons of the time, who were singularly-focused, lose everything. By everything, I mean hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property and cash. It was horrible and I knew there was a way that I could create a business that could sustain and actually thrive in different economic environments. The strategy is such that the property management business is our annuity that will always keep the lights on and people employed. It’s a tough business but it is 100% necessary to accomplish the overall mission. The investment brokerage and construction platforms are very cyclical but provide a tremendous amount of the overall revenue when times are good. Then to further hedge our risk, we take our distressed real estate business very seriously because if we were to experience another 2008, the banking institutions trying to work through their distressed portfolio can keep all of our business lines stable. The other vision of the vertically-integrated model is to be a “one-stop shop” for real estate investment funds to buy, renovate, lease, manage and sell or hold a large volume of investment properties. We now have seen a full life cycle from the trough of the real estate market to the peak and are happy to report that our business model worked.
How was the first year in business?
The first year in any business has its trials and tribulations and mine was no different. In fact, I remember a very humbling conversation with my mom that I might have to sell my house if I don’t get an $800 transaction to the finish line. That is how thin I was running year one. I guess you could say ignorance was bliss back then because I do not recommend starting a business with little to no reserves! The good news is that I got to keep my house.
My primary focus wasn’t on growth at that time, even though the temptation was there because I was financially struggling. I learned early on that building infrastructure within a company that is already scaled could lead to a disaster. It’s really hard to go backwards and create systems after people are stuck in their inefficient ways of doing things. Our goal was build the launching pad in year one, and while it was scary at times, I am happy I did.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy is much like our business model. We use an integrated approach with digital, direct marketing, PR, print, signage and social media. The real key here is to understand the allocation of dollars between business lines given the economic forecast. Another strategy that we employ with success is cross-selling our business lines, as they all play well off each other.
What was growth like in the first few years?
We often grew at 200-300%, year after year, but when revenues are that low, it wasn’t all that impressive, honestly. Again, our primary focus was creating the plan and installing the systems so we were ready to scale. In 2012, with all partners in place, we started seeing some real growth in revenue.
What is the key to success?
A couple of things really jump out at me. First is a positive mind frame and vision for your company. Even when I went through the toughest of times in business, I did everything in my power to remain positive. A positive outlook and attitude is our primary core value. Second, I learned a lesson from my grandpa while doing landscaping for him as a young man. He was so wise and would tell me, “Anddddyyyyyy, work smarter not harder. Let the tools work for you, don’t work for them.” I took that life lesson from my grandpa and I try to apply that to everything I do. Of course I work hard, but if you work hard and smart, it’s a great combination for success. Let your tools, process, money, buildings, etc. work for you, not vice versa. Passive income is a beautiful thing.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
I still have a lot to learn, but you must approach different situations with different individuals in different ways. The people aspect of business is critical and the best entrepreneurs learn to master this. We’ve had consultants come in to work with our executive team, I’ve gone to seminars and I’ve read books. I’ve learned to shut up once in a while and really think about our approach with people to get the best results for the business. I’m an emotional guy so that isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary.
What are some of your favorite books?
I read a few hours every weekday so I have a lot of books that are on the top of my list, but here are the four that stand above the rest for me:
1. Rich Dad Poor Dad – As I said earlier, this book is what gave me the courage to start my own business.
2. Think and Grow Rich – There are many lessons in this book, but my primary take away was that you can accomplish anything with a positive mind frame, as the mind is a VERY powerful tool.
3/4. Fearless and Lone Survivor – Both Navy SEAL books and I greatly respect their drive, determination and selfless attitudes with their teammates.
What are some of the toughest parts of your day?
There is no question in my mind that my toughest days revolve around days when I am not getting along with my partners. Ugh! That is a mental and physical drain. This is why I say one of the best lessons learned in business is how to approach and read different individuals. I think we are all getting better at this and I am thankful. We still disagree with each other at times, but we work it out quickly and move on.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
There are two motivations that really push me, and it’s centered around being a team. First and foremost, I am competitive and like to win. Nothing is more fun than winning after pushing through a tough moment in life. I’ve searched the recesses of my brain for the next answer as I’ve asked the question, “Why do I do this?” Beyond the passion for what I do, my main driver is that I never want to let anyone down. I will get through adversarial situations because I couldn’t live with myself if I let down my staff, partners or family.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I could go on for days about advice for young entrepreneurs, but I’ll give a few key factors that helped me:
1. Value relationships over transactions – I work in one of the largest real estate markets in the world, but somehow we all know each other. When someone makes an unethical decision and burns a bridge, we all hear about it. Do the right thing, even though it might not be the most profitable for you in the short term. It will help you accumulate 10x more profit over your career.
2. Planning – I know this is MBA 101, but I can’t believe how many people don’t properly plan. They need to rush into a business or major decision because they lack patience. Seriously, sit down and take the countless hours to get your business plan together. Really think about it and the impacts of different economic climates. You don’t want to start the planning after you have a hundred employees and are burning the candle at both ends.
3. Don’t be selfish – A smaller piece of a bigger pie is much better than a big piece of a tiny pie.
4. Life balance – You are going to have to work a ton of hours, in the beginning, to build your enterprise. However, don’t forget about a little balance. Have some fun along the way and make sure not to lose sight of the really important things, like your family and friends.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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