Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Few people personified our famed commercial real estate boom the way he did. And when values were soaring to unbelievable heights locally, an adoring public just couldn’t get enough of Richard Lee.
As a result, virtually every significant business or real estate-related event in the valley made sure to have him on the program.
Few other speakers guaranteed a crowd at economic forecasts, real estate seminars and even Rotary Clubs the way Lee did. And when his presentation had concluded, it was hard to find a person who didn’t believe that we were in the center of the real estate universe. The theme and theatrics were that good.
His formal title was and still is vice president and director of public relations for First American Title Co., and back then people prayed he would talk about their projects. Even a simple mention got attention. There has been some debate over who first used the word “Manhattanization” to describe our massive vertical building surge a decade ago, but there’s little doubt it was Lee who gave it legs.
And then things changed, for Lee and for all of us. When real estate values began their decline, so, too, did the nature and number of related events. Upbeat presentations on our opportunities were replaced by hard analyses on things such as financing and foreclosing. Presentations on what projects were going up were replaced by projections of when values would stop going down.
As a result, when Lee sat in front of a microphone at a recent UNLV-sponsored business forum at the World Market Center, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from him in the longest time. As one might expect, he’s been working his message, reaching deep into his 25 years of experience in Southern Nevada real estate.
Lee grew up Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he helped run his family’s outdoor and sporting goods business before heading here in 1986. Like so many other Las Vegas emigrants, he began working in real estate. The timing was good.
Within a couple of years, the region was excited about new projects such as the Mirage and the planned community in Green Valley. Lee schooled himself on all of this, helping slake the real estate industry’s thirst for information and, in the process, became respected for his knowledge. He even briefly published a newsletter, in an era when there weren’t so many other media around.
“At that time, nobody was talking about commercial real estate,” he said.
One day, he was asked to fill in on the program for a no-show speaker. One chalkboard later, an industry ambassador was born. He turned the initial negative reviews his speaking style into inspiration, and began to sharpen his delivery.
I asked what exactly he was delivering to audiences these days.
“I say that all recessions are followed by a recovery, and that all busts lead to a boom. Then I ask the audience, ‘Do you believe that?’ Well, maybe they don’t believe the second part, about all busts leading to booms. But everybody believes the first part.
“I was always the one to talk about the glass being half full,” he said, recalling how it was before. “You want negative stuff, read the paper or listen to the news. I wasn’t going to talk about that.”
The stories in the papers in the past couple of years were a tough reality for Lee and his real estate brethren. He admitted that when values began to plummet, he found himself so discouraged and depressed that he had to work to overhaul his thought processes.
Wherever he speaks these days, of course, he can count on being asked pointed questions as to when things will improve. But the performer inside him is on hiatus; in its place is a pragmatic man telling people he simply doesn’t know the answer.
Deep down inside, though, Lee is feeling some of that old confidence. He said he’s personally working on a few transactions and hearing about others that are starting to gain traction in these parts.
“It’s been really encouraging,” he said. “I’m working on some deals now. I started to feel it about a month ago. I’m feeling a change in the marketplace. The deals are starting to pencil again.”
He remains focused on real estate, “chasing and talking to commercial developers and owners,” working a contacts file that still contains some of the most influential people in Southern Nevada. You see, when Richard Lee talks, people still listen.