Two roads diverged in a wood

Jerry O’Dovero  (my blog, quadriplegic, disabilities)

I loved working for my father’s real estate company. It was the perfect job for me. A lot do to the fact that I went to college. I didn’t go to college to get a piece of paper with the words diploma on it. I went for an education in the field of business and finance. Too many kids these days go to college for a degree that they can’t find a decent job with. If I known I’d be writing my story, I would have taken a course in writing, but otherwise, Northern Michigan University provided me with an education I’ve been able to earn a living with. A year after the accident when I was 18, I started working part time at a rental company my father owned. Most people that were involved in a serious automobile accident that left them paralyzed from the chest down would probably sign up for social security disability income. I went to work, than I went to college, which I paid for myself. Then back to work. After I figured out how to dress myself, take care of my daily needs and drive a car (by myself), I worked at providing a living for myself. I didn’t look for the easy path through life. I think Robert Frost said it best in his poem – The Road Not Taken. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

I take a lot of pride that I didn’t opt to live off of social security. In my mind, for me at that time, that would have been giving up.

I thought when I started working for my father’s real estate company that I’d be there for the rest of my life. I loved the job. I leaned so much how business actually worked. How contracted were used and enforced; who the business people were in the Marquette area. When I left in 1994, I had leased space at one time or another to some 200 different businesses. Add to that all the businesses I dealt with to build the buildings we leased, banks to get the loans from and government agencies to get the permits from, I had a rolodex of many of the who’s who in business in Marquette County. I still have that rolodex in a closet somewhere.

I loved that job. But now that I think of it, I think I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had over the years. Here in California I’ve worked for H & R Block preparing income tax returns. I’ve had some health problems so last year I quit working there. Do you know that until last year anyone in 47 of the 50 U.S. states could prepare income tax returns without any state or federal oversight? I’m not big on big government, but this is one area that I’m happy they finally woke up. Like working for the real estate company, at H&R Block, I prepared income tax returns for 300 clients. I guess I love a job where I’m dealing with dozens or hundreds of people. What can I say, I love a crowd.

Like I said, I loved the real estate job. Being the project manager on a 20,000 square foot building from day one can be pretty intoxicating. I’d go home after a 10 hour day either dead tired or feeling higher than a kite because I just negotiated a $1,000,000 loan with a bank. Before I go any further I will say the O’Dovero name opened a lot of doors for me in the business world. But in business, once through the door you still have to perform. Not only that working for Peter E. O’Dovero you better perform, especially if you’re his children. It didn’t matter how old you were. You were required to work twice as hard as the man standing next to you. There are two things I learned from my father that I live by still to this day. Get the job done, and do it right (the first time)! Oh, do you know the definition of an optimist? When I was 16 years old still working for my father’s construction company I was told I must be an optimist. I was on a job site one day when lunch time came around. There were 6 or 8 guys at the lunch table when I sat down. Most of the others had their lunches in a cooler, but I had mine in a brown paper bag. One of the guys I knew somewhat peeks into my bag. I had 3 sandwiches, chips, fruit and a soda or 2. This guy, without looking at me, after looking in my lunch bag says, so you’re an optimist? Construction people are some of the hardest working people in the world. They work hard, but they also play hard. The first thing going through my mind was I’m starving I hope I get to eat my lunch. I hear a chuckle or two, so I quickly take a few bites from my sandwich before I ask what an optimist is. This guy with clothes dirty from working 4 hard hours, a 2 day half gray beard growth and eyes cold as ice turns and looks at me. You brought a lunch on your first day here on the job. He knew I worked mainly at the construction yard and who my father was, his boss. But I’m guessing he also figured I was now 16 years old, driving and going to show up at more job sites, so this must be an initiation many of the first time employees received. This old wily guy looks at me and says, an optimist is a guy who brings a lunch on the first day he works for your dad. Everyone laughs except me. I don’t have a clue what it means until one of the guys I knew better tells me – a lot of new guys are fired before noon, they didn’t need to bring a lunch. I think everyone laughed at the lunch table because they were happy for it. When you’re working 4 to 8 man crews, you don’t want slackers. It doesn’t take 6 months of training to shovel dirt.

Here’s a story I laughed right away when Jay Are told me. My father’s construction company was doing work at a gas station in south Marquette. He sees Jay Are with a shovel in his hands so he orders him to quit standing around and to start shoveling dirt. Jay Are says no. My father says no, than you’re fired! Jay Are tells my father he can’t fire him. Why, he asks already to send him home without his lunch. Jay Are replies, you’re not my boss, I don’t work for you. I work for the gas station. I guess you can’t fire everyone.

In 1994 I quit working for my father. I loved the job. I learned a lot working for him, not just the 4 years after the accident, but the 9 years before it as well. I was placed in positions of responsibility that most people never get. I was trained to be a leader from day one and failure wasn’t an option. That training, the never say I can’t became so important when I broke my neck.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost


Get a hair cut and get a real job

Jerry O’Dovero’s blog (disabled, quadriplegic)

One thing about graduating school, when it’s over, you have to go to work. Since I was living on a $14,000 from the investment I made with my disability money, working for a living was in my future. I had been charging my college tuition on a credit card. I didn’t owe a lot of money, but I was far from rich. I was living with my parents, so my living expenses were low. But school was over and I needed a break. The past few semesters had taken its toll. My thoughts were to take a year off and decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew working was in my future, but my thoughts were also to continue school as well. I already had a degree in finance, if I added a law degree to my finance background, I could become self employed as an estate lawyer. I truly hate to argue. But I could prepare wills, trusts, land deeds, contracts, etc. It would be just three more years of school. But I was burnt out. I needed a break to recharge my batteries.

I think I was 12 or 13 years old when I bought a map of the world. I bought it from Northern Stationery. The paper map was 3’ x 4’. When I came home from the hospital, I finally taped it up on a wall. My dream was to get a passport and travel the world. How many stamps from different countries can fit on the pages of a passport? But that never happened. I was 17 years old when I made one poor investment with all my disability money. After that, my traveling days looked to be lost. Then I went to Las Vegas with Mike followed up soon after with a trip to Florida with my brother John. Then Jay Are came into my life. With Jay Are, we drove to the east coast a few times, the Midwest and Denver Colorado several times. One of our favorite stops was Washington DC. We’d spend an entire day at one of the Smithsonian buildings each time we were out there. There are probably a dozen Smithsonian buildings in Washington DC area. Each one has a different theme. There is the Air and Space Museum, Museum of American History, one on Natural History and several more. I wish I knew were all my pictures are. I lost hundreds when I moved. Do you know that the money to establish the Smithsonian museums was donated by James Smithson in the early 1800s even though he had never visited the United States?  When I traveled with Jay Are we’d use one camera and then get doubles of all the pictures. Unlike me, Jay Are loved taking pictures. His favorite type – sun sets. I’ll bet he took a conservative 100 pictures of sun sets. Oh crap, I bet it’s more than 200. Jay Are and I did a lot of traveling together. One time, while in Washington DC we were staying at a Days Inn with 12’ high chain link fence surrounding the property. We were not in the best part of town. Jay Are had been watching the TV while I was getting ready to go to one the Smithsonian Museums. For some reason we decided to take a cab. A block from our Days Inn motel Jay Are points out the window at a house. That house was just on the TV, he yells. The cab driver says, Very bad house, very bad part of town. Jay Are looks at me and tells me how just an hour earlier the police raided the house live on TV for drugs. The 12’ metal fence around our motel suddenly made sense.

Things happen and life’s chain of events takes control. A week after graduating college, my father offered me a job. I wished he wouldn’t have. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work for him, but because I wanted a year off to travel. I wanted a break from school to recharge my mind to see if I could go back to study Law. I really wanted some time to think about it, so I did tell him I’d think about it. But then three weeks later my credit card bill came. As luck would have it, that night my grandmother asked me at the dinner table what type of job I was going to get now that I was out of college. I didn’t want to, but when my mouth opened I asked my father if his job offer was still available.

A few days later I’m hired on as a part time employee working for his real estate division. At the time the day to day tasks of his real estate side of his company was being run by a secretary of his construction company. She didn’t have time to spend on it, so it was operated as more of a sideline business. My father’s real estate holding consisted of two major areas, office buildings and warehouses that he leased out and land. The crown jewel office building would have to be the Old City Hall building. When the City of Marquette built a New City Hall complex, my father bought the ‘’should have been condemned’’ old city hall building and remodeled it. The only thing still original are the sand stone walls and the roof. He also owned a few other office buildings, stand alone buildings with single tenants and warehouses.

My part time job soon became a 50 hour a week career. A quick word of advice, never offer to work part time for family on a salary. You may not be paid what you’re worth. After reading every single lease agreement I made a spreadsheet for every building showing the square footed being leased, the lease rates, when the current leases expired, name of the tenant, contact person along with a few more important details. The first problem I found out about the way my father’s office leasing side of the business was being run was the low occupancy rate. Some buildings didn’t even have 50% occupancy. The overall occupancy of all the buildings was only 65%. Then the rents were 20% below the current market rate. I posed as a prospective business and called the competition to see what the going rates were. A couple of the buildings the rents and occupancy were so low that the annual income didn’t cover the annual expenses.

My first two years working for my father’s real estate company flew by overnight. One of the first things I did was to get the rental rates up to current market rates – one lease at a time. But I did so with loosing very few of the current tenants. Three months before each lease came do; I’d go to each office and meet the tenant in person. I did this for a few reasons, one to show I was a person and the real estate company I ran was more than just the name on the check the client wrote every month. Then also, I got to look at every building and every office. How were the paint, the carpets and the rest of the office and building for that matter holding up? The carpets in Marquette take a toll every winter. I often had the carpets replaced in many of the offices. I started having my maintenance people steam cleaning the tenant’s carpets every spring if they wanted for free. Sand, the main ingredient in sand paper, will destroy a carpet in just a few years. I’d also have the offices painted. If they wanted a door to swing the other way so they could rearrange their desks, no problem. A wall put up or removed no problem. Here’s my business card, you want a nail in the wall so you can hang a painting, call me. I’ll have a guy there to help you out.

Before I go any further I should tell you I’m a bit of a salesman. The product I sell everyday is – me! It’s an easy product to sell because I believe in it – in me. I’m a lucky man. People seem to believe in me – too. I worked for my father for four years. During that time, the occupancy rate went from 65% to 95%. It went up even though the number of buildings, total square footage of building being leased and the number of tenants more than doubled or even tripled. The annual revenues increased fourfold in those four years. Being a manager of commercial real estate in Marquette was the perfect job for me. I learnt so much about real estate, business and dealing with people in a business setting. I can’t tell you how many times I was in front of the city commission getting land rezoned, variances’, etc. etc. etc. One time when I was overseeing building of the movie theater I was in front of the city commission several times. Our original lease agreement was to build an 8 screen theater. After I received all the approvals from all the parties involve and broke ground, the theater owners came to me and asks to increase it from an 8 screen theater to a 10 screen theater. For me, that was a no brainer it’s thousands of square feet of rental income. The city commission didn’t see it that way. The longer building meant less room for parking while adding more theater seats. So I wouldn’t lose too many parking stalls, I wanted to move the building closer to the property line. If you’ve never built in Marquette County, they have rules upon rules upon rules on what you may and may not do. I agree there needs to be rules. People would build or do things that will in danger themselves or others. With that said, saying no to everything that doesn’t completely conform to the building codes is wrong as well. When they write the building codes they, by nature have to be generic. While at one of the meetings for something else, I asked a couple of the board members the odds of getting a parking variance for 10 parking stalls and a 10 foot setback on the back of the theater building instead of the 20 foot required by code. Since my father owned the two buildings next to the theater we were building, the Secretary of State building and the Econo Foods building and the land behind the all those buildings, I planned on using their parking stalls. But when I counted them all up, I was 10 parking stalls short. In Marquette County you were required to have a parking stall for every three movie theater seat. As for the set back on the rear of the building, my father owned the property plus it was a steep hill that couldn’t be built on. Well, while at a city commission meeting for something else, I asked the odds of getting a variance for the 10 parking stalls and the building set back. The response was a defiant snowballs chance in hell. A school teacher that wanted to do his civic duty and was on the city commission was the most adamant against it. His response was, ‘’what do we need ten movie screens for?’’ I went up against the city commission many many times. Except for the three times that even I thought were shady that my father wanted done, I got what I set out for. When my heart was in it, I won. And probably losing those three that I didn’t care about gave the few city commissioners that didn’t like my father a victory. Sometimes losing the small unimportant battles (to Me. my father was pissed) makes it easier to win the ones that are important.

On the real estate side, while trying to match up the property tax statements with the actual deeds, I soon found out that my father didn’t have a 1/3 of the deeds to the land that he owned. If you’ve never been to the registered of deeds office at the courthouse and looked at deeds, it’s an amazing system. Just to see the history of who owned the property before you. If you own a house and you want to know who owned your house since the day it was built you can. Do you know who some of the biggest land owners in Marquette county were? Peter White, the Ford Motor Company (Henry Ford) and Louis Graveraet Kaufman. If I remember right, Kaufman built Granot Loma on the Big Bay road because the Huron Mountain Club wouldn’t allow him to become a member.  His wealth (money) wasn’t old enough. Do you know who Kaufman was? You should Google him. He was a lot more than just a name on a school building. Twice while looking up deeds I found the legal description to the land my father owned was wrong. Once after the deed was properly corrected from the city of Marquette, The mayor of Marquette called me personal and apologized for the ‘’clerical error.’’ The mayor was on my rolodex. The trick to reading the legal description of land is to read it backwards. I just thought of something. I’m a weirdo. I would love to spend a week in Boston’s registered of deeds office. Do you know that the land in America was originally owned by the United States government? In the early days, before income taxes, that’s how the government made money. If I owned property in Boston, I’d have a list of everyone who own my property right back to the government. Could you imagine finding out you live on a piece of property that someone like Paul Revere once owned?

I truly enjoyed working for my father’s real estate division. By the time I left my father’s real estate division went from being run as sideline business to one that’s second to none in the entire Upper Peninsula.