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I'm not Fired, You're Fired
The Art of Skillful Neglect
“Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
-Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb
I’ve worked on a few real estate projects anchored by stadiums, and there’s a lot of coordination with the team owners and management. My favorite team president was a guy so young I had to ask how he got to such a position so soon. Skillful neglect, it turns out.
After college he began his professional sports career in “marketing” - by marketing he meant shooting t-shirt guns into the crowd at halftime. On non-game days he worked in the team office where he shared a cubicle with another coworker and one day upon returning from lunch he passed his cube mate who, carrying a box of his belongings, told him to get his things because while he was gone the mercurial (i.e. jackass) owner had made a rare office appearance, ranted on the groups’ various incompetences, and then fired everyone.
“I’m not fired” he replied to his cube mate. “You’re fired - I was at lunch”.
He watched as the line of co-workers walked out of the building, then returned to his cubicle and went about his day. And he returned the next day and did the same, alone in the office. The following day the owner came to the office and, surprised (and happy) to find someone, said “what are you doing here?” .
“Um, well, I’m work-”
“Whatever kid, do you know how to work this copier?”
He helped the surly owner make some copies. And the next day the owner returned and needed more help. It turned out the owner had agreed to sell the team and now found himself without any administrative help, except for the “kid.”
The kid helped the owner working late collating papers, making copies, and delivering documents as needed. There was never any pleasant small talk between the kid and the owner, just one-way conversations from the owner to the kid, except for one evening when, as the owner was leaving, the kid said, “Sir - do you mind if I’m the president?”.
“President of what?”
“You know, the…um, the team”
“Haha - sure kid, you’re the president, knock yourself out. Now get all this crap over to the bankers.”
So, after getting all the crap over to the bankers, the kid had business cards printed with the team logo, his name, and the title “president”. Then, alone in the building, went to the former president’s office, propped his feet on the desk and called each of his college pals to inform them of his promotion.
The team sale closed a few months later but in the interim the kid became useful to the owner - organizing documents, arranging travel, taking notes. He never got paid any more than his “marketing” salary but he wrangled a stellar recommendation that got him a front office job at another team, and not long afterwards, he became president - this time for real.
That job led to another then yet another and by the time I met him he was a respected industry talent.
Success comes to those who don’t listen. At least to those who don’t listen to naysayers. This week I spent my Wednesday in Opelika, Alabama (something I could’ve never said before) with a family of real estateurs. The patriarch, John Marsh, is a reformed wild man that pulled his life out of a ditch and for the past two decades has, building-by-building, rebuilt his town - breathing life into a place time forgot.
In John’s first iteration he doubled down on all of life’s wonderful vices. Taking no half measures, he embraced everything the 1990s had to offer and went all-in on drugs, porn, and stealing. His wife left, and adding to the pageantry of his condition, he mixed in a big pile of unsustainable debt.
His collapse was spectacular, and in what should’ve been the end, John found himself alone in his attic with a convincing voice telling him to hang himself.
All successful second acts start with ignoring something. In John’s case it took divine intervention, but he ignored what he was being told, walked out of the attic and piece-by-piece started the implausible task of putting his life and family back together.
And with that same care and craftsmanship he also started putting discarded buildings back together. In the two decades since, he’s created something wonderful with his life, his family, and his town. And he’s now on to his biggest real estate adventure yet: a 100,000 square foot adaptive reuse project in Opelika.
The idea that a defunct bat guano factory in the Black Belt of Alabama (known for having the richest soil and poorest people in the country) could be turned into an enchanting collection of event spaces, hotel rooms, and restaurants is absurd. Until you 1) see it and 2) meet John’s son Nelson.
John has infectious energy, talking over himself with hard-won stories, big ideas, and inspiration. Nelson inherited his father’s wild eyes and obstinate determination but packages it with a bushy beard, well-worn cowboy boots, and the urbane sophistication of someone who spent years studying food and wine in Italy.
Their project is a testament to what can happen when you ignore the crowds. After our tour, Nelson - while treating me to an assortment of sublime aged sheep’s milk cheeses and a luxurious bottle of Barolo - described the next phase their project:
“a maximalist Bosozoku disco, with a classic cinema component”.
I chortled at the preposterousness of a Japanese biker gang-themed sake den with dancing and old movies in OPELIKA, ALABAMA, POPULATION 32,000, but I also knew he was going to make it happen.
And here’s the thing with folks that ignore naysayers: we can blame everything that’s good and right in our world, real estate or not, on their skillful neglect. Without it, we’d never have anything worthwhile, including Bosozoku discos.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive on how wonderful places are created, sign up for the Tacos & Patios Workshop - a free online gathering where we unpack the how and why behind unique mixed-use developments.