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4 lessons I learned as a plumber’s apprentice


My father’s ‘gift of grit’ taught me the value of hard work, teamwork, humility and purpose.

BY JEFFREY MICHAEL

February 1, 2019

I was 12 years old when my father, Danny Michael, got into the real estate business. His office was in the Chicago women’s clothing store, known as the “Shmatte,” on Lawrence Avenue — his first major toehold in the entrepreneurial world.

I was growing out of the mischievous kid who would play hide-and-seek inside my dad’s shop and was coming into my own as a curious teen.

A few years later is when my dad began teaching me the “gift of grit.” This was also my first hard-core introduction to the “family business” — property investment, maintenance and management.

One of my first clues that I was about to embark on this lesson was the sound of a honking car horn waking me up one early June morning, days after I had finished my sophomore year of high school in 1987. My dad said, “Oh, that’s for you. That’s my friend, Raffi. He’s a plumber. You’ve got a job with him. You’re his apprentice for the summer. Go get a shirt and shorts on and get in his van. Make it fast.”

Over the next few months, five days a week, that horn marked the start of my work day. I would trudge outside and climb into his van – which reeked of plumber’s silicone grease and had no air conditioning – and be taken to work at dozens of buildings in and around Chicago.

Among the many jobs we did, I worked in the bowels of The Chicago Theatre, learning construction from Raffi. He set me up to work with other trades, so I learned about carpentry, plaster repair, painting, a little electric, plumbing and more.

Of all those lessons I gained that summer, the most valuable ones guide me to this day:

1. Appreciation of manual labor

I gained a true appreciation for those doing the actual hard work and manual labor; I learned how to work with my hands and not be afraid of getting dirty.

Now, I am often on-site during all phases of construction on our buildings. While I obviously don’t do the work myself, I understand what’s being done and can play a meaningful role in managing it.

I think we have better relationships with our plumbers, electricians, tile guys and other trades partners because I understand what goes into performing each task. Likewise, because I have a broker’s license and have leased apartments before, I’m also comfortable giving advice to the leasing agents with whom we work. I have been in the trenches, literally and figuratively. Real estate agents gain immense credibility with their clients when they can speak with an above-average knowledge about construction. Buyers and sellers really appreciate an agent discussing and knowing what a property may require, the possible costs, potential pitfalls, if it’s worth doing (to prepare for sale), when a seller has gone the extra mile with their home, etc. A quality property is much more than the eye candy — recessed lights, crown moldings, stainless-steel appliances, soft-close doors and drawers, etc. — that attracts most buyers.

Agents should spend time with contractors to up their game. Imagine pointing out poor work to a buyer and helping them negotiate a better price with the first offer or avoid a property entirely. Or, conversely, pointing out excellent work that was very expensive and the value it adds to a property (wood, replacement windows vs. vinyl; a deck made of cedar; quality cabinetry vs. the cheap but nice-looking stuff; energy efficient HVAC equipment and more). Knowing these things also helps an agent sell their listings better.

2. Be open about what you don’t know

I learned to follow instructions and accept that there is no shame in knowing what you don’t know.

I’m extremely comfortable seeking out and taking advice from others whose expertise is stronger than mine in a wide variety of areas. I regularly consult my father about ideas, challenges and acquisitions. I discuss all our business and financial decisions with our controller, and I’m quite involved with the broader real estate community. Many of these other professionals are great sources of advice and insights. And, of course, I consult with our contractors to know what kind of budget we’ll need to make an older building into the kind of property we’re proud to rent.

3. Teamwork

I learned how to be part of a team. Horizon has grown only because of the hard work and dedication of many talented people. I make a point to remember this every day: Horizon is not me or my dad; it’s the team we belong to and support.

No man is an island, and in this business, that’s doubly true. Everyone plays a key role in making our business function like a well-oiled machine. Granted, we’ve had our share of hiccups and bumps, but we’ve always gotten re-aligned through the collective effort of our team members.

4. Have an honorable purpose

I learned that the many tasks had a common goal, and a strong purpose – to make these buildings better for the benefit and pleasure of those who lived and worked in them.

Having a strong, viable portfolio in this business is entirely dependent on two things: keeping your properties in great condition and ensuring they are rented to good tenants. Creating a nice place to live at a fair price is in Horizon’s best interests too — doing so keeps our buildings occupied, our portfolio valued on the higher end and our tenants happy, which is hugely valuable in its own right.

Consistent with this focus, we keep our construction crews busy and active by renovating units within our portfolio. A month does not go by where we are not renovating at least a handful of units at a time.

My father, a self-taught individual who came to the U.S. from Israel in the early 1960s with only an eighth-grade education, could have shielded me from these in-the-trenches experiences. But he knew that entrepreneurial spirit, strong work ethic and the ability to see opportunities and take risks don’t automatically get passed on to the next generation.

Final thoughts

Would I say that I enjoyed my summer? Not at all. It wasn’t camp. That experience was something much more valuable and important — it was growing up. And it was transformative.

Over three decades later, the “Shmatte” store that started my father’s business is now the headquarters for Horizon Realty Group, which owns one of the most admired privately held apartment portfolios on Chicago’s North Side. My appreciation for that summer job – and the lifelong lessons that came with it – grows stronger everyday.

Jeffrey Michael is chief operating officer at Horizon Realty Group in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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