Humbling moments often come when you least expect them. In the case of Bill Cawley, one such experience happened a few months back. He was showing some office space to a Dallas tenant rep and, as introductions were being made, the youngish broker paused to think. “Cawley Partners,” he said. “Yeah … I think I’ve heard of you guys.”

It wasn’t the kind of reception Cawley was used to. At one time, the 58-year-old was big man on campus in Dallas real estate, with a thriving brokerage operation and millions of square feet of office developments.

The broker’s comments made Cawley realize just how low-profile he had become. His decision in the mid-2000s to “check out” of the business for a while had worked … a little too well. Today—sensing big opportunities in the market, and with his competitive nature reignited—he’s jumping back into the game. But in commercial real estate, it’s not just about who you know, but who knows you.

The good news is, it shouldn’t take long for people to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with the Cawley brand. The real estate exec is aggressively lining up office acquisitions, aiming to add 2 million square feet to the 1 million he already owns. Perhaps even more significant, Cawley has relaunched his leasing and management business.

“It just feels right to get going again,” he says. “The economy is taking off, and I have never felt more confident in my ability to gauge risk and see opportunity.”

Growing up in a small town south of Chicago, Cawley always knew he wanted to work in real estate someday, just like his dad. At 15, he lied about his age to get his first job. After college, he went to work at his father’s firm. He had married at 19 and already had two young children. Neither the job nor the marriage lasted very long, though, and in 1982, Cawley moved to the real estate mecca of Dallas, seeking a fresh start.

Unable to interest one of the big brokerage firms—they were all recruiting Harvard MBAs and IBM professionals at the time—he took a job selling condominiums. Cawley quickly became the company’s top producer, even selling a condo to a “mystery shopper” who had been hired by the firm to help evaluate its sales force.

He went on to work for the Bass family in Fort Worth, then in 1993 launched his own commercial real estate firm, Cawley Associates. Within a year, business was booming. Cawley began to expand, opening offices in California and other markets. And in 1995 he bought Wilcox Cos. from Ray Hunt—a move that allowed him to get into development. Cawley once called it “a case of the minnow eating the whale.”

Not long after, the commercial real estate market in Dallas began to tank. But Cawley would soon confront an even bigger challenge: a horrific accident that nearly cost him his life.

It was July 5, 1997. Cawley was on a guys’ trip to Colorado, trying out a new motorcycle. He became separated from his riding buddies and tried to pass a car on a two-lane road near Aspen. A dangerous game of chicken ensued. Slamming on the brakes to avoid an oncoming car, Cawley was flung over a 30-foot cliff. The impact crushed his right leg and both of his arms. No one stopped to help.

Determined to survive, but unsure that he would, Cawley used his one good leg to slowly thrash his way back up to the road. He was discovered by his friends and flown to a hospital where he went into surgery—for 19 hours.