Last month, D CEO magazine revealed the results of SMU’s CEO Sentiment Survey, conducted annually by the school’s Cox School of Business. As part of the study, North Texas c-suite executives named their picks for the region’s CEO of the Year.
Among the finalists this year were two real estate executives—Steve Van Amburgh of KDC and Craig Hall of Hall Financial Group.
D CEO asked all finalists to share thoughts on their careers, lessons they’ve learned, and what lies ahead. Below are responses from Craig Hall. (Click here to read the Q&A with Steve Van Amburgh. Click here to see excerpts from all finalists, and click here to read a profile of this year’s winner, Joel Allison of Baylor Scott & White Health, click here.)
Q, What’s the most significant business lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
HALL: Survive until you thrive. In other words, be persistent and be tenacious and you’ll be in a better position to get lucky. There are so many variables in business that are out of our control, but if we work as hard as we can and as smart as we know how, we maximize our chances for a positive outcome. Sometimes everything will seem to be going the wrong way, and sometimes you’ll have the wind at your back. It’s all about surviving until you thrive and not getting confused about being able to control all the variables.
Q. What’s an important business success you’ve enjoyed, and a failure you’ve learned from?
HALL: Helping other people exceed their own career expectations is something I count as a business success. I believe in providing opportunities for others and then pushing them to excel in ways they may not have expected. We recently completed a new building at our larger winery in St. Helena, California. I am very proud of the results and was closely involved with our architect throughout the process. He had not previously worked on a project this large or this unique, and when it was complete, we spent some time walking around the property together. He said, “Thank you for pushing me. I can’t believe I did this.” Hearing that was a success to me because he expanded his thinking and creativity to produce the work we wanted, and I believe having this project in his portfolio will be good for his career.
There are many others in various capacities throughout the Hall organization who have been big contributors to our company. I have watched them grow and take on more and more responsibilities in significant ways over the years. Mark Depker started working with me in 1970 as an apartment maintenance person, and he now heads up all of our real estate operations. I’ve learned a lot from these past 44 years with Mark. I’ve watched him expand his horizons and have seen and been a part of his growth. There are many other “Mark Depkers” within my companies and there are other stories similar to the architect. Being an active coach, it makes me proud to contribute to the success of others, which is also a success for me.
In terms of business failures, I have had plenty (or setbacks, as I prefer to call them). I have been through periods of over-leverage, and at one time in my career had to declare personal bankruptcy. Doing so was the most humiliating, disastrous experience I could have imagined. A number of mistakes caused me to be in that position, but I had to dust myself off, keep going, and not give up. Failure can be a frame of mind if you allow it to be. I believe it can also be one of our greatest teachers if we look at it that way. I choose to learn from my mistakes and do what I can to improve as a result.
Q. Where do your company’s greatest opportunities lie in 2015?
For most of our businesses, we are having a “lucky, wind-at-our-back” kind of year. HALL Wines is having a huge growth year and our wines are being highly acclaimed by critics. Wine sales throughout the United States and internationally are growing at about 35 percent, and our direct-to-consumer sales are growing at 45 percent. Those are good numbers for a very high-end winery.
Similarly, we are having a great year in real estate. Occupancy is strong and rental rates are increasing. At the same time, we are refinancing properties at lower interest rates than we ever expected. None of this means we are particularly smart it just means we have survived long enough to experience some luck and be in a position with the wind at our backs.
Our natural gas business has been dealing with low prices over the past several years but we are hoping that’s about to turn around. Slowly, but surely, prices seem to be rising. We purchased more mineral leases throughout the downturn, and if pricing stays on an upswing, we expect to be drilling again soon.
Providing angel-round venture capital is a fun and exciting business for us this year. Previously “top secret,” we can now talk about Theranos, a company we first found out about in 2006. With patents now in place, Theranos is making worldwide headlines, and the last round of equity raised was at $9 billion as a pre-market valuation. In 2006, our investment was a fairly modest, low startup number so again, we’re in a position to be lucky. More important, we invested in Theranos and others as angel-round or early-round investors not solely to make money, but because we believed in the people involved and in their ideas ideas we believe could change the world and make a difference. To me, that is what business should be about improving the world and making a difference.
Finally, we are enthusiastic about the Arts District in Dallas. We are in the process of completing construction on our first office building at Hall Arts, and though not officially announced, we are finalizing plans to start on a residential tower next year. We have invested an enormous amount of time and energy to the overall project, which is a multi-phase, mixed-use development. Getting Hall Arts to this point has been a combination of survival, frustration and fun, and we hope it will be a positive contribution to Dallas.