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Commercial Real Estate

John Goff: Succeeding Beyond His Wildest Dreams

In the early 1990s, the former accountant thought he saw an opportunity in real estate—and bet his entire net worth on it. Today, the chairman of Crescent Real Estate is one of the industry’s biggest players.
By | |Photography Courtesy of Crescent Real Estate
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Goff says he has never seen better market conditions for North Texas commercial real estate. Courtesy of Crescent Real Estate
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John Goff: Succeeding Beyond His Wildest Dreams

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John Goff, who’s 66, jokes about getting older. “Not old—vintage,” he tells me, as we settle in for a chat about his career. It has been a fascinating one, filled with bold moves and big rewards. He spent the first few years on a ho-hum accounting track; things got interesting after he went to work for renowned Fort Worth investor Richard Rainwater. One of his first assignments was to put $50 million to work in the stock market after it crashed in October 1987. “Why he did that, I don’t know,” Goff says. “But for some reason, he believed in me.” 

Not long after, Roger Staubach approached Rainwater for help with some real estate investments he had made. Rainwater put Goff on the matter. “What I ultimately saw was that Roger had this very small but interesting business in tenant representation,” Goff says. “I ended up negotiating with him to buy 20 percent of the company for $1 million. That $1 million ended up being worth more than $70 million. I’d like to take credit, but it was all Roger and his team. They did a magnificent job.”

It was a profitable investment, but the insights Goff gained by serving on The Staubach Co.’s board sparked an even greater return. Because of the firm’s focus on tenant representation, he got to see where companies were moving and why. “I thought, ‘Wow. All these companies are moving to Texas, which is the most overbuilt market in the country,” Goff recalls. “Why don’t I build a real estate company around that? Why don’t I go buy real estate because anything and everything was for sale?” He took the idea to Rainwater—a business plan mapped out on a single sheet of yellow-pad paper. His mentor looked at it and said, “That’s great. I’ll help. I’ll invest some money in it—but you put up your entire net worth.”

“I started with nothing,” Goff says. “When I went to work for Richard, I had no net worth. But by this point in time, I had created single-digit millions—let’s call it $5 million in net worth. I worked my tail off to get that point; I never in my life thought I would even be worth that amount. Putting it all on the line was very hard to do.”

“How long did you think about it?” I ask. He doesn’t hesitate before replying: “Two seconds.”

‘Like Catching a Falling Knife’

Much of Goff’s success through the years has been due to his willingness to trust his gut and take risks. His first real estate deal was with Caroline Rose Hunt, who was looking to recapitalize her Uptown development, The Crescent. After that 50-50 partnership, Goff made additional buys, focusing exclusively on Class A buildings. He also began to build a team—some of whom remain with him today. In 1994, Goff took the company public with a $500 million IPO. It was at that point that his venture was given a name, Crescent Real Estate Equities, in honor of his first buy and favorite property. 

In 2007, Goff sold his company to Morgan Stanley for $6.5 billion, after building a $4.5 billion portfolio of office and hospitality properties that were sold at a $3 billion profit. Two years later, in a remarkable turn of events, he bought it back—for a fraction of what he had sold it for. “Morgan Stanley had put a lot of leverage on it, and that leverage came from Barclays Bank,” Goff explains. “Barclays called me and said, ‘Do you want your company back?’ I said, ‘Sure, but you’re not going to like the price.’ It was like catching a falling knife at the time—how the heck do you value anything? [Due to the economic downturn of 2008], the world was upside down.” Barclays ultimately agreed to a partnership, which remained in place until Goff bought out the lender in 2016. 

Today, he says, Crescent is a $10 billion real estate operation. Goff serves as chairman; two CEOs, Jason Anderson and Conrad Suszynski, oversee day-to-day operations. Goff also serves as chairman of his family office, Goff Capital, managed by his son Travis. (His other son, Christopher, is director of investments for Crescent.) As it turns out, Goff’s knack for making wise investments extends far beyond commercial properties. Through his family office, he has formidable holdings in the energy, entertainment, aerospace, and technology sectors. “People always refer to me as a real estate person, which is fine. And that is how I originally created the bulk of my wealth,” Goff says. “But today, when you look at it, I mean, we’ve got investments of all kinds.”

On a Development Tear

When it comes to choosing where to place his bets, Goff says he likes to find things that “everyone else hates. ” That means buying when things are oversold and undervalued. The risks are enormous, but Goff has demonstrated over and again a willingness to tolerate them. When he acquired The Crescent from Rose Hunt, he also bought the acreage that she owned around it, at a time when Uptown was just getting started. That led to the development of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences, the striking McKinney & Olive office building, and the just-opened 2401 Cedar Springs, another office project.

His latest endeavor is another stunner, a mixed-use development in Fort Worth’s Cultural District that’s currently going by the name Crescent Fort Worth. “I drive by the site every day on the way to work,” Goff says. “And for years, I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t somebody take that property and do something with it? It’s the perfect location.’ Finally, I said, ‘We need to do it.’ So, we did.” 

Now under construction, the development is slated to open in the spring of 2023. Along with 166,000 square feet of office space, the project will include a 200-room luxury hotel, upscale restaurant, and 170 high-end residences—“the nicest in the city,” Goff says. It will also house a Canyon Ranch Urban Wellness Center, an offshoot of his Canyon Ranch resorts (see sidebar). Headquarters operations for Crescent Real Estate, Crescent Energy, Canyon Ranch, and Goff Capital will take up about one-third of the office building. 

All told, Goff currently has about $2 billion in development projects in the works, including two hotels in Nashville, a multifamily development and an office and retail project in Denver, and others in Boulder. He’s also developing again in Dallas—an apartment high-rise on Maple Avenue near The Crescent. “We’re very, very busy,” Goff says. “We’ve got a lot of projects, a lot of things planned that we haven’t announced.”

For both development and investments, his focus is on high-growth real estate markets. “We’re interested in places that people are moving to and not from,” he says. “We love Colorado, we love Florida, and we obviously love Texas.

“I’ve never seen better market conditions for North Texas real estate—ever. It’s as good as it has ever been,” Goff adds. “We have true, significant demand. We’re going to be the beneficiary of in-migration like never before. I built Crescent on in-migration in the early ’90s, but that pales in comparison to what we’re seeing now. There’s probably not a better market in the country.” 

John Goff was named the Pioneer Award winner in D CEO’s 2022 Commercial Real Estate Awards program. The singular honor recognizes area leaders who have had a profound impact on the region and the profession.


A life-changing relationship with investor Richard Rainwater

Goff moved to Fort Worth in the early 1980s and took a job with what’s now KPMG. That’s where he met Richard Rainwater, who was chief investment officer for the Bass family. When Rainwater left the Basses to pursue his own interests, he asked Goff to join him. “It was absolutely life-changing,” Goff says. “Our relationship over the years was everything from father-son to brothers to business partners. It went through evolutions, but we were very close. He was inspirational. He saw things in me I never saw, abilities I never knew I had. Richard wouldn’t sit you down and teach you things—that’s not the way he worked. You had to learn through osmosis. You had to emulate and just observe and, as I often say, ‘hang around the hoop.’ It was a small office, but there was a lot of talent there—over the years it was Eddie Lampert, Ken Hersh, Rick Scott, Mort Meyerson, and George W. Bush, among others. It was an amazing place to be.”


Betting Big on Luxury Wellness with Canyon Ranch

Goff took a stake in Canyon Ranch in the late 1990s. In 2017, he acquired the luxury resort and wellness brand from Mel Zuckerman, who founded the company 40 years ago. “The brand is more relevant now than it ever has been because wellness is more relevant today than ever,” Goff says. I think we have a real responsibility to take what is a great formula and expand it—very thoughtfully and very carefully. I’ve already tied up property near Austin. We have a new CEO, Jeff Kuster, who joined us two years ago. He’s fantastic. 

We’ve brought in some incredible, youthful talent who bring a lot of vigor and new, great ideas. … We’re really looking to grow; we’re going to do some urban wellness centers and add more resorts. We’re also reinvesting even more in our current resorts. So, look for a lot of growth in Canyon Ranch. I think Canyon Ranch can be bigger than Crescent ever was.”


Deal of the Year: The Crescent

Goff’s March 2021 acquisition of The Crescent marks the third time he has owned the iconic Uptown property. He reportedly paid a record $700 million for the asset. Along with 1.1 million square feet of office space, it includes Hotel Crescent Court, 11 restaurants, upscale shopping, and more. It was one of the most expensive projects ever built in Dallas when Caroline Rose Hunt developed it in 1986. “She had a vision and took an enormous risk to build it in a market that really didn’t exist,” Goff says. “It truly is the anchor of Uptown, which has become the single best market in the entire Southwest—certainly in Texas. I don’t ever want to sell The Crescent again. I love it. It’s too hard to find great, iconic assets like it. So, I think we’ll just own it forever.”

Author

Christine Perez

Christine Perez

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Christine is the editor of D CEO magazine and its online platforms. She’s a national award-winning business journalist who has…

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