Winning By the Numbers

  • San Francisco Business Times
  • January 25, 1988
  • Patrick Danner

When David Martin was a teenager, his grandfather implanted a fear in the future East Bay developer.

“I remember sitting outside one day on the porch when an airplane flew over,” Martin reflects. “He said to me, ‘I’ve never been in an airplane.’ I sat there for a moment, and he added: ‘You know, the things in life that you regret are the things you didn’t do.’”

Those afternoons spent at the nursing home with his relative evoke sad memories for Martin, but that time also serves as a motivating force in his life.

“He implanted a fear in me that’s been with me a long time,” Martin says. “There’s that fear, impatience that I have of wanting to accomplish certain things with my life. I think one of the saddest things is looking back on your life and thinking, ‘I wish I had done that.’”

At the rate Martin is going, he may not have to worry much more.

Just 32 years old, the Alabama native has already formed his own company, Emeryville-based The Marin Co. After four years, the firm’s real estate portfolio is valued at more than $250 million.

The heights he has risen to in such a short time have astounded some observers – most notably Martin himself.

“I wake up some mornings feeling like I have to slap myself when I say, ‘Geez, is all this mine?’” Martin laughs. “There is great joke by Johnny Carson when he said he felt like Dolly Parton’s baby. He was laying there looking up and saying, ‘Is that all really min?’ You have that feeling some days.”

Among the noted Emeryville projects that Martin has his name on are Bay Center, a $60 million, three building office complex, and Bay Pointe Club, a $38 million, 544-unit apartment complex scheduled for completion this fall.

“I think if you asked me three years ago what the dollar volume would be of the projects David would be involved in, I would have said a lot,” Said Michael Covarrubias, senior vice president of Union Bank in San Jose and a former colleague of Martin. “But the magnitude and breadth of those projects probably would have surprised anybody.”

Yet Martin’s success has produced its share of critics, who like to refer to his age asa sign denoting a lack of knowledge, experience and ability.

“One of the refreshing things about California is it gives people an opportunity to be successful because of their talent, despite their age,” Martin says. “But there still are people in California who believe a little gray hair wouldn’t hurt.”

“I think he’s conscious of (his age), and I think that’s why he wears a beard,” says friend John Gooding, principal in Good unlimited Services. The company provides concierge service for a couple of Martin’s buildings in Emeryville.

But friends also say he doesn’t let his age become a liability.

“For a young guy, he has an unbelievable amount of savvy,” says Peter Palmquist, managing director of Pacific Union Marketing Co., “He is very open-minded and inquisitive.”

Unlike his counterparts who were brought through the ranks with backgrounds in the construction business of marketing, Martin’s forte is finance. He has a business degree from the University of North Alabama at Florence and MBA from Golden Gate University in san Francisco.

“I’m convinced the ‘90s will be the age of the people who understand the financing,” Martin predicts. “The people who are really coming to the top in this business are the people who understand the financial formulas and who can access the capital markets.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, Martin moved west and joined Union Bank in San Jose. There, he built up the bank’s loan portfolio to $300 million.

“The reason I went to the bank was to get in the development business,” Martin says. “My goal was to get that exposure with as many different developers as I could and try to pick out the best talents of each developer and try to bring those talents together in my own development company.”

After Union Bank, Martin in 1981 joined CPS, a commercial real estate company, to help develop the 860-acre Hacienda Business Park in Pleasanton. Martin became adept in the political process in trying to secure the various city approvals for developing the park.

”David is one of those rare guys who is a real estate person through and through,” says Union Bank’s Covarrubias. “Since he’s been in California, he’s been in all aspects of real estate.”

To be a successful developer, Martin says, it was essential get as much experience in as many disciplines as possible.

“We, as developers, are like conductors in an orchestra,” Martin says. “You stand in the center of the process, and you bring together the technicians, architects, engineers, contractors, lenders, brokers, and you orchestrate all those disciplines into a creative process.”

“he can bring people together. That’s his magic,” Covarrubias says.

Believing he had the background, Martin chose to form his own company three years after joining CPA.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Martin insists. “It’s just that I had absolutely no idea that I’d be doing it at this scale.”

With associates, Martin tried for six months to find a location in the Bay Area that was amicable to development. In Emeryville, Martin saw his opportunity.

“Emeryville is you textbook urban village,” Martin says. “All the raw elements you look for in a development are here.”

Probably the rawest of those elements is Emeryville’s location. Adjacent to the Bay Bridge and major freeways, Emeryville is near the center of the Bay Area. In addition, the view of San Francisco is not half bad.

When Martin arrived in Emeryville, he says the city was populated with run-down buildings that served only as eyesores.

Today, Martin devotes a lot of his time to the $65 million Emeryville Market, a mixed-use project he believes will be one of the first privately financed public markets in the country.

California Public Markets signed a 15-year lease to operate a public market in 55,000 square feet of the 105,000-sqaure-foot project. In addition, United Artists Communications signed a 20-year lease to operate a 10-screen movie theater at the site.

Other projects consuming much of Martin’s time include the $45 million Shellmound Park, a joint venture with Chiron Corp. that will serve a biotechnology center.

His company also is nearing completion on the Powell Street Plaza, a $30 million retail complex developed in conjunction with San Francisco-based Terranomics.

“I find David to be absolutely refreshing in terms of a real estate developer,” Gooding says. “He is unassuming, but not pretentious, he is gutsy, but he is not arrogant about it.”

As for his future plans, Martin says he just wants to keep doing what he already is going.

He recently formed an affiliation with Devon Construction Inc., a Milpitas-based construction and development company, to manage more than 3 million square feet of commercial properties in Silicon Valley. The new company also will provide development services to institutional property owners.

But there is more to all this than running a company day-to-day.

“The real motivating factors are the thrill of the hunt, seeking out the right deal and outing it together,: Martin says.

At the same time, however, a new fear is beginning to haunt Martin.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Geez, after I build my next project, that’s the last piece of land there will ever be. There’ll never be another one like it.’”

“But that fear lasts about five seconds, and then I realize there’ll always be another project.”