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Years before presiding over NAA as the 2004 Chairman of the Board, Deane Dolben was painting apartments, cutting the grass and clearing away snow for his father’s Boston-based company.
“At 13, I learned the value of the dollar and an hour’s worth of work,” Dolben says. “It was an invaluable lesson of working shoulder-to-shoulder with wonderful people who were trying to raise a family on a modest income. I learned a lot about having a strong work ethic. I also learned that I wanted to go to college and get paid to use my mind.”
Dolben says he was entrusted to go in and out of people’s homes as a young person, an “eye-opening experience” in seeing how other people live.
However, after graduating from Tufts University in 1984 with a mechanical engineering degree, Dolben didn’t see a place for himself in the family business. His brother, Drew, and cousin, Dana Pope, were already working as partners at The Dolben Company, specializing in development and acquisitions, respectively.
“I didn’t have as much of a vision as I should have and I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do here,’” Dolben says. “I remember sitting on the curb with my father, Don, explaining this, and he said, ‘What you don’t understand is this is an opportunity.’ Of course he was right, and I’m glad he had the patience to hire me.”
|Dana Pope and Drew, Deane and Don Dolben|
However, it was Don Dolben’s actions that perhaps spoke louder than his words. He showed Deane there was plenty to do, assigning him the immediate task of unclogging a sewage system at one of the communities.
Now president of the Dolben Company, Deane says it’s been an interesting three decades in the industry.
“I graduated from Tufts in 1984 at the tail-end of the mom and pop stage of our business,” he says. “Most apartments were managed by private firms and quasi-professional husband and wife teams. The husband did the maintenance and the wife leased the apartments. They would lease out of a unit they were living in onsite and prospective residents would walk in and trip over their dog and kids and see the dirty dishes in the sink.”
Dolben says a proliferation of REITS did an amazing job turning the business into a professional industry in the 1980s. It was during this time that life insurance and pension policies also accepted multifamily housing as an institutional class, which attracted investors.
However, Dolben says at the end of the day, it’s still a bricks and mortar business.
“We’re still taking care of people’s homes,” he says.
Dolben has five children, three of whom are in college, and says it’s too early to tell if they’ll join the family business. Drew also has three kids, two of whom work for The Dolben Company.
Should his own children come aboard, Dolben says he’ll share the advice his father gave him.
“My dad always said, ‘If the day ever comes when you enjoy firing people, you need to have your head checked,’” he says. “‘It happens, and it’s business, but if you enjoy it, something is wrong.’ He also advised us to foster a culture of being stewards. You’re a steward to the residents’ homes that you manage, a steward to your investors and a steward to your employees.”
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