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For Milt Peterson, Building a Real Estate Empire Meant Building a Family First

Posted on Mar 14,2012
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Legendary builder Milt Peterson.
Legendary builder Milt Peterson.

By John Arundel
 
ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Legendary builder Milton V. Peterson said he built the foundation of his sprawling real estate empire on a premise that's not taught in any business school or MBA program: Put family and community first.
 
Few of his business allies or competitors probably even know that the 74-year-old Peterson clawed his way to the top of the region's real estate market by first honoring a fierce affinity to marriage, family, religious tradition,business ethics and community-building. 
 
"It's about going out into the community and getting something worthwhile accomplished," says Milt, the founder and principal of Fairfax-based Peterson Companies. "It's not only a community responsibility, for me it's a religious one as well."

Many are perhaps more familiar with the other Milt, the eccentric and amusing Milt.
 
With his thinning white hair and penchant for long-winded diatribes which he punctuates with vinegar punch that lifts you off your seat.
 

He cajoles, he flirts he stares you down with those intensely blue eyes and that goofy grin.
 
"I'm sort of a zealot," Milt says. "I overcome lots of things through effort." Milt's words often run ahead of his thoughts, which probably make him the most popular guy at the cocktail party, the kind who makes the men cheer and the women swoon.
 
You find yourself clinging to every punchy pearl of wisdom, because you never know if it might lead to a genius vision like National Harbor, the wildly-successful metropolis on the shores of the Potomac near Oxon Hill, Md.
 
Milt concocted his vision of this region's Oz while strolling the Las Ramblas section of Barcelona, Spain, while vacationing there eight years ago.
 
When it comes to family and community, Peterson tends to sip from a more serious Kool Aid to fuel his thoughts.
 
"When we were younger and just starting out, we didn't have much too give, but as we started out on our adventure we wanted to be a major giver in the community," Milt says. "We looked at it as a challenge."

A native of Massachusetts, Peterson has made his home in Fairfax County for more than 50 years. He moved here in 1958 as an ROTC graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College (to which he has since given $45 million). He was a lieutenant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, shortly after marrying his high school sweetheart, Carolyn (Skyllberg) Peterson. He is the proud father of four children, all of whom now help manage The Peterson Companies.

"It was the goal of Carolyn and I when we got married that we would build a family company and that we would all work together," Milt says. "Success starts early, very young, by having it be a family business. As a young father I had looked forward to that. If the dynamics were not there, I knew it would not happen. The key to it is openness, who fits where. It has to be the whole family, moving in the same direction." Peterson began his career with the renowned Arlington developer Stephen Yeonas in 1959. In his first year in real estate he was one of only six that made the Million Dollar Sales in the DC area. "The Yeonas' are three brothers who prided themselves in how well they got along," he says. "They taught me to think like a coach; attract the right talent and form a team."

Peterson parted with Yeonas Development in 1965 to start his own residential development company, pairing up with Til Hazel to become one of the two principals of the Hazel/Peterson Companies which developed such early projects as Burke Center, Franklin Farms and Tysons/McLean.

In the 1970's he formed the present-day Peterson Companies which has developed a variety of mega projects in the mixed-use realm such as Fair Lakes, Virginia Oaks, Washingtonian Center, Fairfax Corner and the Downtown Silver Spring revitalization.

The Peterson Companies is now one of the largest privately held real estate development companies in the region, having developed, acquired, managed and leased 35,000 residential units and 10 million square feet of retail, hotel and office space in 11 jurisdictions of Virginia and Maryland. It now manages 8 million square feet of retail and office space in the region, making it nationally recognized as an industry leader for state-of-the-art community real estate development.

"This business is about who walks in that door each day," Milt says. "We have 140 employees, and we have created a brain trust here."

The company's developments have earned various local and national honors such as Developer of the Year, The Distinguished Design Award; The Most Outstanding Project Conservation Award, The Pillars of the Industry Award and others in the areas of planning, custom design, conservation, development and marketing.

In 1995 he was recognized as the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce's Man of the Year,and in 2003 The Urban Land Institute honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to the real estate industry.

"We've built a family company with a reputation based on integrity and vision which is known for developing high-quality, well-designed, cutting-edge properties and which specializes in large, mixed-use developments," said Steve Peterson, the company's president. "Since we do residential, office, retail, industrial and land development, we're well suited to do complicated, large, mixed-use developments as we have most of these capabilities in-house."

Kori  Johnson is the General Manager of the Residence Inn National Harbor and Milt Peterson is the developer of the National Harbor community. That's Bill Marriott to the far left.
Kori Johnson is the General Manager of the
Residence Inn National Harbor and Milt Peterson
is the developer of the National Harbor community.
That's Bill Marriott to the far left.

The crown jewel of the Peterson empire is its signature property, National Harbor. Located in Prince George's County, Milt told me at the ground-breaking in 2007 that his vision for the project came from a family vacation to Barcelona, Spain, while strolling the street of Las Ramblas, a tree-lined pedestrian mall which lights up at night with street musicians, light shows and open-air dining.

"That's not just any river there...That's the mighty Potomac!" Milt effused at the time. "It deserves a great showcase like what the people of Barcelona have with their most famous street."

Far fetched vision? Not quite.

Milt set about his vision by securing $2 billion in loans from principal lender Bank of America and others (a feat considered unimaginable these days after the global lending freeze took hold in 2008). About 2,000 construction workers (plus an additional 1,
200 at The Gaylord National) set off on 18-hour shifts to build Washington's biggest waterfront destination.

Spread over 350 acres of shoreline, with a mile and a quarter of Potomac Riverfront, the first phase opened to much fanfare in 2008.

It includes Gaylord National, the largest hotel/convention center on the Eastern seaboard, with 2,000 rooms and 500,000 square feet of meeting space, 425 condos, eight restaurants; 350,000 square feet of retail, 140,000 square feet of office a virtual city.

At final build-out, National Harbor will contain in excess of 10 million square feet of restaurants, condos, shops and hotels.

National Harbor has not been without its share of setbacks, including The Walt Disney Company's decision last year not to exercise its option to build a hotel and entertainment-themed complex on 100 acres sold to it by The Peterson Companies.

Undeterred, the Petersons formed an exclusive joint venture with Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, which plans to open the $100 million Tanger Outlets at National Harbor in 2013. The new outlet mall would bring in the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue's OFF 5TH, Nike, Gap, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour and J. Crew within a 30-minute radius of five million consumers.

Some called the deal pure Milt: A joint venture co-owned by The Peterson Companies and Tanger Outlet Centers with both jointly providing site development and construction supervision services. "When you invest your money you look for the best return you can
get," Milt says.

Far from allowing his talents to be used just for the benefit of making money, over the years Milt extended his experience and money into the reaches of philanthropy and community-building. For 16 years he served on the Economic Advisory Board, and also chaired the Fairfax Economic Development Authority.

With a net worth estimated by Virginia Business to in excess of $100 million, Milt formed The Peterson Family Foundation in 1999 and placed his daughter Lauren in charge. Their offices adjoin each other's at the Petersons'

sprawling Fair Lakes Circle headquarters.

"When people can give it becomes a responsibility," Lauren says. "If you have been blessed with that ability to give, where do you put those dollars? We focus our efforts on human services, health care and education."

The family foundation's biggest gifts are to Northern Virginia Family Services, which they began funding in its infancy 22 years ago and which now has 29 employees and a $2.3 million budget. Another major recipient of the foundation's largesse is Inova Health System, where it's the primary supporter of Life with Cancer's newly created Family Center. Life with Cancer has raised $10 million since its inception, and recently the Petersons helped fund a freestanding cancer survivor center which focuses on the whole journey of cancer.

"Our mother is a two time survivor of cancer, so this is very personal to us," Lauren says. "It's the Peterson's family's philanthropic jewel."

Education is also a major philanthropic priority.

Milt served on the board of Middlebury College for 24 years and was instrumental in both giving and raising major gifts for the revitalization of the campus, including new athletic and science facilities.

"I put three rambunctious boys through Middlebury who in the end all made me proud," Milt says. "We never calculated that we would give $45 million to Middlebury College. But it was the right thing to do because I've got three boys who honored me there."

An early proponent and supporter of George Mason University when it was established by the State of Virginia in 1965, Milt and Carolyn received the George Mason Medal at graduation in 2008 in recognition of their contributions to the college.

A lifelong and devout Methodist, Milt has been involved in significant fundraising for the United Methodist Church Board of Missions since the early 70's when he got into the church development business. He developed a 2600-seat church in the Dominican Republic which now feeds 250 poverty-stricken children per day and keeps trafficked women off the streets.

In Northern Virginia, Milt's fundraising for his church raised $22 million and his company helped design and build 15 new churches and congregations across Northern Virginia, including Centreville United Methodist Church.

"When I looked at Centreville 15 years ago, I said where is the church? Where are the steeples? Where's the town hall? That's what makes a community what it is," Milt recalled. "Centreville needed a place that serves the community, the parishoners, the Boys Scouts...So I said to (Pastor) Bob Parsons who came to me about building a church there: It needs to be double the size. Think about it, pray about it and get back to me."

In the end, Parsons (and Peterson) raised the money needed for The Peterson Companies to build Centreville United Methodist Church, now a lifeblood of the community.

"They had the perserverence to build the most central building in Centreville," he recalled.

"It did what we wanted it to do, and in the end it was built with an entreprenurial, go get 'em kind of spirit."

Milt Peterson said he looks for the Best ROI on his philanthropic "investments" by seeking out world-class entreprenurial talent.

"It's a multiplier effect," he said. "How can we get the biggest multiple where you put your money? Well, you couple your money with the best entreprenurial talents. When you do that, your treble it.

You quadruple it."

Milt has passed down this advice to his sons, Jon and Rick, both Peterson Cos. executives, who between the many pulls on their time have their own philanthropic priorities.

Jon has been involved with former Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs Youth for Tomorrow initiative, helping to raise $9 million for at-risk teens involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. He also helped launch the Real Estate School at George Mason.

"It's more of a focus than a choice," Jon says. "It's not always family driven. The leaders are now aging, and the technology community is not always stepping up to the plate. So who are the next generation of leaders? It could fall short if we don't step in."

Rick Peterson, the president of Peterson Management, shares his father's infectious enthusiasm. "It's in Mom and Dad's DNA to do the right thing by their family and by their community," he said. "It's a family tradition."

For the past five years Gleaning for the World has been the focus of Rick's philanthropic passion. "Humanitarian organizations have a tough job reaching and providing care for those in need," he explains. "Often, they must use urgently needed funds to locate, store, sort, inventory and ship supplies to people working in the field. We brought a solution to that."

It costs the average organization tens of thousands of dollars per 40-foot container of product to manage the supplies, even if the products have been donated. "This is where Gleaning For The World becomes a great asset," Rick says. "We don't have our own mission projects. We partner with other humanitarian organizations to provide and manage supplies, saving them money."

Their expertise is in the international aid delivery imposing tight quality control, detailed documentation and a global network of resources, ensuring that donated goods successfully make their way through customs and to intended recipients.

"Gleaning for the World was a way to take our skill sets and glean the world, in a Biblical sense," Rick says. "It started off as a building in a field with several employees and is now the most efficiently run charity in the country, organizing and shipping out 400 container loads a day. It's amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it."

Last year, the organization sent 42 containers to Haiti, including urgently-needed medical equipment and surgical supplies, and things like shoes and nutrition bars.

"Rick and I were in the Dominican Republic last November," Milt recalls, "All poor people in dire need. But on the boat and on the water, it's all about logistics. So we've chosen to focus on being experts in logistics to get the end result."

Milt admits that maintaining a tight family nucleus is not always the simplest of chores. "Was it always easy? No," he admits. "The relationship is about the whole family. So we spend more time together as a family than is normal. We get together in Maine during the summer, and we go back to work in the fall as a team. Discipline as a family only comes with respect. If you don't have respect for each other, there is no team."

While the Petersons have built large swaths of the Northern Virginia, DC and suburban Maryland landscapes through pluck and perserverence, Milt admits that the stubbornly long recession has been trying for a family involved in commercial real estate.

"To see Northern Virginia grow has been absolutely wondrous," Milt says. "We're really in a holding pattern right now...Flat is good."
 
Read more in this month's NOVAEXEC magazine.



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