Private man, public success (Bob Buchanan, '64)
Washington Business Journal
Jan. 30. 2004
Loudoun developer Bob Buchanan looks for the "we" in "us vs. them"Bob Buchanan didn't plan to become a third-generation developer because he didn't think he'd be much good at the family business.
Instead, after studying political science and Chinese at Yale University, Buchanan went into the Navy and flew risky intelligence missions in Vietnam. That's where he learned the lessons that would guide his career: Take the initiative; think outside the box; nurture teamwork; protect and trust your men; and always, always lead.
Buchanan put those lessons to good use as the founder of Buchanan Partners, overcoming public-private battles to develop in some of the region's most visible ― and contentious ― areas.
After helping to develop Ballston in the mid-1980s, Buchanan took on the grand-daddy of them all, guiding Loudoun County's economic development after a recession in the early 1990s.
Along the way, he's taken leadership positions on the boards of Atlantic Coast Airlines, the Washington Airports Task Force, George Washington University's Loudoun campus, and at the Greater Washington Initiative.
"I don't know if leaders are born or trained, but I think it's a matter of passion," he says. "Because if you have passion, people will follow you.
ANSWERING THE CALLBorn and raised in the D.C.-area, Buchanan returned home after Vietnam at his mother's urging to work with his father, a president of the National Home Builders Association who later earned a spot in the Builders Hall of Fame.
Trying his hand at politics, Buchanan served on the Rockville Town Council in the l970s but says he was turned off by the lack of cooperation between members with differing beliefs.
Buchanan set his sights on Loudoun in the early 1980s when the area was still speculative. After a devastating real estate bust in the late 1980s, he stayed to help the county develop a coherent economic development plan.
"I don't know why sometimes you do the things you do," he says. "But it was easier to stay and make Loudoun work than to leave and think maybe I turned my back on something where I could have made a difference." Buchanan founded the Loudoun Partnership as a way to give business leaders access to politicians who directed the county's economic policies. George Barton, then-chair of the Board of Supervisors, liked the idea so much that he asked Buchanan in 1995 to chair the inaugural Loudoun Economic Development Commission. The Navy vet made sure the commission would have free rein to critique the board's policies before he accepted. Barton, another veteran, gave him "permission to speak freely."
Since then, EDC has often given the board advice it doesn't want to hear.
"Very early in the recent economic history of Loudoun County, Bob saw that this county had great promise and Bob took a long position in Loudoun County," says Randy Minchew, an early commission member and head of Loudoun's Republican Party. "He has gone above and beyond the call of duty to posture the county to get some big economic development deals."
LISTENING TO BOBOne Loudoun economic development official calls Buchanan the "godfather" of the EDC. Another calls him the group's "George Washington." Bottom line: When Buchanan talks everybody listens.
Colleagues say he has an acute ability to foresee problems and deal with them before they occur. They even have a term for it.
"Being 'Bobbed,' to me, means going into a meeting and there's some fundamental flaw in your analysis, and Bob can very quickly pick up on it," says Keith Troxell, a partner at Troxell, Kincaid & Mullin and former EDC chair. "He can hit things pretty quickly."
Observers say he uses the same acumen in his business dealings.
"What I find really unique about Bob is his ability to look at the market and switch gears," says Robin Bailey, manager of business infrastructure at the Loudoun Department of Economic Development. "They're small enough that they can move quickly and take advantage of some opportunities that the big developers can't."
As a long-standing member of the executive committee of Washington Airports Task Force (www.washingtonairports.com), Buchanan has lobbied for investments in infrastructure to create a "Dulles Loop" that will improve transportation around the airport.
"When we're all charging ahead and looking at what we think we ought to do, Bob is always the one who is looking for the rocks that might be there and telling us how to avoid them," says Leo Schefer, the president of WATF.
Buchanan also chairs the corporate governance committee of the board of Atlantic Coast Airlines (www.atlanticcoast.com) ― leading the company to a recent top-10 rating of 600 small-cap companies reviewed for good practices by Institutional Shareholder Services. CEO Kerry Skeen says Buchanan "has been my conscience."
\While his peers sing his praises, Buchanan won't talk about himself or his successes.
"If he were painting colors, he would be painting more subtle colors, because he's not given to a lot of self-advertising," says Larry Rosenstrauch, director of the Loudoun Department of Economic Development. "He's more the color of the blue sky."
Buchanan says one of his greatest pleasures is being at the heart of so many public-private partnerships ― especially in a part of the region where public and private are often at odds.
"If you have these forums where communities can bring things up, good things happen," he says. "It's very rewarding to be part of the community where you're living and working and feel that you can make a difference by your participation."
Buchanan laments the increasingly fractious "us vs. them" political environment, both nationally and in Loudoun, where residents bicker over growth policies. But that doesn't mean he opposes dissent ― Buchanan says he was pleased to see a well-attended anti-war rally on a recent visit to Adams Morgan, though he supports the war in Iraq.
"If you sit down at meetings and listen to people and how they feel," he says, "you may not come to the same conclusions, but you will get a better understanding of where people are coring from."
BOB BUCHANAN CLOSE UP
- President, Buchanan Properties
- Age: 61
- Family: Wife Sharon; three children; eight grandchildren
- Education: Bachelor's in political science, Yale University
- Military service: United States Navy, 1964-70
- Residence: Potomac
- Last vacation: Birding in Southeast Brazil
- Next vacation: Touring Belize with The Nature Conservancy
- Favorite restaurant: Grapeseed
- Current book: "The Glorious Cause" by Jeff Shaara
- Best part about his job: Helping to make the people around you better
- WHAT WAS LOUDOUN COUNTY LIKE WHEN YOU BEGAN WORKING THERE?
- There was really no corporate presence in Loudoun other than the Xerox training facility. The amenities to employees working in the Route 7 corridor were so few that when we were marketing Loudoun Tech Center in the mid-'80s, we had to put together an amenity package to show prospective employers where their people could bank, eat, shop, etc. Unfortunately, the trouble with the amenity map was that almost all the retail amenities we could find were mom-and-pop operations, nothing like the fabulous retail establishments there today
- WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR EXPERIENCES BUILDING PARTNERSHIPS?
- When principals make the time to sit at the same table with their counterparts in other leadership roles in the community ― be it governmental, civic, private sector, institutional, etc. ― there is a real opportunity for one another to understand, appreciate and respect different perspectives. If trust gets added to the chemistry good things will happen.
- WHAT CAN DEVELOPERS DO TO CHANGE THE STEREOTYPES ABOUT THEM?
- Maybe if more communities saw the value in public/private partnerships and invited developers to participate, that stereotype would change.
- WHERE IS THE NEXT BIG OPPORTUNITY ON THE HORIZON?
- This region probably has the lowest unemployment of any major metropolitan area in the country, and the commercial/industrial market is definitely on the way back. There are many great opportunities out there, but I think western Prince William County will really come of age over the next few years.