Real estate tycoon at 24

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When Adam Blake says his business "has grown a bit in scope" since he went into real estate, he’s not kidding.

Starting out as a residential property manager, he turned to buying and renting out such places himself. Then he expanded into high-volume flipping of single-family homes.

Recently, he’s been buying land and selling the rights to drill for oil and gas. Blake now also recruits deep-pocketed investors for high-profile property deals — most recently the acquisition of a landmark building in downtown Fort Worth, from billionaire Robert Bass.

He is 24.

Though he admits that his tender years sometimes require him to work harder than others might in order to establish credibility, Blake appears to be well on his way to living the entrepreneurial dream.

His principal company is Fort Worth-based Atlas Properties, which provides real estate investment, development, management and brokerage services.

Atlas landed at 123rd on Inc. magazine’s most recent list of 500 fastest-growing private firms, reporting revenues of $5.8 million in 2008 and growth of 1,412 percent. Among the top 50 real estate companies, Inc. ranked Atlas at No. 2 in terms of growth.

Not bad for a guy who six years ago was making a living recruiting student tenants for landlords at Texas Christian University while majoring in business there.

"I had to pay my way through school," Blake says. "And I saw an opportunity — there was a huge disconnect between students and landlords who had houses for rent.

"Eventually, I was managing a few hundred units," he says. "But slowly, I learned that it was not the business I wanted to be in."

Blake’s perception of time probably isn’t like most people’s — "slowly" amounted to about a year.

"(Property management) is a lot of work for not a lot of money," he says. So at 18, he bought his first house.

"I found an opportunity to buy small two- or three-bedroom houses and convert additional spaces into bedrooms," he says, explaining that adding sleeping areas increased the number of students who could live there — and thus, the monthly cash flow. …CONTINUED

Start-up money came from a fellow student who became his partner in a firm whose initial plan was to buy and sell four houses.

"That transitioned into high-volume house-flipping — about 100 houses a year," Blake says. The experience taught him how to streamline the rehab process and buy materials in volume, he says.

"We weren’t like the mom-and-pop house flippers," he says. "We started using the same kind of paint, carpet and light fixtures in each house."

Meanwhile, he was still a full-time student and swiftly grasped the notion of delegating responsibility.

"We had to hire a bunch of people," he says. "I wasn’t even looking at the houses we were buying. Around my senior year, I hired people to do that."

After graduating with a combined major in accounting and entrepreneurial management, Blake says his business "grew quite a bit."

Now, in addition to more traditional real estate, he buys and sells mineral rights in Texas, and has purchased land in New York, Pennsylvania and Louisiana to sell oil-drilling rights, he says.

And he’s focusing on real estate syndication, raising money and providing equity for deals. In September, he and other investors purchased the Electric Building, an 18-story Art Deco landmark in downtown Ft. Worth with 106 rental units and commercial space on the ground floor, from a partnership that included Bass.

Atlas will renovate and manage the property. He declined to reveal the purchase price because he says he intends to buy more properties in downtown Fort Worth.

At the same time, he’s eyeing other ventures, all the while still minding a portfolio of rental properties.

"We’re actively buying 10 houses a month right now," he says. "Our strategy is either buy-and-hold or to sell via owner financing."

Blake says that although real estate, specifically, wasn’t on his radar at the time, his entrepreneurial ambitions began to form in his teens, starting the day his father lost his executive job.

"He worked for the same (telecommunications) company 20 or 30 years and didn’t graduate from college, but worked hard and climbed to the top," Blake says. "They laid everybody off during the dot-com bust and he had nothing to show for it.

"We had to move several times — it was a huge mess," he says. "From that point on, I knew I didn’t want to work for corporate America. I wasn’t going to depend on anyone else for a paycheck." …CONTINUED

Blake credits faculty members at Texas Christian University with nurturing his career, particularly David Minor, who runs an entrepreneurship program at the school. He says Minor and others there helped to fill in many blank spots in his background.

"I didn’t have any real experience working for companies," Blake says. "I had to hire employees (he now has 11), had to learn how to structure myself legally, how to work with accountants — pretty much how to run a business."

There have been hurdles, he says. "I’ve made every mistake you can probably think of. I would pretty much hire the first person who came along. I hired bad people who have stolen from me — that’s one of the biggest mistakes."

These days, he says, he delegates. "I have other people do the hiring now."

He admires, from afar, Thomas Barrack, chairman and CEO of Colony Capital, and Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, two investment firms with roots in real estate.

"They’re operating in a space I want to be in," he says, particularly their activities related to distressed real estate.

Eventually, Blake says, he’d like to run a publicly traded real estate investment trust, probably focusing on multifamily and mixed-use properties.

What, he is asked, does a guy who says he works "pretty long hours" do for fun?

There is a moment of silence.

"I have fun. I work a lot, though," he says. He’s particularly devoted to the Entrepreneurs Organization, which sponsors the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards each year for college students who have founded successful businesses.

"I won that award, and it had a big impact on my life," Blake says. "I’m a big supporter and I’m a judge every year, and it takes a lot of my time."

He’s not concerned whether flying so high, so early could lead to burnout.

"People ask me a lot about whether I’ll get burned out, because I’ve worked hard and long," he says. "But no, I’m not really worried about that. I truly enjoy what I’m doing."

Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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