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Close-Up: Douglas Wilson

Developer's company designed to weather economic cycles

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From his 19th floor office, Douglas Wilson has a clear view of a gigantic crane that hovers above the skeleton of a 33-story downtown condo development.

The "problem resolution" side of Douglas Wilson's company well prepares him for building in a not-so-development-friendly market.

It's a small obstruction to an incredibly scenic view that not all businessmen would appreciate. But it suits the founder, chairman and CEO of Douglas Wilson Cos. nicely. After all, the crane is helping piece together his latest development: a $200 million high-rise condominium known as "The Mark."

"It's a real statement building," Wilson said during an interview, pointing out the window at the towers of scaffolding. "It's the first high-rise condominium that is wrapped in an entire skin of metal and glass panels that in today's dollars would cost $10 million.

"I think it's going to be quite stunning when it's done."

Stunning or not, The Mark will be a sight for all to see, particularly if they have a seat that looks out toward the centerfield gap in Petco Park -- the development is situated on a full city block between Eighth and Ninth avenues, from Island Avenue to Market Street.

Wilson's prime piece of real estate is in an area that many developers these days would shy away from, as the downtown condo market continues to cool.

But the other facet of Wilson's company prepares him perfectly for building in a not-so-development-friendly market.

He calls that part of his business "problem resolution." This division consults down-and-out executives who for some reason or another find themselves midway through a project with nothing but obstacles ahead of them.

The idea that Wilson came up with nearly half a century ago was quite simple: Create a counter-cyclical business model that allows developers to prosper when the market is not necessarily primed for commerce. Wilson's company oftentimes becomes the trustee or receiver of a property and takes it from the brink of failure to fruition.

It's an anomaly in many ways: When business is bad for others, it's good for Wilson.

"Believe me, I don't take on these projects gleefully," he said, laughing at the assertion. "But I am proud of the fact that I did have an entrepreneurial idea and saw that there was a niche to do this a long, long time ago."

Wilson admits that not all projects can be immediately turned around to weave a profit. Every development is different, he says, and some are much more challenging than others.

Wilson points to Ocean Trails, an 18-hole golf course project in Los Angeles, as one of his ultimate success stories. Deep into the development of the project, 20 acres of the course gave out and fell into the ocean. The developer had lost a few holes of the golf course, forcing Wilson to help arrange a redesign and a plan to get construction back under way.

"That was when we really scratched our head and said, 'is the rest of this going to fall into the ocean due to erosion issues?" he said. "That was one where we certainly didn't have any quick answers, and it was a pretty frightening situation."

As evidence that the project succeeded from that point, Wilson notes that Donald Trump promptly purchased the property near completion.

"Now it's very successful," Wilson said. "He bought it and kind of put the frosting on the cake, and now he's turned it into a successful project."

Wilson's entrepreneurial idea to save companies in trouble was bred from an underlying philosophy about the way people approach business. He recognized that while anyone can make a buck in an up market, when the tides shift not all developers can weather the storm.

"I learned 23 years ago that most developers and a lot of real estate people can prosper only at good times, and they don't have a lot of cash flow at bad times," he said. "So, what I learned is: Life is not always perfect. There are economic cycles."

And life cycles.

As Wilson's company grew, so did he. Now, as he runs offices in San Francisco, Denver and Atlanta, Wilson said he is priming others to take over when he is done working.

And as others climb the corporate ladder, it offers Wilson a bit more time to spend with his family -- leading him to a field in which he's earned further distinction.

This year, the American Diabetes Association named him Father of the Year, along with San Diego City Council President Scott Peters and Father Joe Carroll.

"To me that's the most gratifying thing," Wilson said. "When you see your three kids and your wife up there saying, 'Dad's a great dad because he went to every game he could.'"

"I've always believed that I'm going to be there for the kids because that's something I cannot replace," Wilson said. Then, pointing out his office window toward The Mark, he added: "I can hire somebody here to build that building."

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