Developer Bob Hughes has been at the forefront of downtown Greenville’s renaissance for years. Projects like NEXT, RiverPlace and ONE, all developed by Hughes Development, are synonymous with the ever-changing Greenville skyline.
Hughes started working “the Monday after I graduated from college” and launched Hughes Development in 1991. He was 39 at the time with three children and no steady income, but was “strongly encouraged” to go into the family business.
“It was a big risk,” he says. He had no grand plan about the types of projects he wanted to do, just an idea that he wanted to make Greenville a place where “young, married people would want to live.”
“All the way through, I’ve been trying to figure out the magic,” Hughes said. “When I did shopping centers, I would put in more trees and put in more sidewalks. I was trying to build what’s called a place. A place is somewhere you go to – where you start to do something you want to do. I was always trying to make my projects into a place. So doing mixed-use, which is what we do now, that’s a place. A bridge between work and home. It’s all about quality of life.” While Hughes is still committed to downtown Greenville projects, such as ONE and working on the expansion of RiverPlace, he’s also now expanding his vision to Columbia, taking on the $1.2 billion Bull Street project.
Somewhat reluctant to be in the spotlight, Hughes is a dedicated family man who thrives on the constant change and challenges the business brings to him. He says he loves real estate because “I don’t have to do the same thing I did yesterday.”
His current office is what you would expect for a successful executive – a wall of dark wood bookcases, a large, older desk and views of the city he has helped build. Awards that he has received are kept in the adjoining bathroom because he doesn’t want to “flaunt them.”
With all three of his children working in the business with him, Hughes is focused on the future. The company will be moving soon into new offices at the ONE building with one of his daughters overseeing the move. His son Robert oversees other projects, and another daughter telecommutes from Boston. “It’s really great to have them all here,” says Hughes.
What’s a typical day like for you?
A quick early-morning meeting to set the day, and then usually appointments back-to-back-to-back. One of the best things I can get is a canceled appointment to give me time to get some work done.
So what kind of people are you meeting with?
Well, here’s an example – this morning I met with someone who is interested in how Greenville is growing and what’s going on here. This afternoon I meet with city staff in Columbia to talk about the Bull Street project. Twice a week we have staff meetings with senior staff, and those last a couple of hours.
A lot of the meetings I have are with people who have ideas about ways to make Greenville better. This week alone I have five meetings with people who want talk about things they want to do for Greenville.
At this point in your career, do you see yourself as an ambassador for Greenville?
No [laughing], I don’t know what I’m doing. I think maybe if I knew what I was supposed to be, I would then have some context in what to put these meetings in.
I think the NEXT building was a good example. People came to me and asked me to be an advisor and then asked me to develop it. It was really a unique project and I learned a lot. There’s a concept of reverse mentoring where older people come to younger people and ask advice and what they think. I got to learn what they were thinking. One of the big things I learned is a lot of the new jobs in this world can be anywhere. We should be building the new economy and preparing for that.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Walking around the project where nobody knows you and seeing people enjoy it and the smiles on their faces. It’s all about quality of life, and my contribution to the quality of life is a development where you’re not wasting any time, can get things done that you need to get done and get on with what you want to do.
What does Greenville need next?
Having CertusBank put their headquarters here was a big deal. They were a startup company and we’re a great startup company town. We need someone big to relocate their headquarters here. We need the validation of a well-known company to be here.
We went through a period of time focusing on the office building development. Now we’re picking up on the low-hanging fruit that created. We’re doing more retail, more restaurants, mixed-use and hotels. We still need to stay focused on that, but we need to refocus on office to get those big companies to relocate.
Your two daughters and son all work in the family business. How is that dynamic? Is that your legacy?
I was forced to come back and work in the family business, so I made a rule that my children weren’t allowed to come directly into the family business. They had to go work somewhere else for five years and then come back and talk about it.
Part of the challenge now is: How do I make this into the kind of company that I can hand off as opposed to the kind of company that I can just close when I don’t want to work anymore?
Your brother, Phil Hughes, is also in the real estate business. What are family gatherings like?
We don’t work for the same company, so we don’t talk business. Family gatherings are about family. Everyone in the family likes good wine, so we’ll trade bottles of good wine. We talk about our mom and dad and their travels, as they travel a lot more than we do. Where they’ve been and what they’ve done. We save the competition for when we are downtown.
My wife would say I work. We travel. I also enjoy quail hunting and snow skiing. We love New York and the arts and we’ll catch a few plays and go through museums.
If you could have chosen another career, what would it have been?
I think I was on the path to being a doctor. I enjoyed science and medicine and the research part of that. They hadn’t invented emergency room specialists when I was coming along, but if they would have, that might have tipped me in that direction. I could have seen something different each day. One of the things I really like about this business is that I can do something brand-new every day.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Starting my own company in 1991. I was 39 years old with three children, and it was involuntary. It was also the biggest reward. The decisions are yours and the consequences are yours. You’ve got to learn to forgive yourself. It’s the mistakes you learn from.
Are you where you thought you would be?
I never thought about where I was going. I never had a really big plan for me. I had an idea about what I wanted for Greenville and I wanted it to be a great place for young married people to live in, a demographic that no one else was targeting at the time.
If you could give one piece of advice to others, what would it be?
Focus on what the other guy needs and what the other guy wants. That’s what your business should be. If you produce something that someone wants, they’ll pay you for it.
What is your favorite word and why?
Love. That’s my mushy side. It’s my favorite word because it conveys a completeness of connection and a completeness of emotion and is something you can also convey to what you do. It warms you and keeps you focused and gives you something to do. I love what I do.
How would others describe you?
I’m fairly comfortable that people see me as direct, and that suits me fine. I would hope they would describe me as fair and honest, creative and caring.
What’s your proudest moment?
It’s coming up. I’ve had a lot of proud moments though, mostly revolving around family.
A look inside Bob Hughes' personal photo album.
What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
My family. In the company, we have a rule that we don’t want to do a real estate deal that someone else can do; we want to do something that is unique. My family is something that I can guarantee you that no one else can do. It’s my pride and my joy, and it’s what keeps me going.
Is there any one project that’s your favorite?
It’s always the one I’m working on now. I love the way the ONE project has come together and it’s been a catalyst for other development around it. I’m looking forward to finishing RiverPlace as well and Bull Street in Columbia, as it presents a challenge.
What do you still need to learn?
Where the next good project is.