Robert Hughes grew up familiar with real estate development as his father, Bob Hughes, led numerous Greenville projects as president of Hughes Development Corp. But Robert was so interested in so many fields, he didn’t imagine he would end up working there.
Before heading to Duke University, he took a year off and became an emergency medical technician, riding ambulances because he thought he might go into medicine. He worked for Sen. Jim DeMint in Washington, D.C., because he thought he might go into politics. He spent several months working in finance in New York City and then volunteered as a teacher. “It was a fun year,” he said.
After completing his degree in public policy studies at Duke, he worked in commodities trading at Lehman Brothers in 2007. “After helping Lehman Brothers to their demise,” he said, laughing, he was an assistant vice president at Barclays Capital from 2008 to 2011. He earned an MBA from Columbia Business School in 2012.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to come home and work in real estate,” he said. “The opportunity to come and work in a family business, and live in a town like Greenville and grow a business here outweighs any other opportunities I had.”
He returned in 2012, led the acquisition of the 196,000-square-foot Bank of America Tower in 2013, and managed its renovation, leasing and currently its sale. He has gone on to play a lead role in many key projects, including Greenville ONE, Aloft Greenville Downtown and a 181-acre project on Bull Street in Columbia.
“I still have a lot to learn, but that’s the most fun thing about this job,” he said. “I learn something every day.”
What projects are you currently focusing on?
Every day is different, and that’s something I love about this job. I’m handling the leasing at One Laurens that just got built, where Caviar & Bananas is going. I was in charge of construction and administration for Aloft, the hotel and the retail and office under that. I’m doing leasing at the Bank of America building and ONE. And then our biggest project right now is in Columbia, the old Bull Street campus. It’s 181 acres, a mile from the state capital and a mile from the university. It’s a massive piece of dirt, right downtown. It’s been off-limits to the public for 100 years, so welcoming the public back to that site, in a way that is great for Columbia, is really fun.
Was it a difficult decision to return to Greenville after your years in New York City?
I had a great experience in New York, I learned a lot at the two banks, and learned what it was like to work in a big organization. I learned management styles and had very influential bosses. Dad had told me he wasn’t going to hire me right out of college. He wanted me to get my own experience. Books on family business management always say it’s important for the family member to have a job for five years, get a promotion and do some things in another organization so they can have some skills and successes outside the family business.
Have you been glad your father encouraged you to go your own way after college?
Dad didn’t have a choice of where he went to work. He had to come back and work for his dad. But he said he didn’t think any of us would come work for him and he wasn’t planning on it. There was no pressure. But having that experience definitely gives me a better perspective on business here, and management. My dad wanted me to know I could be successful if I wasn’t here.
Have you experienced preconceived notions about you since you joined your father’s business?
My dad was incredibly successful taking the company he inherited from his father and growing it into a completely different business that has had some really influential projects. But I still have this article in my office, and there is a quote that said, “Critics say he’s the son of a favored developer, so he had a hand up,” or something like that. My grandfather was a residential developer and built Kmarts and Winn-Dixies. The company has evolved. It just reminds me that no matter what I do, it’s going to be in the light of working for the family business, working for my dad. I can’t get away from being cast in that light, so I just have to accept it and get comfortable with it.
Was it challenging to switch gears from the father/son relationship to the boss/employee relationship?
It’s working great so far. It’s been a lot of fun. We were both aware of the change when I moved home, and we had to get comfortable with where to draw the line between father/boss and son/employee. Finding that balance was critical. But I respect him so much and I know I have so much to learn from him. I get excited about things, and I have to pull back and trust his knowledge and experience. There are 1,000 ways to try and accomplish something, and he might have tried 990 of them, so I try to pick up on as much as I can that he’s experienced over the years.
Are there key lessons you’ve learned in your four years with the company?
I’d say honesty and trust. That’s been instilled in all of us since we were young. We want to be able to do deals on a handshake. That was my grandfather’s reputation – if he told you he’d do something, it was done. That was passed down and we continue to try to emulate that.
Do you have a business achievement you are most proud of?
I’m the young guy in this thing, so I can say I don’t have one yet.
In this business, you feel like you’re on the brink of failure all the time. On the trading floor at Barclays, every day you knew if you had a bad day or a good day. In real estate, projects take so long to put together, and it hinges on so many small things. And we might go after 10 projects and only get one, but that’s part of it. So I’ve failed to complete deals, but if you learn every time you fail, you’ll only be better.
What are you focusing on as your company evolves?
My dad gravitates toward complicated, challenging projects, and I think that’s where he found a niche. If 10 developers are going for it, it might not be the project for us, but if it’s something a little more unique, and you have to get creative, and it has the ability to have a positive impact on the community, that’s where we like to focus. So I’m learning as much as I can and getting as much experience as I possibly can so we can provide great service to our tenants and build great projects in the communities where we work.
Do you think it’s important for young people to give back to Greenville?
Yes. There are so many interesting ways to get involved, and organizations that are hungry for young people to get engaged and plugged in.
And I think real estate has the ability to have positive social impact and create social change. A lot of business is a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. In responsible real estate development, everyone can be a winner, and it can be a net-positive game. The person you buy the land from wants to sell, and they make money. You build the right thing in the right place, and the neighbors’ asset values appreciate. The local municipality’s tax base goes up, providing more services to the community. Tenants occupy the building and create jobs, provide services and make money. So everyone is better off. That’s one of the things that drew me to real estate in the first place – you can do well by doing good.