RED Awards 2015: Lifetime Achievement Award

Above: This year’s Unity Agent honor will be awarded to John Graham, president and CEO of Sunbelt Holdings. AZ Big Media events | 27 Feb, 2015 |

On Feb. 26, AZRE hosted the 10th annual RED Awards reception at the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix to recognize the most notable commercial real estate projects of 2014 and the construction teams involved. RED Award trophies were handed out in 10 project categories, to six brokerage teams and safety, subcontractor, architect, general contractor and developer of the year awards were also presented. AZRE also recognized Sunbelt Holdings President and CEO John Graham with a lifetime achievement award. Click here to view all 2015 RED Awards Winners.

It’s always sunny at Sunbelt Holdings

Decades ago, John Graham would have told you the sight of clouds in Arizona could make his stomach churn.

Anyone who knows Graham, an articulate optimist, most notably during the recent Great Recession, probably wouldn’t believe that statement. But Sunbelt Holdings’ president and CEO, who got his start in real estate managing a portfolio of Coldwell Banker’s “worst properties” in Arizona, insists he was once less sunny, especially when it came to flooded parking lots and leaky roofs.

More than three decades later, he has made a career out of developing properties that his 20-year-old self would have never cringed at managing.

Graham’s real estate career started before he was out of college. He got his real estate license when he was 18, was 24 when he completed his first development and 28 when he became a founding director of responsible development group Valley Partnership.

Graham, whose father worked at Coldwell Banker for nearly 20 years before forming his own firm, is one of the few people in commercial real estate who intentionally ended up in the industry. Though he studied economics at Stanford, all it took was one day of shadowing an accountant to know he would rather follow in his dad’s footsteps. He got his real estate license and worked at Coldwell Banker during his college summers managing “a portfolio of the worst properties they had.”

He took what he learned in his three summers at Coldwell to Koll, where development hooked him by the time he was 23. He met his Norwegian business partner, Tor Adenaes, when he was 24. Adenaes needed someone to manage two properties he purchased in Arizona when he left for Norway the following year. One was what is now Troon North (then Pinnacle Peak Village, which still needed to be annexed and rezoned in Scottsdale), the second property was what Graham says had some of his supporters scratching their heads. It was an assemblage at 44th and Van Buren streets, which at the time was trailer parks and the red light district.

“People said ‘You’re going to fail,’” Graham recalls. “The thing I started to tell people is the worst thing that’s going to happen is failure. I’m 25; I’ll give it a shot.”

Three years later, Sunbelt Holdings delivered Gateway Park Hotel (now a Doubletree) and One Gateway (his first office building).
“We built our reputation on our ability to identify undervalued properties and then strategically and meaningfully increase their value,” Graham is quoted on the Sunbelt Holdings website.

In the 32 years since Graham joined Sunbelt Holdings, it has logged 55,000 acres of land development, ranging from masterplanned communities to the 2MSF Marina Heights, the largest office development in Arizona, and, most recently, urban infill multifamily property Portland on the Park.

“We’ve made an imprint on the world,” reflects Graham.

His partner defines him as intelligent, witty and compassionate.

“When I first met him back in 1982, he was a very young man. He had qualities that made him and Sunbelt a great fit,” says Adenaes.
The qualities Graham values in himself as a CEO are similar to those Adenaes says originally made Graham a good fit with Sunbelt.

“(John) was motivated and hard-working, had mature judgment, knowledge and understanding of real estate, great relationships and network within the business and Phoenix at large and I liked him and his family,” Adenaes says. “A couple years ago, [John] told me that at the time he [started with Sunbelt], he saw no long-term future in the job, especially not working with a crazy Viking named Tor. He had planned his future employment in months, not years.”

Three-hundred-and-ninety-six months later, and Graham is still with his original business partner, Vice President Heidi Kimball and assistant, Sandy Johnson, have all worked together for more than three decades.

“This is like a family — only just a functional one,” Graham says with a laugh. What makes him a strong leader, though, is his work ethic.
“I know I work as hard or harder than anybody,” he says. “I’m here as much or more than anybody else. By emulation, people know part of my ethic is hard work can equate to success.”

While a successful career has its fulfilling facets, Graham is most proud of his community involvement. He has served on more than 40 boards and commissions and has chaired more than 20 of them. There’s no such thing as too many friends for Graham, and that’s probably why a sense of community emerges from nearly all of Sunbelt Holdings’ projects — be it collaboration at the ASU Research Park or neighbors at Vistancia.

Graham even likes to visit Sunbelt’s masterplanned communities, more often than he’d like to admit, he says, to see residents and the public enjoying themselves. Sunbelt is even repositioning its golf course properties to make them more accessible to more people by adding more public amenities. The developer’s most recent venture includes moving the suburban lifestyle to urban environments to infill parcels with existing amenities, such as Tempe Town Lake or Margaret T. Hance Park.

“Our placemaking skills are really good,” he says. “What makes a vibrant place for people to want to be and play is actually very transportable from a suburban to urban setting. I’m very driven to demonstrate and prove it.”

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