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Akki Patel, 44, is the founder and CEO of LRE & Companies, developers and real estate investors who specialize in ground development and community building. The entrepreneur, whose diverse experience and expertise span more than two decades, lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters, ages 9 and 11. We caught up with him to find out how he got started, what inspires him about the work, and how he has sustained his success. 

Q:  How did you get into this business?

A:  I always enjoyed real estate as a child.I knew all the mid-developers in the city I grew up in because my father was in the business. I was fascinated by designs and buildings and the fact that from a simple canvas, the ground, you can build a building, then design comes in and the community aspect. I still remember when I was 10 or 11 years old, going with my dad to one of the grand openings for a project and handing out brochures and explaining different units. At 15 or 16 years old I would go to open houses. The creative aspect and the actual building are inspiring to me. When I came back to the United States from India, I was  staying with my uncle, who received publications for hotels. I would go through them and I would call all the brokers for the listings. I was 16 years old.

Q: Why include small markets in your portfolio?

A: Everyone always focuses on larger markets, but from my previous life of owning restaurants, I gained a lot of knowledge about smaller markets. We probably know more exits and more dirt than anyone else in the California and Nevada regions. That’s where we started our focus. We knew where the voids and white spaces were, what markets were performing well and where there were opportunities—and then we set out to bring the right retail to those markets. 

Q: What do you bring to this industry that is unique to you? How are you different?

A: Our focus sits at the intersection of real estate, hospitality and retail, and our success is built on a foundation of strong relationships and partnerships. Our relationships with cities and retail brands are unique to us; we are creative, out-of-the box  thinkers and those things set us apart. Anyone can put a rectangle on the dirt. But our project in Roseville Junction, for example, exemplifies how we can bring about unique uses of space with a mix of retail and hotels. We know where the great spaces are and we can build something that contributes to the community, economically and socially. 

Q: What is the most rewarding and most challenging thing about this work?

A: There is nothing more rewarding about this work than when the product is completed and we truly integrate that real estate in the community. At this point you have literally changed and added to the landscape of that community and have impacted a way of life. The most challenging is when something goes wrong, which is not uncommon because it’s very fast-paced. Not everything can do this work. With every project, something goes wrong every day, but we have been in the business for so long and have enough expertise to know how to overcome those challenges. After two decades in the business, solving the problems is what we are great at. 

Q: What are you most proud of, to date?

A: Professionally: What we have accomplished. We have truly lived a great American Dream of working hard and creating our own opportunities. We started with the humble grounds of when I bought my first restaurant at a young age. I mopped floors, dealt with water leaks, scrubbed the walls, floors, counters and tables. That was probably the best thing that ever happened because I gained a true understanding and appreciation of what it took, at every level, to run a restaurant, not just own it. I was 20 years old when we bought a second and third, not too many people had that experience. This type of training is invaluable. I worked at McDonald’s at 15 or 16, and I learned more there than anywhere else. I truly appreciate anyone who works in that kind of space. I have the same appreciation for my employees. 

Q: How has Covid changed things?

The whole idea of how the world shuts down and no one knows what’s going to happen, from capital markets to unfinished projects, to empty restaurants—this is something that our industry has never had to deal with and it has forced everyone to have to be nimble and creative as we re-emerge and navigate the long recovery. We are seeing 8- to 10-month delays with supply chain issues, including HVAC, air conditioners, and other things associated with building. But I have a long history of overcoming challenges and always being optimistic in everything I do. This is unprecedented, but things are going to be ok.

Q: How do you approach each project?

Purely based on our expertise, doing what we’ve done all these years, we look for the potential in hospitality and retail. We put on our creative hats and envision the best use for any given piece of dirt. Then we go into the thinking process, the nitty gritty: Can you make construction, zoning, pricing work? The hardest thing is pairing the right piece of dirt with the right use. That is the key part. What does the community really want? Retail? Hotel brand? You want to add the right piece that fits the fabric of that community. 

Q: What is the one thing you think people or communities should know about retail development?

A: Everything we do helps the community, from tax revenue and employment, to filling the void. We always need community support and a lot of times in California it can be very challenging. People need to understand that a strong partnership with developers can lead to a great project for the community.

Q: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

A: I would be a farmer or a winemaker.

What are your personal interests?

A: Skiing. I’m also a foodie; I don’t mind making a trip to try out a new restaurant in town. I like being in mountains where cell phones don’t work and I’m surrounded by nature with my family with no distractions. I like hole-in-wall places—those always offer the best experiences.