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Alumni in Action

Real Estate Alum Thomas James Shares Five Lessons From a Career in Public Service

By Chris Malina

June 16, 2023

Photo that reads "Lessons Learned with WSB alumni"
Business careers can come in all shapes and sizes. In this series, Business Badgers reflect on lessons they learned over the years that shaped their unique careers and led to professional success.

Not every Business Badger can say they’ve gone bowling in the White House, posed for photos with a president, and overseen a real estate portfolio that includes some of the most recognizable buildings in Washington, D.C.

Then again, not every Business Badger is Thomas James (MS ’84). During a 40-year commercial real estate career in D.C. that spanned both the private and public sectors, James primarily worked in a variety of roles at the National Capitol Region office of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which plays a key role in the management and leasing of federal properties.

Now enjoying a well-deserved retirement, James reflects on some of the lessons learned from a distinguished and successful career in public service.

The benefits of public service

After graduating from the Wisconsin School of Business with a graduate degree in real estate appraisal and investment, James worked in the private sector before being laid off during the economic recession of 1991. He quickly bounced back and landed a realty specialist job with the GSA—and while he never expected to work for the government, his eyes were immediately opened to the job’s potential.

“The federal government quickly placed me in negotiation rooms on major deals,” James says. “I felt like I was able to lead the government’s business like my previous boss was leading his firm. It was very exciting.”

He quickly learned about another benefit: job security.

“The most pleasant surprise about federal commercial real estate is that in down cycles, the federal government gets more work,” he says. “If there was a stimulus package, it would often have a real estate component, which the GSA would need to execute and implement.”

Sometimes, basics are best

Early in his career, a GSA regional administrator came to him with a problem: The region’s real estate portfolio was losing money and no one was quite sure why. That’s when James remembered the words of James Graaskamp, the late WSB professor for whom the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate is named.

“He religiously told us that every real estate business has to be run by paying attention to the income and operating statements,” James says. “His entire curriculum was structured around it.”

Digging through long-neglected operating statements—located on microfiche film stuffed in a drawer—James was able to identify the major factors causing owned and leased buildings to lose money, and recommended a corrective course of action.

“My career catapulted from that point,” says James. “That generated a whole asset management and portfolio division, which I joined and later directed because I truly appreciated why those things would be important.”

Win over the most important stakeholders

In real estate, the concept of “highest and best” or getting the best deal possible is often seen as the ideal, but James says striving for the “highest and most probable” approach—another Graaskamp favorite—was often more effective in government work.

“That’s where you take the textbook solution and you apply politics on top of it,” says James. “Learning the textbook is good, but learning the politics surrounding a project is perhaps more important and sets you apart from everyone else.”

That advice came in handy when a project to develop a new headquarters for the Food and Drug Administration received community pushback. James says local residents felt like government project managers weren’t listening to their concerns. He was dispatched to meet with residents and was effectively told “good luck” by his colleagues.

James took time to understand their concerns, involved them in the planning, and ultimately suggested changes.

“The next week, they were calling up the office and saying, ‘I don’t know where you found this guy. We love him and don’t you ever think about taking him away.’ That made me appreciate how important community members are,” James says. “If you’re going to get a project done, you need them and they can be your friends.”

Never say no

Political appointees, presidential aides, and senior executives all have one thing in common, according to James: They typically hate hearing no for an answer.

As his career progressed, James found himself in many West Wing meetings where all sorts of ideas and proposals were thrown at him. Even when the plans seemed impractical, James found a way to buy time.

“The biggest mistake is to tell folks at that level you think the answer is no,” he says. “My catchphrase became, ‘Please give me the opportunity to go back and find out what it will take to say yes.’ Even when I thought the answer was no, when I came back and did the homework, it turned out the answer could be yes.”

Because of that, James quickly developed a reputation as a “project whisperer,” but his approach had an added benefit, as well.

“When I’d come back and brief those individuals about what they needed to do for the answer to be yes, they often would say they weren’t willing to do that,” says James. “So, they were the ones to say no, and not me, which served me very well.”

Embrace the unexpected

Working in one of the most complex regional offices of the GSA, James has had his fair share of unexpected situations—including President Obama’s decision to stay in Washington, D.C. after his second term.

“That became a project for us,” James says, explaining that while the GSA typically provides support to outgoing administrations, ex-presidents usually head back to their home states, meaning the job is handled by one of the agency’s other regional offices.

For James, Obama’s decision meant finding office space in D.C. for the president and first lady—and making the space work for them and their respective staffs.

Additionally, thanks to a connection with another University of Wisconsin alum—someone with the right connections in D.C.—James says he was able to kickstart the project at record speed. He submitted construction drawings for the space and obtained a building permit three hours later.

“The local construction community talked about that feat for weeks,” James says. “We were able to build it out, and now, I have the most wonderful picture with President Obama, and he’s there standing with us and thanking us for his office space. That was a great moment.”