Bill Gallagher – Real Estate Developer

August 13, 2007
Posted in interviews
August 13, 2007 brett

Bill Gallagher likes to build things, and build things he has. His company, Oakmont Senior Living, is one of the largest developers in all of Sonoma County in northern California. The father of five is casual in tone, humble in contrast to what might be expected from a man so successful. At this point in his career, Bill is focused on the development of senior housing, and finds satisfaction in providing for the older members of the community. Bill likes to build things, but more he likes the entire process of development. Perhaps this explains his adopting three children after his own children were grown.

Bill Gallagher in his standard work garb. He’s playing with his dog, along with the other dogs his employees bring to work. Tis’ the lifestyle at Oakmont Senior Living Development.

At 19, Bill Gallagher hitchhiked most of the way across Canada; he had no money and wanted to take a trip. Along the road, he was taken in by some travelers who had adopted children after their own had grown. Years later, Bill followed suit, and has relished in the opportunity to love and nurture his children.

Although still stressful at times, success has brought to Bill precious time to spend with his wife and five children. Bill is not a gambler, but rather uses his family minded mentality to calculate risk. But that calculation he does not suggest to someone without obligation.

“Whatever you want to do, really go after it. Really go for it. Don’t go for security before it’s necessary. Do your own thing and create something.”

Simple words from a simple man who has simply made it big.

Interview

Interview takes place outside.  Bill wears a Hawaiian t-shirt, dark sunglasses, a hat, khaki shorts, and sandals.  Two dogs return tennis balls, dropping it as Bill’s feet as he whirls out another toss in the game of ‘go fetch.’  It’s another standard day at the office.  A big piece of undeveloped land sits adjacent to the office building his company operates from.

My uncle was telling me you were a framer for a bit?  Is that how you got your start?

No.  Not really.  At 22 I was just married.  I was working at Safeway grocery store.  I worked there about four years.  I figured out that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do. 

But I had worked a little bit with the family, building a couple homes when I was in high school and college.  When I was 25, I decided that I wanted to try and build houses.  And I never really worked for anyone else.  Just got into family money, and begged people for money to do a spec house. 

I did one house.  After that sold, I did two homes.  Four homes.  Ten homes.  That’s how that worked.  Started with homes. 

I liked being my own boss.  That was really important to me.  It was very risky, because if the house didn’t sell.  That first house is really important.  And the industry has ups and downs if you’re a builder.  It’s good at times and bad at times.  So you’re always worried about…when things are good, you wonder how long they’ll be good.

Was this in Santa Rosa when you started?

Actually, my wife was going to graduate school at UC Davis.  I did my first home there.  I did about three or four, and then she was done with school so I came back to Santa Rosa and started. 

So really, other than a few homes there, I started in Santa Rosa.  That was in ’79.

So what made you want to go into building homes?

Well, it was combination of things.  It was the possibility of making money.  That wasn’t the sole thing, I wanted to do something I liked.  I enjoyed building something that you could see when you’re done, versus working at a grocery store.  You put things on a shelf and they’re gone at the end of the day.  You do that for fifty years, where all you do is put things on a shelf and you can’t stand back and look at your work and see you’ve created something.

As a developer builder, you get to create.  You get to find land and draw the plans and get the financing and get the packages together.  If you do it well, then you’re rewarded.  Well.  If you don’t, you suffer.

All that being in a position where you’re being your own boss.  Your destiny is in your own hands is essentially what’s important to me.  I didn’t want to work for someone else.  I couldn’t possibly do that.

So you mentioned that the housing market goes up and down.  Sometimes that accompanies failure.  Have you experienced failure in your career and how did you overcome some of the failures?

Well, I don’t know about failing.  I don’t think I really failed.  There are times where projects didn’t go as well as you think they were going to go.  And there are developers who fail in the fact they go bankrupt. 

But there are always points of stress.  Tremendous stress.  Where the market stays bad for longer than you hope and you bought pieces of property that are more difficult to develop.  They take longer, things drag out.  There are times where I’ve been under a lot of stress. 

So a lot of that is risk.

Sure it’s risk. Absolutely risk. 

So how do you go in what that confidence that you have a piece of land that is just out there and you’re confident that what you’re going to do is be successful?

Well, you get more confidence as you go.  Every time you have a success on one, you do two, and that’s a success it builds.  It doesn’t happen the first time.  You don’t know all the answers when you start on any project.  You can’t figure it all out.  You have to take an educated guess.  ‘I’ve got most of the stuff.  I think it’s a good project.’

People have told me that I must like to gamble because I’m in this business.  I don’t like to gamble at all.  I’m not a guy that goes to Las Vegas or does anything gambling.  It’s not gambling at all.  It’s a calculated risk in development. 

The confidence, you get that over time.  When you have success you get it.

What about developing, specifically, makes you passionate about your work?

Well, what I like is to see and find property that’s vacant and then building something out of it.  That’s what I enjoy the most.  But then seeing people use it.  For our company, it’s senior housing, so you take a vacant piece of property, you build something, and you see some older folks who come in and appreciate it.  And you’re creating a home for them. 

A home that feeds them, takes care of them.  That’s pretty rewarding to see that happen.  To be able to do that whole thing, to be able to do the architecture and the interior design and furnishing and to hire all the people to do it, the whole package is really fun.

Is that your only passion?  Development?  Or do you have multiple passions?  Philanthropy and things like that.

My wife does that (Laughs).  I’m partial owner of a bank in Santa Rosa.  So I like banking too.  But I like business. 

I love to go to work.  I don’t work that much compared to a lot of people.  I get to work at maybe eight o’clock or seven thirty.  I get home at five thirty.  Every night.  I don’t work weekends.  I’m either at work or doing stuff with my family.  Almost all the time.  I have five kids. 

I like having kids, I love being with the kids and my wife.

So if you could go back and tell yourself just one piece of advice at 22 years old, what would that one thing be?

Well, I would think whatever you want to do, whatever somebody wants to do, really go after it.  Most people want security.  And I would say, especially when you’re young, take a risk.  What do you have to lose? 

I mean, really go for it. I see kids your age that are 22 or 23 and they’re going to go in a profession that’s a standard thing.  My advice is to try something else first.  For me it would be so much more fun to do your own thing and create something versus going to law school and going to work for a firm.  It just seems like the bottom.  It just seems like a death to me. 

Noah:  I took the LSAT before I left on this trip.

Did you?

Brett: And I was an auditor.

It’s not a bad thing to do.  But why?  I’ve got an older daughter who is 26.  She’s going to graduate school to get her PhD.  I’m trying to talk her out of it.  Friends are like, ‘Why would you talk your daughter out of getting a PhD.  She’s going to UC San Francisco.’  Because, you know, the more you get into this pigeonhole of what you can do with that.

So most people like that I guess.  There’s security in that.  But I wouldn’t go for security when I was 22.  There’s plenty of time to get that.  Go for what you like. 

Noah:  That’s an excellent…

You too.  If you like something, go for that!  You can always do the law stuff later.

Noah: You know, I’m on this trip.  I took the LSAT to appease my mother. 

That’s another thing.  Some of the family friends we have, their kids are doing what their parents are pressuring them to do.  Whether it’s going to graduate school.  It’s their parents problem because they’ll feel better if their kid has a law degree.  I can tell my neighbors, my friends that my daughter or my son is doing that. 

The kids don’t really want to do it.  They’re not doing it with a passion.  They’d really like to go do this other thing.  They’ve told me that!  I say, ‘Why aren’t you doing it then?  Go do the other thing!’

You could go to law school in five years if you want.  You can do that.  Or get your law degree, pass your tests, and go do something else.  Come back to it. 

But life is for an adventure.  What kind of adventure do you want to have? 

Why do you think young people do that then.  Why do they not take a risk at this age?  When they get out of school.  Is it financial stuff? Please their parents?  Or is it all that stuff?

Yeah, there’s a fear factor.  And there’s always issues with money.  I mean, you’re risking what you have.  But when you’re 22, you’re not risking very much.  If you’re fifty-five or sixty…you know money is really important.  I don’t care what anyone says.  Money is really important.  People say this and that…they’re full of shit. 

Life is so much better with money.  I’ve been without it, and I’ve had it.  Let me tell ya, it’s a lot more fun.  You get to do a lot more.  You don’t have to wait in line.  You don’t have to wait in line if you have money. 

Noah: I think that’s great.  I want to know what’s the correlation between liking to adopt kids so much and building houses.  I think I see it already but I was wondering if you see something there.  The idea of taking a piece of something that is kind of unused and allowing it to become something or whatever it’s going to become.

Yeah, that’s with kids too.  You take this blank slate and you get to help somebody grow.  I love kids.  We have two biological kids and we decided to adopt.  That’s been wonderful for us.


But I’ll tell you what happened to me. When I was 19 I didn’t have any money.  And guys, I really didn’t have any money.  I wanted to go on some kind of trip.  So I hitchhiked from here, I went north to Washington, and hitchhiked three quarters of the way across Canada.  By myself.

I was picked up by a couple.  So you can see how many years ago that was.  It must have been around 1970.  1969.  So I was on this trip and I was picked up by this couple that was probably fifty-five years old.  And they were in an RV, traveling around Canada.  They picked me up. 

They had two adopted kids.  They were kids that had grown.  And they were black.  Afro-American.  And I saw this seven or eight year old sitting on this mom’s lap, with their arms around each other.  I thought it was pretty neat.  I hadn’t seen that. But that impressed me so much that that could work.  People don’t grow up with prejudice.  They are fed stuff to get there. 

It impressed me so much that when I was married and in my thirties, I looked back.  It was from that trip that I got off my ass, hitchhiked, even though I didn’t have any money.  If I hadn’t done that, if I had just gone to school and foregone those experiences, you’re influenced by that.  That’s why getting out and doing stuff is important.

Don’t be in a hurry to take the standard job, wherever it is.  The grocery store, the law firm…God don’t do that.  Even, start a bar! It’s not what I’d like to do, but my daughter is 22 and she opened a bar. Go for it.  Do something different.