The Fab Five

At the beginning of their careers, Al Berriz of McKinley, NMHC Chairman Daryl Carter of Avanath Capital Management, Peter Donovan of CBRE,  Mary Ann King of Moran and Company and David Neithercut of Equity Residential all worked together on the 15th floor of Continental Bank. 

They were brought together by former Continental Executive Vice President Jim Harper who came out of retirement to be part of a special session at the 2015 NMHC Annual Meeting entitled, “From Continental Bank to the World of Multifamily: Lessons in Leadership,” which was moderated by NMHC President Doug Bibby.

An Unconventional Banker

Harper, an unconventional banker with an ahead-of-his-time commitment to diversity, gave the “Fab Five” a deep dive course in real estate, finance and leadership at Continental in the 1980s.

It was no surprise to the panel when Harper, a life-long go getter, took control of the conversation to explain how he came to be a part of Continental Bank, and touched on the unique capabilities that each and every one of the “Fab Five” brought to the table.

Harper said that, at first, Continental didn’t have the “stars that we have here.”  The culture at the bank was “stodgy” in the real estate department and it really was quite antiquated, he said.  “It was just not working right. So we decided that we would look for young people with character and initiative,” he emphasized.  “Then, it began to grow.”

Leadership Training and Then Some

King said that Jim was hiring 25 people a year. “Training was a huge thing – it was like a graduate course in real estate,” she said. “You had a chance to do all sorts of different loans.”

“You learned more in one year at Continental Bank than you could learn in a decade at another bank,” added Berriz.

Neithercut moved from New York City to Chicago to be part of Continental.  “The energy and deals going on there were without comparison,” he said. “In a short period of time I was doing all sorts of loans and had so much exposure to deal flow – the education was just unbelievable.”

According to Carter, the talent that Harper had brought together left quite the impression on him initially.  “When I got to Continental, I thought ‘how am I going to compete with all these amazing people,’?” he said.  “It was that kind of place.”

And Carter said that when he pointed out at that time that Citibank was offering him more, Harper then responded, “You aren’t worth that…. yet, but one day you will be. If you come here, we will teach you a craft,” remembered Carter. “And he did that.” 

“There was an energy that was really focused on real estate,” agreed Donovan. “We felt like we were working in real estate and not banking.” He also emphasized that Harper would constantly bring people into his office so that they could listen to a deal on speaker phone.

“Jim was the consummate negotiator and after the call he would ask you what you learned,” said Donovan. And he also taught Donovan and the others that bad deals don’t necessarily mean bad borrowers, and regularly covered the three “Cs”: character, capacity and connections.

In addition, he taught us that “you always have to leave the guy at the other side of the table with something,” said Carter.

“I remember that it was the best training program,” added King. “As a young twenty-something loan officer you were coming in front of a committee to present your approach to a deal.” You had to be prepared for game day with the loan committee, she said, and Harper “knew the clients better than you did.”

She detailed a day when she was going over the credit of a potential borrower while presenting to the committee and then Harper told her to stop “and go down to page 12” where the assets and net worth were listed – and were slim.  At the time, she said, Harper described it as an airplane going into a mountain.  King laughed, and added that he even drew a quick picture to go along with it.

“He used humor to get things across,” she said. “It was not to embarrass you; it was to train you in front of your peers.”


“Jim also spent a lot of time down in Miami where I’m from,” said Berriz, as part of the Jewish and Cuban community. “He understood that to be part of the market he had to have people that looked and acted like our borrowers,” he said. “Everyone down in Miami appreciated that he took the time to make the investment and get to really know the borrowers.”

Harper added that, in Miami, he told them he wanted to see their best young people. “And Al was one of three that were recommended by the peers in his community,” he said. “Out of the three of them, one left early, the second went back and was successful and ran a bank.” But Harper said “Al was special in his group.”

And “all five of these executives have been very involved with NMHC’s Diversity Committee,” noted Bibby during the panel session, where they are sharing in a commitment to helping provide opportunities for others.

Staying in Touch

“After everyone moved on, to Jim’s credit, it didn’t end,” said Donovan. “He was great about staying in touch – and genuinely in touch.”  It wasn’t just the three or four years at the bank, he said; it has become a three decade long relationship. 

“Continental was Jim with young people from age 25 to 30 – he had a connection with every one of them and inspired them,” and Donovan said that, ultimately, his lesson learned was to take the passion you have and share it with the group.