As founder and president of The Robson Cos., a developer based in Tulsa that was Oklahoma’s Builder of the Year in 1994, Joe Robson is well acquainted with issues that builders large and small grapple with every day. And as the NAHB’s incoming chairman for 2009, Robson brings more than 30 years of community and association activism to a job that faces the daunting task of leading an industry in turmoil.
The soft-spoken, 54-year-old Robson arrives at his new post just as a new administration enters the White House. Robson is confident that builders can and should play an important role in helping a new president and Congress find solutions to repair the economy. “I am excited about this year,” he tells Builder. “In one way, we’re part of history because we will play a part in rewriting the whole financial system.”
Robson first got involved in his local HBA in 1976 and has held several positions with the national association since becoming a board director in 1990. Robson’s résumé includes a stint as director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka, Kan.; director of local and state Chambers of Commerce in Oklahoma; a member of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Committee; and chairman of the Tulsa Area Command of the Salvation Army.
How did you get into development?
I’ve known I wanted to be in real estate since I was in high school. I grew up on a cattle ranch east of Tulsa and had an uncle in the commercial development business. I went to SMU [Southern Methodist University] because it was one of the few colleges at the time that had a real estate program. When I graduated, I got into commercial real estate brokerage working with local land developers for six years. In the early 1980s, I took over a development company my family had formed that owned 80 acres that had been sitting idle for a decade. The development was called Oaklane.
When did you start your business?
When I formed Robson Cos. in 1986, I bought out other family members who were tired of being in the development business. At the time, I did everything: made all of the sales calls, met with all of the planners.
Then in 1988, I developed and turned a 1,000-acre ranch into a master planned community in Broken Arrow, [Okla.], called Forest Ridge, which included a daily-fee golf course. At the time, Tulsa was underserved by public courses. Homes in Forest Ridge are priced from $180,000 to close to $1 million. We are now primarily a land developer but have also had a home building company, where we built about 15 homes per year.
You launched your business as the oil industry in Oklahoma and other oil-patch states was sliding into a deep recession. Are there any lessons you learned from that experience that you think other builders might apply to today’s economic situation?
What we went through then is what the rest of the country is going through now: Home values fell 40 percent to 50 percent; banks were calling in performing loans. And then, in the ’90s, we had to deal with the credit crunch and FIRREA [the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, which established the Resolution Trust Corp. to close insolvent banks and pay insurance to depositors]. We were competing with people who were buying assets for cents on the dollar.
A big part of what I did at the time was to get involved with the local Chamber [of Commerce] and other businesses to retool and diversify the economy. And one of the things I’m pushing now to regulators and anyone else who’ll listen is, “Let’s not make the same mistakes again.” The biggest mistake was not working cooperatively with [builders and developers] who had their life savings in a project. We need to have the patience to keep these people in business because, essentially, we lost an entire generation of builders.
What got you involved with builder groups?
Right out of college, in 1976, I joined Whiteside & Grant Realtors, a commercial real estate brokerage firm, which had a membership in the local HBA and needed a rep. For me, that was a perfect fit because I got to meet a lot of builders and developers, so my involvement started out as a networking opportunity.
I remember an effort by the city of Tulsa to do growth boundaries, which was quite controversial at the time. The HBA took the lead in defeating that measure, and I was impressed with the clout it had. The NAHB is always active on national issues, but on a local level it is powerful as well. In my experience, the greatest influence HBAs can have is working to get the right people elected who think like we do.
You’ve chaired the NAHB’s political action committee, BUILD-PAC, and its regulatory and legislative task forces. Would it be fair to say that you like working on the political side of the fence?
I’ve always been something of a political animal. I first got involved in city council and mayoral elections, and worked for Jim Inhofe when he ran for Tulsa’s mayor. [Inhofe went on to become Oklahoma’s senior U.S. senator.] Inhofe is my wife’s uncle, and I went to high school with his mayoral chief of staff.
What do you think you bring to the job as the NAHB’s chairman?
Knowledge of the political process and diversity of experience. And because I’ve worn many hats—builder, developer, banker, community volunteer—I am able to tell stories from a lot of different angles. I’d say my approach is no nonsense, not a lot of frills, just get in and get the job done. I see myself as a unifier and motivator.
As the NAHB’s chairman, what’s your first order of business?
That’s obvious. We have a new administration and a new Congress, although we know the leadership well. I want to make sure that we’re heard. Everybody has his hand out right now, but everyone keeps saying that what we need to do is fix housing first. The message we’ll be making is that to stop the bleeding, we have to stop prices from falling and get rid of the [inventory] overhang by doing things that will help reduce foreclosures.
What are other initiatives you’ll focus on as chairman?
I want to continue our political commitment and make the NAHB as strong as it can be. Looking at larger goals, though, is tough when you have a new [chairman] every year. That is why we are working to build a team approach and work more corporately, so we can tackle the larger and more long-term issues our industry faces.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Tulsa, OK.