By Kim Velsey
The Belgravia Group’s office is filled with photographs and sculptures — one of the more visible marks of its founder, David Ruttenberg. “He was an avid art collector, a patron of photography,” says Alan Lev, president and COO of the company. Other vestiges also remain, among them much of Lev’s business philosophy, “When I started here I was so young,” he says, “I didn’t have much of a business philosophy. I was really molded and developed by the company.”
That was 18 years ago, when Lev, a discontented lawyer, stumbled upon Buzz Ruttenberg, an office building cohabitant, and his true calling.
“‘Buzz’ [David W. Ruttenberg, son of the founder] was in the same building and I ended up doing some legal work for the company. I learned I was more of an entrepreneur than a lawyer. I joined the company soon thereafter.”
David Ruttenberg started Belgravia in the years following World War II. He began with rehab work in Lincoln Park before branching out to townhome and condominium projects. Although Belgravia builds “blockbuster” projects like 600 Lake Shore Drive and has done a variety of urban developments, according to Lev, townhouses and condominiums remain the company’s “bread and butter.”
“We like to stick with what we know and we believe we can do better than others,” says Lev. And although the company has begun tentatively researching some suburban projects, they’re hesitant to begin anything that might overextend their resources.
“You get into trouble when you move beyond your area of expertise,” he says. “We’re considering suburban infills because they play off our strengths. But I couldn’t conceive of going to McHenry County and doing a stickbuilt subdivision or something like that. If we could do our product — townhomes and condos — in already developed communities like Oak Park, that’s the sort of thing we’d like to consider.”
“Besides,” adds Lev “so much of what we do is relationship-based. We capitalize on good relationships we’ve built over a lifetime.” Belgravia’s relationships are enhanced by its years in business, but also by Lev’s long-time membership in the Home Builders Association. “It has allowed me to meet with officials on a one-on-one basis. To know somebody is helpful. It’s not like I’m getting special deals, but if they just pick up the phone or send you to the right place it’s very helpful.”
Belgravia has a number or different ways of “doing things better.” Most stem from the core values that Lev learned when he arrived and maintains to this day, “We always try to do the right thing. For example, if a home is out of warranty and something breaks, if we feel like it’s something the company should fix, even though we’re not legally required to, we’ll fix it.”
He also stands by the belief that it’s best to expand within their niche, vertically integrating and preserving the real estate core of the company. In adherence to the principle, he’s adding another loan officer and a resale division to the company in 2007.
Although a “recovering lawyer” by training and not an MBA, Lev also institutes innovative management techniques, “I didn’t want to be one of those people that make the mistake of trying to run a company with 40 people the same way you would run one with four. So I’ve taken classes and read a lot.” One innovation, he says, is having HR personnel administer employee evaluations to encourage dialogue and feedback. “When a manager sits down with an employee to do an evaluation, the manager can tell the employee everything he doesn’t like, but the employee isn’t able to say anything back. This way we’re actually getting employee feedback. It can be a very cathartic process.”
In turn, he says, happy employees make a better company. And the profits and dividends flow naturally from the company’s core values: In the first eight months of the past year, 30 percent of Belgravia’s customers were repeat or referral customers, the company has never been sued and for the past five or six years they’ve had no complaint status with the Better Business Bureau.
Looking toward the future seems to be a habit with Lev. Unwilling to leave things to chance, he and Ruttenberg have worked to build an involved and diversified staff to take over when they leave, “There are layers of people here of different age and experience. It’s wise to have others to continue the company on the same course when you leave. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of not sharing and then they’re gone and the company collapses.” However, the practice of adding and integrating new employees into the company has become something of a laughing matter, “We have a big joke here at the office that we’re not going to grow or add more employees but every time I turn around there’s someone new and talented.”
This, says Lev, is what most excites him these days, “When I first came to real estate I liked the idea of building something — seeing something tangible go up. I liked all the stages, from planning, development and construction to selling and opening. But now I get more enjoyment from the organization and seeing a 25 or 30 year old taking it all in and growing.”
Eighteen years after coming to Belgravia, Lev doesn’t regret the career change he made. “I’m having fun. After all these years I’m still excited to come into the office. Practicing law, Sunday nights were horrible because I knew I had to go in on Monday. I never have those thoughts in this business.”