Voice of the Hill
Jim Abdo: A Self-Made Man Builds on the Hill
Part II of a 2-Part Story
by Timur Loynab
On a cold, blustery January afternoon, Jim Abdo towers high above the city on the rooftop terrace of a million-dollar penthouse loft.
The 45-year-old developer is the embodiment of success–a self-made man, from humble beginnings, whose vision and business savvy have provided lifelines to District neighborhoods in the throes of economic oblivion.
There on the terrace of his soonto- be completed Bryan School condominium development–with its jaw-dropping views of Washington landmarks from the Capitol building and the Supreme Court to the National Cathedral and the Library of Congress–he's reminded of why he took on the formidable challenge of restoring the 100-year-old decaying structure.
"This is probably the finest view in the city," Abdo says with awe. "The first time I saw this view, I crawled up to the roof from the attic of this building, surrounded by some 200 pigeons, and I knew these were going to be the most spectacular units in the city. I'd never seen anything like it."
After taking in the view, Abdo committed himself to breathing new life into Bryan School and started planning its interior transformation. He says he knew immediately it was going to be a loft project. With a staff architect in tow, he walked through the building and sketched the layouts of the lofts, floor-by floor.
"That's what I do in every building," Abdo says. "I can see the finished space instantly."
Within minutes of walking through Bryan School, he was able to translate his vision onto paper.
On the terrace that January day, nearly two years after discovering the building, Abdo had realized his vision beyond mere sketches. He swelled with pride as he breathed in the frigid air and extended his arms out over the terrace as if to touch the dome of the Capitol or the pediment of the Supreme Court.
For Abdo, it was a rare, fleeting moment of self-adulation, a kind of internal high-five. He's not the type to generally pat himself on the back. He breaks away uneasily and goes back inside the building. His mind, as usual, is racing.
Midway down the stainless steel stairs of the two-level penthouse loft, he's distracted by a smoke alarm.
"You guys need to stick a battery in that smoke detector, it's been chirping for two weeks," he says.
A couple of floors down, a group of workers huddled around a makeshift table of bunched-up dropcloths catch his attention. Some are eating lunch. Others have books opened. And one man, Luciano, crouched in a corner with his headphones on, seems completely immersed in what he's listening to. He shuts his eyes and listens attentively to the tape that's playing, and then with a wrinkled brow repeats the words in whispers.
"What you got on?" Abdo asks as loud as he can to get Luciano's attention.
"English tapes," Luciano says.
"You're studying right now, aren't you?" Abdo gushes.
"I'm studying everyday," Luciano proclaims proudly.
"Sometimes when you go on job sites you see swear words written all over the walls," Abdo says. "You come to our job sites and you've got these guys writing out words from the dictionary practicing their spelling."
It's not your typical job site, but then Abdo isn't your typical developer.
His ascendancy within the business community, especially as the poster boy for the city's economic comeback, is stunning considering he had no formal training in business, or architecture or historic preservation.
But Abdo has always had a few things going for him, good instincts, lots of stubborn will and a pretty solid work ethic.
"My formal education was from the school of hard knocks," Abdo says. "I was running businesses ever since I was seven-years-old, from delivering everybody's newspapers to shoveling all of their snow to raking all of their leaves to mowing all of their lawns, and helping my family from a very young age," he says.
Born and raised in Kent, Ohio, Abdo came from a family of six where money was always in short supply. His father, an immigrant from Palestine, made a modest income as an engineer. His mother, who he describes as "a good old American girl," worked in the home and cared for the family.
Abdo's wife, Mai, recounts the story of how her husband got his first paper route.
"There was a kid in his neighborhood who had a paper route that Jim wanted very badly," she says. "The kid apparently was having second thoughts about this paper route and Jim encouraged him to give it up. Jim told him 'You're right, it's a horrible job and you don't want to be out there in the rain.' So the guy gave it up for a week."
In that week, young Abdo took over the route and eventually made it his own. He introduced himself to his newly inherited customers and absorbed the neighborhood.
"So he was always entrepreneurial, he's just not as cut throat anymore," his wife jokes.
This entrepreneurial spirit served Abdo well when he graduated from a small liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio, with a degree in sociology. It was 1982 and the nation was mired in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Unemployment and inflation were skyrocketing. There wasn't exactly a big demand for sociology majors.
He was, at the time, dating a girl whose family had a condominium in Hilton Head, SC. They invited him to the island community after graduation. In Hilton Head, Abdo found an anomaly, a thriving local economy in the midst of a national recession.
"I said to myself, 'You know what, I just need to move here right now and I'll figure out a way to survive,' " he says.
Abdo, who had paid his own way through college and was nearly broke by graduation, followed his gut. He left Ohio for Hilton Head and never looked back.
His instincts kicked in immediately. When he couldn't find a pizza parlor in Hilton Head that satisfied his palate, he opened one up himself.
"The pizza there wasn't even worth eating," he says. "I decided I would make my money by making great pizza on Hilton Head Island."
And, in time, he did make great money, but not without sacrifice. A good idea alone didn't put money in his pocket or a roof over his head. He was, for a while, reduced to living on the beach.
"I had many a cold morning out in front of the Holiday Inn on the public beach pulling a chain and showering with cold water in January and February," Abdo says.
A Pizza the Action
When he finally raised enough money to build his pizza parlor, Sharky's Pizza, he still didn't have a place to live so the restaurant doubled as his home. It would be another six months before he'd have a 'real place' to call home.
"I worked 14 hour days, every day, but within a year I had two locations, then three and I eventually owned a chain of these restaurants that I had built and trademarked myself," he says.
Some 11 years after he first set his sights on Hilton Head, and five flourishing pizza shops later, Abdo grew restless with both the restaurant business and the culture of tourism that pervaded every aspect of the island community. Eager to embrace new challenges and hungry for a city that offered something beyond neon visors and salt water taffies, he headed to Washington, DC.
Once in the district, Abdo had plenty of time to contemplate his next career move.
"When I came up here, I suddenly had time," he says. "I remember spending the first month just absorbing all this culture I felt I had been deprived of for ten years living where I was and working every day." An appreciation for culture and the arts is something that his mother instilled in him.
Although Abdo looks like a guy who'd be more comfortable on the construction site than behind a piano, he plays and listens to classical music religiously.
"He's very sensitive," his wife says. "He's this builder guy by day, but when he comes home he plays Chopin. It's been a passion his whole life."
While he pondered his next career move, his pursuit of culture led him to the Berlitz School where he studied French. One of his classmates was the Washington bureau chief for PBS's 'Nightly Business Report.' She was so convinced that Abdo had a knack for journalism that she arranged for him to meet with Larry Janezich, director of the Radio and TV Correspondents, gallery at the Capitol building.
"I met him and he said, 'You know what, I'm going to make a phone call. I think you'll do well in radio,' " Abdo recalls.
Radio Free Persia
Before he knew it, he was offered a part-time job covering biweekly press briefings at the Pentagon for USA Radio headquartered in Dallas.
Then, in yet another serendipitous twist of events, Abdo's two-day-aweek introduction to the world of journalism turned into around-theclock commitment as the Persian Gulf War transformed the sleepy Pentagon beat into a bustling news hub.
"My first week on the job, bombs start falling on Baghdad and I had the bureau chief out of Dallas screaming on the phone, 'Get to the Pentagon, there's a war starting,' " Abdo says. "Next thing I know, I'm their Pentagon correspondent filing 10 to 11 stories some days for the duration of the war."
Abdo, who had no journalism experience aside from a stint with college radio, had a seat behind Wolf Blitzer and Katie Couric and regularly grilled Colin Powell and Dick Cheney with adversarial questions.
"A lot of the correspondents would ask me what news organization I worked for before I joined USA Radio and I'd say, Well, actually, five months ago I was flipping pizzas down at Hilton Head," Abdo says with a mix of delight and disbelief.
While journalism provided him with ample challenges and momentary thrills, by the end of the first Persian Gulf War, its novelty had worn off and its reality, long hours, onerous responsibilities, and pathetic pay, sank in.
"It's hard to survive as a journalist," he says. "I realized I had gotten it out of my system and that it was time to get back to my entrepreneurial calling." As he had done in Hilton Head, Abdo looked to his new environment for inspiration.
"The longer I was in Washington, the more I looked around at these beautiful old distressed buildings," he says. "There was this voice inside of me that kept calling, 'You know this is something you can do' something that has the potential for success.' "
He heeded the voice.
Work Study Pays Off
Fixing up old buildings wasn't foreign to Abdo. He says the best part of the restaurant business was the opportunity to design and build his pizza shops, some of which were in century-old buildings in Charleston and Columbia. And during his work study period in college, he was involved in the restoration of a Civil War-era house.
"I just loved the integrity of it and the building materials that were used and the care that went into the way things were constructed just always stuck with me," he says.
This time around, unlike his start in Hilton Head, he had the money to nurture his vision.
His first multiunit project was a building in a very safe section of Dupont on 19th Street. The four condominiums sold immediately. Abdo knew he was onto something and eagerly sought out his next viable site.
He found it in a vacant and abandoned building on P Street between 15th and 16th streets. But he was the only one who saw potential in the dilapidated crack house.
"My heart just went out to this building," he says. "I knew I had to save it."
Banks, not typically in the business of salvation, felt differently. One perspective creditor after another turned him away, encouraging him instead to look for investments west of 16th Street.
"This was very disappointing to me and it told me then that someone needed to break that barrier that says east of 16th development is just not going to take place," he says.
When he realized investors and risk takers were few and far between, Abdo decided he'd be the one to break that barrier. And he did it without the bank. He mortgaged his home, leveraged every asset he had and financed the project with his own money.
It added exponentially to the nervousness of the project. But, Abdo says, "I knew what it could be. I just knew what it could be. I thought it was foolish and overly conservative for banks to just draw the line in the sand and say we will not cross that."
His gamble paid off in a big way. The building sold out well before construction was completed. Buoyed by its success, Abdo purchased half the block during the build out of the initial property.
"What I wanted to do particularly with that stretch of P Street was purchase enough properties adjacent to that first project to create a situation where people felt secure and comfortable, that this is not going to be an island surrounded by a lot of threatening distressed properties."
Next he partnered with community activists and lobbied the CEO of Whole Foods to invest in the neighborhood. Realizing Abdo had his hand on the pulse of an economic turnaround; Whole Food's opened a Fresh Fields on P Street. The renaissance was underway.
"Was it because I took that risk the first time to rehabilitate that crack house?" he asks rhetorically. "Maybe. Would someone else have ultimately done it? Probably. Do I deserve all the credit? I don't think so. I just took a risk when nobody else would."
Abdo's wife, Mai, says the only drawback to her husband's drive is that it's difficult for him to relax.
"Jim lives in a very heightened state," she says. "The only way for him to unwind is to get out of town."
Abdo's Latest Development
The couple, who have been together for nearly seven years, has a country home in Rappahannock County.
"He gets out there and he really is able to decompress and not think about work," she says. "If we're in town, it's sort of in his face. We'll drive around and he'll want to scope out areas or look at buildings. It's in his head all the time."
But a fairly recent development has changed that dynamic dramatically – their 10-month-old daughter, Sophie.
"She's my greatest development," Abdo gushes.
His wife has noticed a fundamental difference in him.
"Before Jim would talk incessantly about real estate," she says. "Now it's Sophie and real estate."
Timur Loynab is a regular contributor to the Voice.
Last month he chronicled Jim Abdo's investments on Capitol hill.