Indeed, many 3rd graders would consider this arrangement less than ideal. But Rod loved it.
It was the mid-70s and we were one of the first families of color on Main Street. We didn’t have many friends in the neighborhood early on, we had a huge yard and that attracted kids to come play football and basketball games at my house. It was a cultural, social and physical center of gravity for the community. Funeral home owners had a lot of respect and esteem in the community.
Aside from the general squeamishness about some of the realities of running a funeral home, the time proved to have an impact on Rod that would set his future course. “I enjoyed the procession and lining the cars up. I enjoyed the ceremony of it all. My Dad enjoyed getting people in condition so the families could see them, but that part totally creeped me out. I would have nightmares about that.
I never thought I would go into the funeral home business, but I did see myself as a person who would be in the business world creating something, and helping the community develop. That period of my life informed my thinking as an adult. I knew that when I left home, anywhere I lived would have to be within walking distance of a grocery store and other basics for daily living. My childhood shaped my sense of community and urban development.”
Today, Rod is a Senior Vice President at Colliers and lives in mid-town Atlanta, across the street from a train station, a block from the office, and a few blocks from the grocery. He is National Director for Colliers’ Transit-Oriented Development Group, and since his days as a child in Hinesville, his drive to do work that has a greater purpose has stayed steady.
In college at Savannah State University, Rod focused on Political Science and Economics. “I asked myself, ‘How do you use policy to impact people? How do you take a public works project and have a positive impact on people who are poor, and do it in a sustainable way – meaning, it has to also make money. Those are mission-driven for-profit organizations, and I always wanted to be part of one.”
Straight out of college he was offered a project management job with a construction company. “I got a big thrill doing that for a couple of years, but I wanted to be involved at a higher level.” So, for the next several years he gained experience in related fields, first supplying industrial supplies to contractors, next providing commercial insurance for general contractors, and then moving on to city development. As he became immersed in the Atlanta community and its municipalities, he began receiving invitations to talk at high-level meetings about policy matters like poverty and job training, and adding value to communities through development and infrastructure.
Before long, he was briefing the Mayor of Atlanta on his ideas – and on ways to fund enormous projects. They were impressed enough that they sent him to DC to meet with the Georgia congressional delegation and lobby for funding. “I was back and forth to DC trying to get about $1 billion. It was probably the most exciting year of my career.”
Despite having a great relationship with the Mayor and being involved in some high profile projects around the city, he found himself thinking about how intertwined infrastructure and real estate inevitably are. “In Atlanta we had already made a major investment in infrastructure. And a huge investment in transit. I thought: I understand all of the moving parts, why don’t I go make a living on real estate?”
In 2009 he started with Newmark and learned the ropes, but it wasn’t easy. “I had a very strong mother who instilled in me the one attribute that has made me be a successful: determination. She used to say, ‘I can do anything if I know how long it’s going to last. It’s just a matter of wrapping my mind around it and sticking with it.’ That philosophy has been the cornerstone of my commitment to commercial real estate.”
He also recognized that to be a leader he needed to fine-tune his hard and soft skills. In 2014 he started a year-long program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Advance Management Development Program in Real Estate, and joined the Colliers Atlanta team to lead the National Transit Oriented Development Team.
Being successful in an industry where only 1.3% of your colleagues are African American men (according to a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), can have its challenges, but Rod’s philosophy of sticking to it has helped him through. “Sometimes you may feel like you’re Jackie Robinson, but if you focus on the work, and the goal, that will drive you. You can’t dwell on your feelings, you always have to focus on something bigger than yourself.”
Rod believes in reaching back and ensuring diversity for the commercial real estate sector. To make good on his belief, he is the vice-chair of the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors Diversity Mentorship Committee, which was created to provide opportunities for people of color and women to gain the skills to be successful in the industry. “One of my goals is to create a support system for young professionals so they can be productive members of their communities and companies. Because we can be inspirations, but we have to execute also.”
Rod is motivated by daily milestones he sets for himself, and by a higher purpose. “I have a great, great, great, great, great, grandfather, Windsor Stevens, who filed a claim to the U.S Southern Commission in 1871 for remuneration for “stolen” real property.” Essentially, his property had been taken from him. After six years of trying to get it back, Windsor was awarded $339 along with a plaque. He took that money and bought some land, and it’s still in Rod’s family today in Liberty County.
“So when things get hard I just look at this plaque in my office and it doesn’t seem so hard anymore.”
Rod’s favorite part of the day is his 4-7 mile walk, often before the sun rises. “That’s where all of the frustrations, strategies and good ideas come from. Everything good comes between 5:30 and 7 every morning.”