Murry Bowden’ s real estate development firm had 20 projects in the works when news broke that some of the most important financial companies in the world were holding billions of dollars in bonds tied to bad mortgage loans.
Almost overnight, the housing market collapsed, the stock market went into freefall, millions of employees were fired and the U.S. fell into recession.
Bowden, a former All-American linebacker and defensive back at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, had borrowed money to build luxury multifamily residential projects. Now, the banks and investors who had been happy to finance his developments were demanding that he deleverage his company, modify his loans and make early payments.
“The whole world was falling apart and people around you were losing confidence; it was a very harrowing experience, people were hitting the panic button left and right,” Bowden says. “We needed to be calm and fight the immediate fight, which was that we had projects under development that had to get finished. Then we had to find a solution for the financial situation.
“It was like halftime,” he said. “The game had changed and we needed a new plan.”
One Game at a Time
Bowden was a standout on the Dartmouth football team in his formative years, and the lessons he learned about leadership, strategy and tenacity would play an important role for his company as the nation fell deeper and deeper into recession.
Bowden’s first thought was to take a deep breath and focus on accomplishing the smaller tasks directly in front of him. Once that was done, he’d need to formulate a new plan for the company based on an honest appraisal of what was working and what wasn’t.
It wasn’t that different from the way he approached football games during his playing days at Dartmouth, he said.
What do you do when the opponent scores a few quick touchdowns, momentum swings their way and the fans start heading for the exits?
You make your adjustments, take the snap and run the play. That’s what you control.
The Undefeated Season
That lesson was instilled in him years earlier when Bowden was co-captain of the 1970 team that went undefeated and won the Ivy League championship. The Big Green shut out six of its nine opponents that year and won the Lambert Trophy as the East’s outstanding team.
Bowden’s combination of speed and power allowed him to play the rover position, alternating between linebacker and defensive back depending on the defensive alignment. With Bowden leading the way, the 1969 and 1970 Dartmouth football teams won 17 of their 18 games.
He attributes much of the team’s success to their coach.
“I happened to have an extraordinarily precise and detail-oriented college football coach in Bob Blackman,” Bowden said of the Hall of Fame coach. “One of the things that is still with me today is the extensive amount of preparation that is needed for the battle.
“It applies to my career now, too. The planning, the strategy, the thought process … no stone could be left unturned. I call it having a maniacal focus on the task at hand. ‘No’ doesn’t get it done; that gets drilled into you playing football and it never leaves you.”
A native of Snyder, Texas, Bowden played through injuries to his shoulder, knee and neck, but earned several honors his senior season, including AFCA First Team All-America, Team Coaches’ All-Ivy second team, first-team All-Ivy in Associated Press and United Press International voting and he made UPI’s All-New England team.
Bowden finished his career with eight interceptions for 62 yards and graduated cum laude with a degree in psychology. He would go on to earn a law degree from the University of Texas before co-founding The Hanover Co., the Houston-based private real estate development firm specializing in developing and managing luxury multi-family residential properties.
His highest honor came in 2003 when Bowden was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was later asked to join the National Football Foundation Board of Directors, which oversees the Hall. He currently serves as the vice chairman of the board, and he played a key role in the building and the opening of the new $67 million Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
Turning a Crisis into a Scoring Opportunity
Bowden’s new game plan for saving the company was to sell off his entire portfolio of apartments to an opportunistic investor, pay off the debts he incurred building the rental units and use the cash to start building again.
It took time to find an investor who could see past the country’s immediate woes and invest in housing, but Bowden eventually sold all his properties in November of 2010 to UDR Inc., a Denver-based real estate investment trust.
“I knew the economy wouldn’t be down forever,” Bowden says. “The sun will shine again. By selling the portfolio, it gave us the cash to get into position to find a better opportunity.”
Bowden used the money to start over in the waning days of the recession. Today, he has nearly 40 projects in the works in 14 U.S. markets worth $3.6 billion.
“I think that more than anything else, football taught me to focus on the task and not get upset when you fail,” Bowden said. “Every play is designed to score a touchdown, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Keep getting up and coming back, getting up and coming back.”