2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"A fighter may have lost his speed, his hard punch, temporarily or permanently. He can't be sure until they carry him out of the ring for the last time. But when he can no longer throw his jab with the same speed or his punch with the same power, he throws his heart instead. He throws something. He just doesn't climb out of life's ring, curl up and go quietly in the night."
The oldest of five children, Joe Robert was born in 1952 in Tacoma Park, Maryland. His parents were young when they married and they began having children right away. Robert's father had several careers, including serving in the Navy and selling life insurance and cars. His mother helped with the family finances by working in a bridal shop. "Life was a struggle for us," says Robert. "Money was always an issue and we were a large family living in a small space. It was loud and chaotic with lots of stress, but my mother made it warm and loving."
Pending the birth of his baby sister, the family was asked to leave their two-bedroom apartment because they had outgrown their place. They moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, and rented a small home. Eventually, they bought a modest house, where Robert's mother still lives. Money and space were a constant problem, and Robert wore hand-me-down clothes and slept in a bunk bed until he was 18. At an early age, he was expected to work to help pay for his school supplies and for spending money. He had a paper route when he was 12 and worked at school sorting milk cartons. In high school, he worked three nights a week as a dishwasher and busboy.
Raised a Catholic, Robert's religion began to play an important role in his life when he was nine. While attending a Catholic school that was adjacent to his church, he began spending a lot of time at the church, playing basketball and helping with church-related activities. One of the priests became his mentor and had a strong influence on Robert and his values. "His spirit of giving had an effect on me," he says. "My father was not around very much and I, as well as many other kids in the neighborhood, responded to his interest and kindness."
In the eighth grade, Robert entered a Catholic military high school. "It was an old school with strong traditions," he says, "and I was attracted to the structure and discipline it offered, which had always been lacking in my home life." At the same time, his father launched a used car business, which failed within a few months. He then took a job in the real estate industry two hours from their home in Ocean City, Maryland. "Since we didn't even own a car that could take my father to work each day, he lived in a rooming house in Ocean City throughout my high school years," says Robert.
A mischievous child, Robert had the mental ability to do well in school, but he often got himself into trouble over pranks he couldn't seem to resist. His jobs and sports involvement kept him in a constant state of exhaustion and he was never fully engaged in the classroom. "I didn't think too much about my future," he says. "No one in my family had gone to college. I didn't live in a neighborhood of college-educated people, and I just thought I'd graduate and get a job."
While the majority of young people in Robert's neighborhood did not go to college, the boys at his high school did. It seemed to be a natural progression when he went away to Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland. At the end of his freshman year, however, he was thrown out of the school permanently. "I was still up to my usual pranks," he says, "and this one actually caused some property damage. I wasn't prepared for school mentally, emotionally, or academically. The school would not allow me to return, or go to any other school for that matter, until I paid off what I owed them for the damages. My parents cut me off, and I had nowhere to go. Life became a downward spiral after that."
Robert slept in his friend's basement for three months, and when he was no longer welcome there, he went to the beach where he got a job working in construction. He slept in a hammock in a swimming pool pump room and took showers in the pool's locker room. "I tried to get back into school," he says, "but no one would take me. I knew that life without an education wasn't going to offer me much and I realized I had woken up to reality too late."
Determined to pay his debt to Mount St. Mary's, he got a job as a marketing representative for a real estate company and also worked an early morning shift for UPS unloading freight trucks. He spent his nights selling encyclopedias door to door. In the fall of 1972, Robert and his father formed a company that focused on marketing distressed condominiums for commercial banks.
For the next seven years, father and son worked together with moderate success. Robert eventually felt unchallenged in the business, however, and he and his father often disagreed on the direction the company should take. They dissolved their partnership in 1981, and Robert set up a business that would manage troubled real estate assets. He used his savings of $10,000 and a second trust on his house to get started. It took three years for J. E. Robert Companies (JER) to make a profit. Today, with seven offices worldwide, JER is considered one of the premier private equity real estate funds in the world, managing more than $12 billion in mortgages and real estate assets for clients such as Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., and First Boston, and for government clients such as FDIC.
Looking back over the ups and downs of his life and career, Robert's advice to youth is to never give up. "There are as many defeats in life as there are victories," he says. "Learn from your defeats and then get back in the race. I've always been a strong believer in integrity, results, and relationships. You won't go far without these standards. Values matter. I think people bet on me because of my values, my commitment to the job, and my tenacity and perseverance."
Giving deserving youth a chance at a promising future is important to Robert, and he is honored to be involved with the Horatio Alger Association's scholarship program. "Mentorship is underestimated," he says. "If I'd had a mentor in high school, I think I would have been more productive earlier. At every turning point in my business career, there was a mentor behind the scenes with a hand on my shoulder. Now it's my turn to be there for someone else who could benefit from my experience."* Deceased