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Like Sinatra, Seattle developer Martin Selig's defining song could be 'I did it my way'

Frank Sinatra's defining song "I did it my way" would be equally appropriate for Seattle developer Martin Selig, except that Selig, at the age of 77, continues to do it his way.

 

"His way" includes buying or constructing buildings on his own (meaning no partners) at a relentless pace, taking far-flung solo trips on his Harley Davidson motorcycle (he recently returned from circling Switzerland) and turning out paintings that demand a high price when he donates one to a charity auction.

At a recent question-and-answer session at the Columbia Tower Club as part of the 30th anniversary activities of the club Selig founded atop the 76-story building that is his signature project, which is also marking 30 years, he reflected on his decades impacting the face of Seattle-area development.  

Selig bought his first building and founded Martin Selig real estate in 1958 while still a college student and recalled at the q and a session that he put $2,000 down on what was a $50,000 building on the edge of University Village, which came into existence later on.

That first purchase began a process of acquisition and development which today has Martin Selig Real Estate having developed more than 7.7 million square feet of first-class mid- to high-rise office space, representing about a third of the downtown Seattle office market.

Selig first got involved in shopping centers, building them then bringing in occupants before selling them.

He used the proceeds from sale of the shopping center to buy his first building, a one-story structure in the Lower Queen Anne area that in 1969 led to the development of his first commercial office building, which was a five-story, 60,000-square foot project.  

That began a process in which Selig developed a building a year over the next two decades, including the Columbia Center, which he explained to the audience was "merely like building eight buildings at a one time."

Once part of a group of local CEOs who donned leathers and rode off together on their Harleys to become known as "Hell's Rotarians," Selig has seen the group mostly retire and put away their bikes, leaving his trips to be solo ventures.

He told the audience at the Tower Club interview that he is sending one of his bikes to Rhode Island for the Newport Jazz Festival, after which he plans to travel home across Canada.

Asked what he worries about, Selig replied "I don't worry about anything."  

That despite the fact that as he remade Seattle's skyline, he was no stranger to what others might view as treading on the financial brink during several economic downturns, surviving by selling off some of his key properties including in the late '80s the Columbia Center where we were doing the interview.

 

But as a well-known Seattle real estate broker once joked, "he's been the cat with nine lives."

 

Referring to his riding, painting and other personal activities, Selig summed up "as long as you can do whatever you want to do, it makes what you have to do at work easy."

Asked about his succession plan, Selig said: "I leave the future to Goldman Sachs," noting he has no particular thought of guiding his real estate company into the hands of his kids. The answer was in response to a question about his thoughts on media mogul Rupert Murdoch's unabashed and high-profile effort to put his children into ascendant roles in his company.

"They come and go in the business," Selig said of his three children, noting that Lauren, the oldest of two daughters, is now a producer with several movies at the Venice Film Festival, and that his son, who has been living in Israel, is returning to Seattle to enroll in real estate at the UW.Youngest daughter, Jordan, still in her 20s, has been acquiring, fixing up and leasing residential properties in Germany.

 

Meanwhile, his pace of development activity shows little sign of slowing with planned future buildings sharing space with his paintings on his office walls.

I asked Selig about the total absence of partners in his years in the business and he replied that while partnerships may start out well, inevitably a disagreement will arise and that diverts attention from the business focus.

Selig is a close watcher of politics and at one point in our interview said to me: "I thought you might have some political questions."

"So if I were to ask you a political question, what would it be?" I responded.

"Who is going to win the Republican presidential nomination?' he replied. So I bit and asked that question.

"It will be a brokered Republican convention, with none of the numerous candidates having enough delegates from the primaries to capture the nomination," he predicted. "Then the convention, which won't be able to agree on any of the candidates who have been competing bitterly through the primaries, will settle on Mitt Romney."

Considering that if Selig buildings, past and present, were color coded on a perspective photo of Seattle, they would dominate the picture, he actually is less visible than people might expect, making little effort to grab the limelight.

Thus, as Mike Kunath, founder and principal at the investment advisory firm Kunath, Karne, Rinne and Atkin, and a friend of Selig's for a quarter century or more put it: "Selig's contributions and his legacy are understood or appreciated by maybe 10 percent of people here."

Putting those contributions in perspective may not happen until Selig finally slows down.

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