One Real Estate Developer’s Roller Coaster Ride Lands Him Back on Top

Steve Fifield is a wonderful example of the ups and downs of the real estate market and has demonstrated how to not only survive but thrive when things get tough. He has ridden the roller coaster to the top, down to the bottom and ultimately has landed on his feet in developing Los Angeles real estate.

Steve Fifield, 68, is co-founder and principal of Century West Partners, a Los Angeles developer that has nearly 1,500 luxury apartment units under construction across the region. Century West is particularly active in Koreatown, a neighborhood awash in new apartments, restaurants and bars. Before starting the firm in 2010, the Indiana native was well known in Chicago, where under the Fifield name he built high-rise office towers. To date, Fifield’s companies have constructed more than 6 million square feet of offices and more than 7,000 residences nationwide.

Here is a quick look at his experiences, wins, loses and his ultimate career rebuilding.

First profit: Fifield says a $50,000 loan from his father helped him acquire his first property: a roughly 50-unit apartment building in Chicago. He thought the investment might go sour, but then got lucky. A boom in condo conversions had begun, and some investors offered him a hefty price so they could turn the units into for-sale residences. “We sold the building and my dad made a nice profit and we went from there,” he says. “That’s what I have been doing in most respects ever since.”

Riding high: By the late 1980s, Fifield had built a Chicago real estate empire, predominantly of high-rise office buildings as white-collar job growth exploded. It was a “heady time,” he says. He recalls flying commercially to Italy to pick out granite slabs from quarries and zipping around the country on his private jet. “It was sort of a status thing,” he says of the jet. Indeed, he remembers a common question among successful developers was: “What sort of jet do you have?”

Losing it all: The early 1990s recession decimated Fifield Cos. When the market tanked, Fifield says, he owed money to 17 banks and had millions of square feet of offices that just opened or were under construction. “We were building four or five buildings at a time, and all of a sudden the demand was only for two or three.” To survive, he sold office towers and vacation homes, while working out deals with his lenders. “It was horrible, because I was working to put myself out of business,” noting he sold his company’s management and brokerage arms to get cash. At the end it wasn’t enough. “I had a net worth of negative $3 million. I owed more money than I had.”

Rebuilding: After taking some time off, Fifield took a second shot at real estate investment. In 1994 — with the office market still struggling — he persuaded investors to partner with him and buy the Civic Opera Building, a half-empty office tower that also housed the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For his share, he said he borrowed $1 million from his children’s trust fund. The deal worked. Fifield said he pushed the building’s occupancy to 97% and in 1997 sold it at a handsome profit. In 2006, Fifield opened his first project in Los Angeles — a 23-story luxury condo tower on Wilshire Boulevard dubbed the Californian. In 2010, he co-founded Century West Partners with L.A. investor Michael Sorochinsky.

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