In 1981, one year after starting his own real-estate development company, Don Chiofaro undertook to build the largest office complex in Boston. "I knew just enough about the business to be dangerous," he recalls. "I quickly got into more trouble than most people deserve in a lifetime." Today, however, his $600-million, 1.8-million-square-foot International Place - one of the top ten office buildings in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal - is a Boston landmark and a monument to Chiofaro's daring and tenacity.
"The development business requires leaps of faith," Chiofaro says. "Usually I land on the other side of the canyon without a problem, but sometimes I've had to hang on by my fingertips." In making such entrepreneurial vaults, he draws on ample reserves of confidence, conviction, and foresight. Explains Chiofaro: "If I decide, 'This is how it's going to be in the future,' it's clear to me that's the way things will turn out."
But Chiofaro's career path hasn't always seemed so certain. After graduating in 1968 from Harvard College (where, as a bone-crunching linebacker, he captained the football team) and after a few games in the Canadian Football League, it struck Chiofaro that "there was more to life than playing football and having a big neck. I had other options."
Enrolling at HBS, he graduated and took a position at Salomon Brothers, a stint that proved even shorter than his pro football fling - one week. "I quit because I knew it wasn't right for me," he says.
What would be right for him, Chiofaro reasoned, would be to work outside a corporate culture (in a milieu, some observers note, where he could indulge his fondness for bruising collisions) and in a business where he could give free rein to his expansive personality. Like his father, a policeman who loved talking to people, Chiofaro says, "I can talk to anyone in my business, from bankers and politicians to the guys who install the elevators." (In fact, at HBS, while his classmates went off to corporate summer jobs, Chiofaro opted to be a laborer on a construction site.)
Chiofaro eventually signed on with the Boston development firm of Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, where he remained for eight years before founding (with his partner, Ted Oatis) The Chiofaro Company, of which Chiofaro is president. The virtually unknown pair then embarked on the huge International Place project, a twelve-year marathon involving negotiations with some 150 citizens groups and government agencies as well as countless legal and financial hurdles. More than once, the entire venture appeared doomed. Of the experience, Chiofaro observes, "In Boston, development is a contact sport. If you can't enjoy the process, you shouldn't be in this business."
Reflecting on his career, Chiofaro says: "I didn't think that real-estate development, which creates hard assets, would have so much volatility. I consider my-self lucky to still be in control of my destiny." His business success is complemented by his community involvement: Chiofaro's pro bono activity includes founding both the Boston Jobs Academy, an organization that prepares Boston residents for office jobs, and the Boston chapter of the Police Athletic League.
For the future, Chiofaro is considering possible acquisitions and new development projects in New York, Chicago, and other major cities. He dismisses predictions that real-estate investment trusts and other industry innovations may spell the end for development entrepreneurs. "I've been an endangered species all my career," he laughs. "I may be a dinosaur, but dinosaurs survived for millions of years. I intend to be around a little while longer."
by Daniel Penrice