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Mark Yellen: A million reasons to stay in Western New York

Mark Yellen loved high school -- the academic side of it.

He thrived on the back-and-forth of classroom sparring, the chance to show his intellectual mettle and take on minds as agile as his.

But then there was the other part of high school -- the social scene. There, Yellen didn't fare as well.

"As a nerd, high school was rather socially difficult for me," he said. "We were the kids that were not popular, that walked to a different drummer. No one really quite understood us."

He was savvy enough to recognize his shortcomings, though. A turning point came when he was 15.

He walked into the Amherst Computer Exchange looking for a summer job. David Doran, one of the owners, taught him how to go out on the floor and talk to people.

Yellen was a quick study; he became the company's top salesman that summer.

But that was just the beginning. A few years later, he went back and bought the place. He co-founded Appraisal.com, a company that employs people in Buffalo as well as India, and he's involved in several other business ventures, including a resort, Mirabon at Playa Las Canas, in the Dominican Republic.

"I got lucky. I learned at an early age that, if you want something to work, you have to learn to get people to go along with you," said Yellen, who was voted first to make a million at Nichols 20 years ago.

His career trajectory hasn't always been predictable.

After high school, Yellen went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. By the fall of his junior year, he decided he wasn't getting what he hoped for out of his classes -- how to cut deals, run a business, be a leader.

He dropped out of school and combined $13,000 of his savings with $37,000 in venture capital to open a computer store in Cleveland. In its first year, the store reported $1.4 million in sales.

He sold the store in 1991, moved back to Buffalo and helped run the family business, Lancaster Steel Service, for a few years. He took classes one weekend a month at the American Institute of Computer Sciences in Chicago, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees.

After stints at ICT Group and Delaware North, Yellen and a friend in 1999 founded Appraisal.com, which provides real estate appraisal technology. The company has grown to include about 100 employees, operating from a building on Main Street in Buffalo's Theatre District and employing people locally as well as in India.

"A lot of people see me as a technology guy, but I see myself as more of someone who has developed an expertise at finding and motivating great people," he said. "I've been able to do that by altering my personality a little so I can be as friendly as possible to as many people as possible, by investing time into mentoring people and helping them succeed."

Some nonconventional management techniques probably don't hurt, either. Whether it's giving iPods or NCAA playoff tickets to employees, passing around a 4-pound tub of licorice at a meeting, or letting employees bring their dogs to work, Yellen is willing to do whatever he can to keep people happy and motivated.

From his modest office looking out onto Pearl Street, he switches gears seamlessly -- in a matter of minutes, juggling a phone call in Spanish with Volker Geiger, the property manager in the Dominican Republic, for a progress report on the development; a call from Boston negotiating a possible $20 million deal involving environmental inspections of commercial real estate; and a meeting with R. Michael Gilbert, the CEO of Appraisal.com, navigating through staffing issues in India.

Yellen, a world traveler who's fond of Thailand -- it's "so gritty, and just so real" -- thrives on his dealings across the globe. He doesn't see Buffalo as his home, he sees the world as his home, he often says.

But on a more practical level, Yellen does, indeed, have a Western New York mailing address, when he's not spending time at his house in the Dominican Republic. He and his wife, Laura, and their 17-year-old son, Adam, live in Amherst, although Yellen talks more about Buffalo and what he sees as the city's vitality and improved business climate.

"Anyone who hasn't looked at Buffalo in the last two or three years simply hasn't looked at Buffalo," he said. "The city isn't coming back any more; it's back. It's gone from being a place where everyone is saying it's going to get better to being a better place to be."

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