Nancy Dobson was young and newly married when she walked into an interview with a tire store executive 46 years ago. All she wanted was a job.
Her husband was attending law school at University at Buffalo, and they needed money. Her husband’s friend, Carl Montante, was looking for help managing the office of his family’s business, the Broad-Elm Tire & Service Centers, so she agreed to meet with him. She never planned to stay.
“Obviously, I didn’t know what I was doing there," she said, "but I was a young person and needed a job."
She never left. Two years later, after the company built a tire warehouse that was much too big for its needs, Dobson helped Montante lease the extra space to tenants. That led the pair to try commercial real estate development, which they enjoyed more than tires.
With that decision, Uniland Development Co. was born, and Dobson became a pioneer in a field dominated by men.
Dobson will retire this month from her role as executive vice president with the Amherst-based company, now one of the region’s biggest developers. She plans to spend more time volunteering in the community, as well as visiting her two adult children and three granddaughters in New York City and St. Louis.
Dobson recently reflected on her career, why she never left the region and why she believes renewed enthusiasm for development in Buffalo is sustainable.
Q: How did you get into the real estate business?
A: I took an interview, met Carl, talked to him, and thought this wasn’t the direction I ever intended to go down, but for right now it might be a great thing for me to do.
We just started to talk. We clicked, and our families started to get very close, which is not always an easy thing to do. But it’s become a personal family relationship and a business relationship. So it’s been great. He’s the greatest guy in the world to work with, because he’s very flexible, and he’s a great person to watch, because he’s a terrific negotiator.
Q: What was the job?
A: It was getting Uniland up and running, because we were just starting to talk about it. So it was the two of us. It was kind of a jack-of-all-trades then. Anything and everything that needed to happen, we did the two of us. It was kind of fun. I thought, I wouldn’t mind doing this for a couple of years, because my husband and I intended to move away once he finished law school.
Time passed. He graduated. We both had come to love this area. And I said I wouldn’t mind continuing with this for a while.
So that’s how it went. We continued. The company did one development after another. And I thought, why would I want to leave this? I love it. And he in the meantime had gone into his law firm, so everything was great. I loved Buffalo. I loved Uniland. We had two children. We realized this was the greatest place in the world to raise children, and the rest is history.
I love it here, and even retiring, I have no intention of leaving the area.
Q: How was it for you being in the business as a woman?
A: I didn’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in that regard. I grew up in Punxsutawney, went to college and came here. So it was a learning experience for me.
But as time passed, it became easier. People became more accepting. It was unusual to see a woman in the business, though that didn’t last long. But I certainly would call it a non-issue now, and has been for some time.
Q: Do you feel like you were a pioneer?
A: A bit, and with my lack of being around the world or in large cities, that made it a little tougher for me, too.
Q: What did you like about the business?
A: I enjoyed that we were creating things. From the very beginning, Carl’s philosophy was to build nice buildings wherever we were going to build so that people would welcome us if we came back to their neighborhood, and I think we have always done that. We really do get along with people throughout the Western New York area. When we say we’re going to build something and we say what we’re going to build, they take us at our word.
Q: How has your role changed?
A: For years, I handled the bookkeeping, and I didn’t know squat about bookkeeping. That was a challenge for us and our accountants. Thank God, I don’t have to do that anymore.
So it just grew, and we were able to hire another person and a draftsperson and bookkeeper, and you just went through every position. You grew in those positions and you came to learn the business from the bottom up. It was such a great experience.
I was a sociology major, and that was always my intent, to get a master’s degree and find something in that field. But I dealt with people all the time, and there are a million types out there, and wonderful experiences with lots of different people. I love that, and I still love that part of the job.
Q: What was one of your biggest accomplishments?
A: As we were growing, we had purchased the property that is now Sheridan Meadows. There were no buildings on it, and we wanted to make it a corporate office park. People said it’s beautiful land, but in 1975, it was so far out. We built the first building, and once you do the first building, then people say, oh, gee, isn’t that nice. So with each building, it became easier. I’m very proud that we turned that into a great office park, and we did it without much encouragement from anyone because of the location.
That story is true again with Crosspoint Business Park. Now, we wish it were twice the size, because we filled it up and we have very little space left.
Q: So you proved the naysayers wrong?
A: Yes, it’s kind of fun to do that.
Q: What lessons did you learn from your career?
A: Every deal isn’t the same, and you can’t force things into a mold. Each one takes on its own personality, its own life, and if you are willing to adapt to that, to accept that, then it’s a lot easier on everybody. That’s something I learned as we went along. I was wishing it could just be cookie-cutter from the beginning, but thank God it wasn’t cookie-cutter, because there were all kinds of great experiences, and I met a lot of great people, great companies, and each deal is different. Some will go quickly. Some will take forever. That’s just part of the business.
Q: Any particular failures?
A: When there’s a deal that we want, and we want them all, if you lose one, you pine over it for weeks. I should have done this, maybe I should have tried that. If you make it, you celebrate for 30 seconds, and then you move on to the next one. So the losses are painful. We don’t pat ourselves on the back for the wins long enough.
Q: What was the industry like when you started and how has it changed?
A: There weren’t as many people in the development business. So sometimes that made it a little bit easier.
Now there are more people in the development business. ... But the good news is in Buffalo, so far, so good. Everyone’s been accommodated. Everyone’s been able to do what they would like to do, to a degree. We used to put up spec buildings often. That has certainly gone away to a degree. There is less interest to finance them. There is less interest from the IDAs to support them. It’s just not as wise to do that now as it used to be.
Q: Are the industry and community better off now?
A: I think the community’s better off. I look at how Buffalo was when I got here and how it is today, and it’s two different worlds. It’s fabulous now. The way the city is growing and expanding and thriving is a thrill to see.
Q: Is it sustainable?
A: Yes. In my heart, I believe it is sustainable. You have to be practical, but I think it is. There is so much more enthusiasm from so many people now that they see that it wasn’t a pipe dream and it’s coming true. We have so much to offer here and young people aren’t leaving. They’re coming back.
Q: Will you miss it?
A: I have 1,000 different emotions when I think about it. I am going to miss it, there’s no question about it. I’m going to miss the people. That’s going to be the toughest part. But I have no regrets. I have loved every minute, every year of it.
Working with Carl has been something that I would not trade for the world. As a friend, and as an associate, he’s been so good to me and to my family, that I could never have asked for anything more.
Q: You grew up in Punxsutawney, right? Do you know “Phil”?
A: (Laughter) Well, the Phils do come and go. But that’s a lot of fun, too. I’ll get you a Groundhog Cookbook.