Tawan Davis is a man who has limited options when it comes to success. He speaks of the slippery confines of achievement as if no other option exists.
“I can’t afford to lose,” he said. “There are other people who are born to certain privileges and they can afford to hedge their bets. I can’t. Which means I have to work harder than other people, I have to think smarter thoughts,” he said.
His current form of success comes with the title of chief investment officer at Peebles Corporation.
This means that his aversion to losing now extends to billions of dollars that his company has in its development pipeline.
This is not necessarily new for him. He has been responsible for billions of dollars in deals in his a career, unevenly divided between the private and public sector.
For example, in New York City alone, the Peebles Corporation is looking to boost their portfolio to one million s/f of active development by the end of the year.
Needless to say, Davis will have a hand in all of that. Oddly though, all of this responsibility, and the stature that comes with it, may not actually come as a surprise to his younger self.
Davis’s world view may be a byproduct, or the origin, of a life spent chasing accomplishments.
In this, he had an early start. He was the president of his middle school and then his high school.
While most early achievers fizzle out as they pursue higher education, Davis pulled off an improbable leap to become the president of Georgetown University’s student government, a position that has special significance because it was once held by one of his heroes, former President Bill Clinton.
His propensity for leading student governments, which he downplayed as being an extra-curricular activity, almost translated to a career.
He was recruited to run for a Congressional seat in his home state of Oregon after graduating from business school. He didn’t bite. He had other plans.
“It’s not among my personal or professional aspirations,” he said of a career in government. “I always believed that I can be as impactful in business as in politics.
“I have a deep sense of personal calling and purpose, and my goal is to economically impact underserved communities and populations. And I think the most impactful way to do that is through business. And I can help build an impactful business that becomes an employment base.”
He attributed his messianic goals to his family, and his demeanor lightens as he estimates that his company has created 8,000 to 9,000 jobs.
“I come from a very conservative evangelical family and we always had a sense of duty to our community and that was really part and parcel of my personal upbringing… I’ve always had a deep sense of commitment to providing opportunities to people who may not necessarily have them. Because certainly, I had opportunities given to me,” he said.
Davis, the son of an evangelical pastor, was the one who broke out of the family business, and he speaks of his time in college as if he gained admittance to a very exclusive club.
He’s the first person in his family to go to college, an achievement that he topped off with post-graduate degrees from Oxford University and Harvard University.
“My family has no money, no education, no affluence,” he said. “I grew up with five cousins. They’re like brothers to me. I was the only one to graduate from high school.”
Soon after, his accomplishments quickly relegated his high school diploma to being a footnote. After graduating from Georgetown, he applied for investment banking positions in Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.
He got offers from the three companies in spite of not knowing some very basic facts. “I did not know the difference between them. I’m from Oregon. We don’t have investment banks there,” he said. He eventually took a job at Goldman Sachs, where he “rode the tech boom to the bust.”
After more than 12 years in the private sector, he worked as the vice president of real estate transactions at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the city’s economic development arm.
After years in the cutthroat business of real estate, which he describes as “draining” and “emotional,” it was in the public sector that his character was called into question.
In a lawsuit lodged by Daniel Newhouse, a former director of development and investments at Peebles Corporation, Davis was accused of favoring his current employer during the bidding process for 346 Broadway, a 13-story hotel and condominium building in Tribeca.
To this, Davis is quick to point out that the allegations have since been dropped. “The immediate dismissal of the case by the court followed shortly by the final voluntary withdrawal of all claims against The Peebles Corporation and assertions about me by the plaintiff is absolutely the right outcome,” he said.
However, he admits that the accusations, even though he was not a party in the lawsuit, struck a nerve. “The most hurtful thing was my mother sent me a text message. I actually took it with relative equanimity until my mother asked me about it. It was profoundly upsetting,” he said. “So, on the one hand, I said to myself the whole time, ‘If you get on the front lines, you’re going to get shot at.’On the other hand, when I got a text message from my mother asking me, ‘This lawsuit points you out. What’s going on here?’ That was jarring. That did not feel great.”
Now Davis has to pick himself up and get right back on the front line as Peebles pursues its development strategy.
It wouldn’t be surprising if his recovery involves some new form of success. It wouldn’t be the first time.