The gig: David Wilstein, 86, is founder and president of Realtech Construction Co., one of Los Angeles' oldest and largest commercial real estate development firms. Since its founding in 1976, he has overseen more than 100 projects, including high-rise office towers, medical buildings, apartments, hotels and shopping centers.
Formative years: Wilstein grew up in Pittsburgh, where he started feeling the urge to build things as a young boy. That led to a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. Then, a trip to California changed his life.
"I came out to L.A. and decided I liked it," he said. "I met my wife two weeks later."
Building a foundation: Wilstein soon landed a job as a civil engineer for the state of California, earning $212 a month to help design freeways. Even in the 1950s, that was not a big paycheck. He joined his father and his brother to make some extra money building a fence. That led to fixing the roof of a house and then the first of several remodeling jobs.
Scaling up: Wilstein built a duplex and then a six-unit apartment building as a contractor. When a customer of one of his home-remodeling jobs revealed that he had recently returned from Cuba with money to invest, Wilstein offered to build the man a six-unit apartment that could be sold for a 6% or 7% return. Wilstein then became a developer, building properties for investors.
"The first building I sold I made about $30,000 profit," he said. "I said, this is excellent compared to working my butt off as a civil engineer for the state."
Building an empire: Wilstein found other investors and went on building increasingly large apartment buildings: 20 units, 40 units, 200 units. His loan broker suggested he try the office market, so Wilstein built a three-story building in Beverly Hills. Taller towers followed.
"I kept raising the ante," he said.
Creating a legacy: Wilstein went on to build prominent office towers that are unofficial landmarks today, such as the 12-story Roar building on Wilshire Boulevard at Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills and the 25-story Wells Fargo Center at Wilshire and San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood.
Far-flung empire: Wilstein built projects around the United States and overseas with partners DMJM and Celanese Corp. He erected buildings in Japan, Thailand and China. He converted a sultan's palace into a hotel in Turkey and consulted on the early stages of the massive Canary Wharf mixed-use complex in London.
Dialing it back: In the late 1970s, "My wife said you've got to stop this. You're never home and the children are growing up. We needed the situation to be more stable."
Wilstein slowly uncoupled from his partnerships and vowed to never again take on a project more than an hour from home. "I was a lone ranger then," he said.
Current business: Wilstein works every day and still likes to visit his office in the penthouse of one of his buildings, Century City Medical Plaza.
"I still have a fairly large cadre of properties," he said. "We're able to pick up pieces of other developers who overcommitted and give up the ship."
Personal: He and his wife, Susan, live in Beverly Hills. They had two daughters, one deceased. They are active in Jewish charities, and Wilstein has served on the board of directors of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Brandeis-Bardin Institute and the American Friends of the Hebrew University, along with several others. He is a past trustee of the California State University system.
Advice: "You have to know your business well enough to read between the lines and follow through" on opportunities, he said. "The future is up, but you can't be greedy."