How I Made It: His entrepreneurial drive survived recession and cancer

Ed Sachse is president of property services at real estate company Kennedy Wilson.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Ed Sachse, 56, has toiled in the real estate field since he started a window-washing business as a teen in Detroit. Today he is president of property services for Kennedy Wilson, overseeing its brokers and 21 million square feet of retail, office, industrial and apartment properties across the U.S. from the firm’s Beverly Hills headquarters.

Freezing in Michigan

As a 15-year-old high school student in the 1970s, Sachse (pronounced “saxy”) and a friend with a car paid $400 for a window-washing business that served strip malls. They learned the importance of working quickly when, in the winter, the washing solution would freeze on the windows if they didn’t wipe it off fast enough.

They expanded their business by knocking on doors and handing out cards. The experience proved formative for his future as an entrepreneur.

“We made a lot more money washing windows than all of our friends with part-time jobs in gas stations and supermarkets,” he said. “And we learned you have to expect the unexpected and roll with the changes when you run your own business. It was a constant adventure.”

Head for numbers

At Michigan State University, Sachse learned he had a knack for accounting. Degree in hand, he went to work as an accountant for industry giant Arthur Andersen, serving clients such as Domino’s Pizza Inc. and the Detroit Tigers. He found the profession exciting but draining.

“I was burned out after the third tax season,” he said. “I took a vacation to Santa Monica to get out of Detroit for a week and met a blond-haired, blue-eyed hottie named Julie, who is my wife today,” he said.

He moved to Los Angeles and found accounting work with commercial property landlord Douglas Emmett Inc. He was rapidly promoted to chief financial officer of the landlord’s mortgage banking company, Camden Financial.

Beyond accounting

Soon, however, “I had an itch to do something different,” Sachse said. “I wanted to learn the city and do deals.”

That led to a job as a broker at Coldwell Banker, the commercial property brokerage now called CBRE Group Inc. His first big challenge was to sell an empty school, so he flipped through the Yellow Pages looking for prospects.

“Religious schools have money, so I started calling all the religious schools,” he said.

He got a nibble from Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who brought his assistants to check out the school one Sunday. Hier seemed interested in a basketball court, so Sachse grabbed a ball while Hier’s crew went to work.

“On my first proper building tour, I found myself playing ‘horse’ with the rabbi while his group did the inspections,” he said. Hier’s organization bought the building, and Sachse’s career as a broker took off.

We made a lot more money washing windows than all of our friends with part-time jobs in gas stations and supermarkets.

— Ed Sachse, president of property services for Kennedy Wilson

On his own

Sachse eased into property management unintentionally when a client who owned a strip mall had trouble leasing empty space in part because the parking lot was unkempt and packed with employees’ vehicles.

He cleaned up the lot, got workers to park elsewhere and helped the landlord collect overdue rent from the mall’s largest tenant. His success at improving the center’s performance prompted him to start his own property management and brokerage company in 1993, even though the country had just suffered through a recession and the real estate industry was in a trough.

“I figured that if I can make it in a bad market,” Sachse said, “I can make it in any market.”

A hammer falls

Sachse’s business rode up with the improving economy in the ’90s, but his world broke apart in 2001.

“Out of the blue, at age 41, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” he said. “I had tumors in my spine, liver and spleen, and it was difficult to walk.”

He battled the disease for the next six years while trying to keep his business afloat, dashing to the hospital for blood transfusions and enduring two bone marrow transplants.

At one point he couldn’t talk but managed to negotiate a 30,000-square-foot office lease.

“I would lie on my back in the hospital with my phone three inches from my nose typing emails,” he said. “With the help of my team we ended up closing the deal, and I never spoke a word.”

Another, bigger recession

The Great Recession brought Sachse’s business to its knees with cutbacks and layoffs. Determined not to go under, in late 2009 he made a list of 40 contacts he might get new business from and called on each of them in the hope 2010 would be better.

One of his visits was to Kennedy Wilson, where he said, “Give me your worst property to sell or lease. I want to show you how good we are.”

Instead, Kennedy Wilson offered to buy his company. After talking it over with his wife, Sachse agreed to the acquisition. Since then he has overseen brokerage and property management for Kennedy Wilson.

Outside the office

Ed and Julie Sachse live in Pacific Palisades and have two grown children. Ed is a hockey fan who shares a birthday with Red Wings star Gordie Howe.

His “biggest passion,” he said, is playing rock-and-roll on his guitar. He and his friends have a garage band that performs occasionally, usually at their own parties.

“Every time we play together,” he joked, “it costs us money.”

Twitter: @rogervincent