Chris Harrison may have grown up the youngest of his siblings, but even from his youngest years, he seemed to possess an innate knowledge that he would go places in life. His mother called it confidence. Others called it determination.
His two brothers attended a nearby high school with a tremendous football program that won city championships year after year, so naturally, Chris decided to go to a different high school with a football program that always landed its team at the bottom of the league. ‘I didn’t want to be in the shadow of my brothers, for one thing; for another, I wanted to rehabilitate the team,” he recalls today. “My senior year, we swept the conference.” Now the managing member of CA Harrison Companies, LLC, a distressed asset developing company transforming properties throughout the DC metropolitan area, things have certainly changed over the years, but his determined commitment to improve, empower, and win remain just as compelling as ever.
CA Harrison was first launched in 1998 when Chris found himself transforming from an athlete to a real estate investor. As his professional football career was winding down, the DC real estate market was just beginning to gain momentum. “I was really just looking for a home and realized that homes in downtown DC were relatively cheap,” he recalls. “I was fortunate that my football career allowed me to buy not one home, but five homes, and that was the beginning of my company.” With that, he formed an LLC called Harrison and Harrison in 2000, later setting up CA Harrison Companies as a holding company in 2010 to incorporate all of the companies of the multiple properties he owned into one.
When Chris first got started, he focused on homes, but he has since moved on to focus on apartment buildings instead. Each ownership stake he has in an entity is thus owned by CA Harrison Companies, and since the majority of his projects are large-scale, he has traditionally partnered on them, though now he is beginning to trend more toward solo ownership. One evolution in his business occurred when he branched out into condominium conversions throughout the early 2000s’; another came when he was holding several properties in 2007 at the time the housing market crashed, which prompted him to become a landlord doing stabilized rentals.
“The crash was a hard time. In any cycle of a career, you have highs that can be very high and lows that can be very low,” Chris observes. “Moments like that certainly test your inner fortitude and your ability to weather a storm. For me, the housing market crash was a changing point in my life in that it led me to reevaluate what I really wanted out of a career. Before that, anyone could do real estate because any house would increase in value. But when the housing market bottomed out, it led me to really take a look at my knowledge of the business and what I lacked. I honed my trade and got better at what I was doing, making sure that the mistakes I had made in the past were not repeated.”
As a result, Chris lost an asset, had to liquidate several personal assets, and repositioned another, which was a great learning experience that launched him into the business model he utilizes today. “It was a trying time, but it strengthened me and made me focus on what was important, both in my business and in my personal life,” he recalls. As a result, he got into tax-exempt bond financing and began to keep a close eye on market conditions and trends.
Today, CA Harrison possesses around 150 units, with that number set to triple by the end of 2013. He works primarily with consultants today, with an office manager handling the businesses day-to-day operations, but his current growth stride is certainly going to require additions to the staff. Chris is now negotiating a $50 million Winston Salem project near Wake Forest University and is bringing on a $400 million private equity firm who will in turn be bringing on a third party construction staff for Chris. “With funds, it’s not a one-and-done,” he remarks. “You stick with the fund if the deal goes well, and they continue to fund you and help your operations grow. I envision my company growing from a small business to a mid-sized business, and this provides a great route for that.”
Born in Petworth just off of New Hampshire Avenue in the District of Columbia, Chris seems to approach real estate with a drive and determination that stems from an innate affection and sincerity of spirit that one might find only in a true Washingtonian. “I’ve always thought this was a great, eclectic, diverse city,” he says proudly. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of culture. It’s the hotbed of the greatest country in the world, and you can’t beat that!”
With his mother working as a nurse and his father employed as a warehouse worker, Chris grew up in a middle class household. They lived in an urban neighborhood that certainly had its own lesser elements, but his parents were strong-willed people committed to raising their children with strong ideals and bright futures. Chris got into a little trouble himself when he was younger, but his mother was closely involved in his education and encouraged him to get involved in sports. When he joined the Boy’s Club football team at age eight, Chris fell in love, and sports became “his thing.” “I played football and basketball, and the only reason I didn’t play baseball was because practice was on Sundays when I had to be in church,” he remembers. He also learned how to play chess when he was ten years old, and was a frequent enrollee in band and church camps.
Having grown up watching his father leave for work around five o’clock each morning without ever missing a day, Chris was quick to learn that being a Harrison meant having a driven, focused, unshakable work ethic that he could really be proud of. For his mother, on the other hand, education was paramount, and he went through childhood informed by both perspectives. “Growing up in the 1980s amongst the advent of crack cocaine and murder in Washington, I was around it and not around it at the same time,” Chris reflects. “It was a weird feeling because you love the city you’re born and raised in, but you hear a lot of negative connotations—people calling it the murder capital of the world, or whatever. Because of the way I was raised, I felt that I was insulated from all that, even though I was at the heart of it. We made it through.”
Chris attended private school, performed well athletically, and earned high marks on his SATs, landing the world at his feet when it came time to select a college. He could have gone anywhere he wanted and ultimately decided on the University of Virginia because of its ideal balance of academics and athletics, and its ideal location—close to home, but not too close. “For me, football was a means to an ends,” Chris remembers. “I loved it but never thought I’d play professionally. I decided to go to McIntire Commerce School as well, though many people told me it would be too hard to balance that program with my football schedule. I was determined to do things my way and have always lived life that way, for better or worse.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Chris was a starter in the NCAA and decided he was going to go to law school, but his coach finally put his foot down and said he couldn’t do both. He knew he had a chance to play professionally, but he didn’t want to give up on getting his degree, so after earning his Bachelors of Science in Commerce, he enrolled in a Masters in Education program. By the time Chris wrapped up his college football career, he was the only NCAA athlete to earn both a bachelors and Masters degree while on scholarship—a testament to that determination that so characterizes his life’s story.
After college, that chance to play professional football evolved into reality. In the NFL, as a rookie free agent, Chris played in three games as a guard and tackle and was named the starter in one game. He was on track to become a starter for Detroit his second year but was injured in preseason. During the last game of the preseason, he played the first half so well that his coach asked him to play into the third quarter. During the middle of the third quarter, the coach asked Chris to give him one more series. It was the third down and he had just finished a play, when he was suddenly hit in the knee. His ligament was torn, and he was out for the season.
“I had had a severe leg injury in college and wasn’t expected to come back from that, but I did, so when I tore my knee up the same way, I was determined,” Chris explains. “So I went to play for Minnesota, where we were 15 and 1. We had an all-star cast; it was like the greatest show on turf!” The team had a great run but ultimately lost to Atlanta in the Conference Championship game before the Super Bowl, and after another injury playing for Baltimore, Chris began to feel as though it was time for a different course. “You’re sore all the time, even if you’re in the off-season, so I got it in my head to buy those houses,” he recalls. “I left Baltimore to go to Denver for the off-season training camp, but my mind just wasn’t on football. That’s when I called my real estate agent, launching my real estate career.”
Whether it’s furthering his education, winning on the football field, or launching a business, it’s clear Chris’s determination is compelling enough to take him where he wants to go in life. This determination certainly stems in part from the influence of his grandmothers, who were both very proud and resolute women. His mother’s mother was a domestic worker who struggled to raise her daughter on her own, never losing her pride in being a lady. “I especially remember a time when I was in high school, when she asked me to get her a glass of water,” he recalls. “I got her water in a plastic cup, but she eschewed it and said, ‘A lady only drinks out of glass.’ Of course that’s not true, but the concept of having pride in yourself no matter what your situation is was very powerful to me.” He learned just as much from his father’s mother, who cultivated his sense of confidence by singling him out at family gatherings for conversations about the letters they would send to one another.
Being able to see the connections between one’s past and one’s present lends unparalleled insight into one’s future, and in advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Chris emphasizes the importance of understanding the big picture in this manner. “A lot of us today are short-sighted in our thinking in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he points out. “It’s especially hard when you’re young and feeling the adrenaline of just getting out of school, out from under your parents’ wings, but setting goals early on is important. Sometimes the highest paying job isn’t the best job—it all depends on what you hope to accomplish in your mold.”
Beyond that, young people can take considerable lessons from Chris’s overall approach to life. It is a commitment not only to succeed every day, but also to smile every day. “Enjoy your time,” he emphasizes. “As life goes on, it gets harder as you take on more responsibilities, and it’s important to remember the little things that make you happy. There has to be a balance in life, and it takes commitment and sacrifice to ensure you’re acting in moderation to maintain that balance.”
Though the road has been winding and diverse, Chris now couldn’t imagine it leading him anywhere else. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud to have been a graduate of UVA and a professional athlete,” he affirms. “But all of those things were precursors to what I’m doing now. This is what I think I was meant to do—a product of drive, discipline, and determination.” Indeed, drive is what gets you up in the morning. Determination is what allows you to persevere amongst adverse conditions. Discipline is what you use to set the bar high for your employees. That’s what success is—drive, discipline, and determination.