Robert Dickman

From Basketball to Business

Like most young boys, Robert Dickman grew up with the dream of becoming a professional athlete. Going to baseball games at the old Forbes Field with his dad, it was a Pittsburgh Pirate uniform he wanted to don. It wasn’t until his freshman year of high school that he found his true athletic calling: basketball. Bob spent everyday working on his game. He wanted to make varsity. He wanted to be good, and he saw himself getting better. With the opportunity to work hard at something he loved, he hoped his skills might open doors for him.

“There were no barriers for entry,” he explains. “All you needed was a pair of tennis shoes and a basketball. The playground was always open.” Coming from humble beginnings in Wheeling, West Virginia, this was important for Bob. Without the distractions of a TV or a car, he could really focus on his passion for the sport. Basketball was his ticket out, and he was going to make it count. He knew there were others better than him, but while Bob may not have been the best, he was always the hardest working. Going from a team hopeful, to a benchwarmer, to a starting player, he developed a strong sense of persistence, and this made him a leader on the court.

His dream of professional athletics paralleled the aspirations of many of his peers, and like the vast majority of them, Bob did not grow up to become a professional athlete. As a Principal at Avison Young, however, he uses what he learned on the court, as a team member and a captain, everyday in his work.

A leading real estate services business, Avison Young promotes partner involvement with every client, and therein lies their competitive edge. Headquartered in Toronto, Canada Avison Young is a collaborative, global firm owned and operated by its principals.  The company was founded in 1978 and comprises over 1,500 real estate professionals in 54 offices.  They provide value-added, client-centric investment, sales, leasing, advisory, management, financing and mortgage placement services to owners and occupiers of office, retail, industrial and multi-family properties.

As a principal of Avison Young, Bob draws on his leadership skills in virtually every aspect of his work. He remembers a high school basketball game where he played point guard and was the leading scorer at the same time. Though his team lost, he couldn’t help but reflect on what a great game he had played. His coach reminded him, “But we lost.” In that moment, Bob realized how important teamwork is. “The job of the point guard is to get everyone involved,” he says. “If this meant sacrificing scoring and not having my name frequenting the sports section of the local newspaper, then so be it.” He learned that working together yields a greater outcome, and Bob sees this manifest in business all the time today. “Brokerage can be a very self-centered business,” he explains. “You’re paid by the transaction. You’re paid above the company. Any chance to grow as a company depends on the ability to retain customers, and therefore it is critical to develop each member of your team. Some years you have to sacrifice income to keep that momentum growing.”

Before he was a leader in business, and before he was a leader on the basketball court, Bob’s first role as a leader was at home. When he was eight years old, his father passed unexpectedly, and Bob became the man of the house. With two older sisters and two younger brothers, he came to understand what that kind of responsibility really meant and sensed the fear in his mother. How was she going to make this work? How was she going to keep everything together? Bob had to be the point guard.

Wheeling was a steel town. Only 38 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, blue-collar workers made up the brunt of the population of 85,000, and the Dickmans were no exception. Bob’s grandfather ran an Atlas Van Line franchise, and after his father was the first to graduate college by earning a degree from the University of Pittsburgh, he returned to Wheeling to help run the family business. With the steel industry already in decline, the Dickmans’ business was also struggling. When Bob’s father passed, the family had a lot to overcome. His mother, Katherine, who until then had only known the work of a housewife, had a business to wind down, assets to sell, and a family of six to support on her own. Bravely, she got right to work as a bookkeeper for a senior home in North Wheeling. The books had never been balanced, and auditors were knocking on their door, but she was able to get everything under control within only two months. “She could stretch a dollar further than anyone,” Bob describes, and for a family under such circumstances, this was crucial. With his mother’s inspiration and his newfound responsibilities, he developed a strong work ethic.

If Bob wanted anything as a kid, he had to buy it for himself. He cut grass, delivered newspapers, did the yard work of all his neighbors, and between duties, he kept playing basketball. He won accolades for his talent on the town, county, and state level, and was ultimately recruited to Shepherd College in Virginia. Basketball proved to be the ticket out of Wheeling he was hoping for, but he was not granted the scholarship he needed. Fortunately for him, the college coach told him that if he made the varsity team, they would help him with financial aid. Bob made sure he did so, and played in that capacity all four years of college. By his senior year, he was varsity captain.

Bob’s college life revolved around basketball, and he even chose his academic path based on which subject would allow him to make practice each afternoon. This meant majoring in business, which entailed classes in the morning, and in which Bob had never held a particular interest. After one Intro to Business class, however, he was sold. A former military colonel turned Wall Street guru, his first professor’s unique perspective was captivating and sparked a real interest in Bob.  Instructed to read the Wall Street Journal everyday, he became fascinated, and soon his business major took on a concentration in accounting.

It was another professor, however, that further broadened Bob’s perspective. “You’re captain of the basketball team,” the man told him. “That’s great. But that’s all going to end in two years. Then what are you going to do?” Approaching graduation, Bob realized he needed a job, but that he could use basketball as a tool to advance him. His coach took a look at his resume and suggested he put at the top that he was captain of the basketball team to highlight his leadership experience, and the advice proved solid. A job fair in Crystal City, Virginia landed him an interview at a company called the National Cash Register (NCR) in Rockville, and as fate would have it, behind the interviewer’s desk was a basketball. The two talked about the sport for several hours, and by the end of the interview, Bob was hired. Within 48 hours of graduating college, he found himself employed and moving to Washington, D.C.

As an accountant, Bob helped the company collect money from the federal government, but he wasn’t entirely enamored with the work. Doing the commission statements, he realized what kind of money the sales team was making—nearly the same in one month that Bob made all year. His hard work and persistence assured him he was capable of more, and he asked if he could get into the sales program. With no experience or computer engineering degree, however, he was not given the chance. As a result, Bob stayed only a year at NCR and went on to pursue his sales goals in telecommunications, where he truly exceled. It was in this capacity that he met his future wife, Ann, who began as a coworker, turned into a friend, and then turned into more. Life was taking off for Bob, and when NCR asked for him back two years later, he declined the offer.

While working in telecommunications, Bob had a coworker with an inspiring side hobby: he bought and flipped houses. At only 27 years old, this man had already acquired nine or ten properties and was renting them out. He had a game plan, and Bob was beyond impressed—he was fascinated. He had already developed a curiosity in real estate growing up in West Virginia, with all the talk of land and homes. Electing to take a real estate course in college had reminded him of that curiosity, but the work his colleague was doing in his free time piqued Bob’s interest in a new way.

Given a promotion and the choice to move to either Cleveland or Buffalo to advance his telecommunications career, Bob chose neither. Instead, he decided to bite the bullet and give commercial real estate a try. With a friend working at a real estate firm called Danac in Bethesda, Maryland, Bob had an in. Though he didn’t have any direct real estate experience, he had sales proficiency, a strong track record, and the unwavering confidence that his skills would translate. Lucky for him, they were looking for someone young to train who would accept a minimal salary. They took a chance on Bob, and unsurprisingly, he exceled.

In the first year Bob worked for Danac, the company was bought and sold four times. Once the dust settled after the final sale, it was in question whether or not they were going to maintain the brokerage aspect. With a new house, a pregnant wife, and an inherent drive for success, Bob demanded a commitment or threatened to look for work elsewhere. He was soon approached by Jack McShea Sr. to join the small real estate firm he was launching with big plans for the future, and it was just the kind of opportunity he was hoping for.

McShea & Company started as a typical father-and-son business. After a successful career in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and telecommunications, Jack McShea Sr. returned to real estate in 1983. With the help of his sons, Jack Jr. and Tim McShea, he began syndicating properties, but his visions for the company were bigger.

Jack wanted to expand and diversify. He sought to add brokerage, property management, and acquisitions to the list of services McShea & Company could provide. When Bob Dickman joined the company in 1986 as a broker, they were a staff of seven and had acquired only two properties. They grew to a team of 132 and managed over seven million square feet of office, retail, industrial, and residential space before Avison Young acquired them.

“I learned early in my career that the only constant is change, and that you always have to prove yourself and reinvent yourself,” he affirms. Eager to stay at the forefront of the competitive real estate world, Bob is always trying to do things a little better, and he recalls from his days playing basketball that hard work does pay off. “Technological advancements help, but focus is more important,” he explains. “Because people make their investments based on sound market data like vacancy rates, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m very much in the information business, and I’m intent on gathering the best data possible for my clients.” Salesmen solve problems, and with the investment he makes in his clients, Bob has set himself apart as one of the greats.

Bob also works hard to make sure each client feels taken care of because he knows what it feels like to have someone looking out for you. Growing up in the Catholic Church, attending Catholic school was all but expected. Even at six dollars a week, however, his mother could not afford to keep her five children in the Catholic school system. The parish priest, Father Lee, did not accept this and told Katherine the kids would stay in his school. He told her not to worry about the money and that she would pay it back later in life, somehow. “I can vividly remember listening to that whole conversation and feeling the real effect of compassion,” he says. “Knowing someone out there does care about you is a feeling I want my clients to understand at McShea & Company.”

Bob and his wife Ann have found a way to pay back Father Lee for letting him and his siblings attend Catholic school, and today, Bob serves on the Board of Directors at the Catholic high school Our Lady of Good Counsel. The school requires students to involve themselves in community service, and when his own children were attending, they volunteered at SOME, So Others May Eat. In the last couple years, the Dickman family has gotten involved with the organization again and enjoys giving back in this way.

Today, Bob continues to live by a popular piece of advice his college coach gave him and his team. “To be early is to be on time,” he recounts. “To be on time is to be late. And to be late is to be forgotten.” In holding time as an asset, he also passes along his own bit of advice to young people entering the working world today. “Work hard and smart,” he encourages. “Make yourself valuable by helping others. Be curious. These may be tough times, but if you do these things, they’ll distinguish you in the long run.” Bob and Ann’s two children, Lauren, now 28, and Kevin, now 24, have found success heeding their father’s advice—Lauren as a government consultant, and Kevin as a financial analyst.

From a young age, Bob learned how to take what you have and make it something bigger and better. Whether it was a penny, a chance to play basketball, or an opportunity to pursue business, this always meant hard work. “I don’t think I’m a natural salesman, but I think I’m a great listener, and I think that definitely feeds into my success,” he says. “To me, sales is more of a craft.”

Honing a craft, as Bob has done, takes hard work and persistence. It also takes a great leader. First it was his mother, then it was his coach, then it was Jack McShea Sr. And then Bob Dickman became a leader himself. “I’ve always been inspired by Duke University’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who gave credit to the team for every win, but took full responsibility for every loss,” Bob reflects. “He’d cite those losses as his own failure to prepare them correctly. That is the sign of a great leader, and I aim to take that kind of responsibility in my work at McShea & Company.” From basketball to business, Bob has treated his life and his work the way his mother treated every dollar—stretching it far, making it count, and overcoming impossible odds through responsibility, enthusiasm, and the kind of commitment that comes from the heart.

Robert Dickman

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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