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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute

Michael Prentiss, Prentiss Properties

Michael V. Prentiss grew up in Tacoma, Washington. With an affinity for math and background in working construction, he decided to pursue engineering when he came to WSU in 1961. After graduation in 1966, he headed to officer candidate school in the U.S. Navy. He was sent to Japan where he was “thrown in very quickly” and was soon overseeing hundreds of people on a variety of construction projects. In Japan, he also had his first experience in negotiating real estate deals. “I learned how to be good at being persuasive with people from a very different culture,” he said.

After serving in the military, Prentiss got accepted into Harvard Business School. Upon graduation, he had many career opportunities. Naturally, he says, he initially looked at the ones that paid the most. But, he eventually looked at learning opportunities and chose to work at a small development company in Atlanta, where he could get wide variety of hands-on experience in the development field.

After five years, he left and took a position with Cadillac-Fairview, a Canadian development company. There, he set up an office in the United States for the company, headquartered in Dallas. The only problem: he was the office. Prentiss calls the next six years the “most strenuous” of his career. In those rapid years of growth, Prentiss recalls sleeping with a towel by his bed because he often woke up sweating with worry. “My neck was out a mile,” he said.

In 1986, the company was sold, and Prentiss ended up buying the U.S. division. The deal closed on Friday, October 16, 1987. On the following Monday, the stock market collapsed in the worst drop since the Depression. The assets that he had bought started to plummet as the real estate market suffered. In the next three years, nine out of the ten largest banks in Texas failed. With 256 employees, Prentiss quickly had to figure out new ways to generate income. “We had to fight for everything and find other ways to keep our business going.” The next eight years remained lean, but eventually the economy began to improve.

In 1996, Prentiss Properties became a publicly-traded company. Today, the company has 540 employees and $3 billion in assets.

Advice to Students

“You have to have a passion about what you’re doing. If you just want to make money, that’s the worst goal you can have. If you don’t care, you’re not going to do well.”

Prentiss emphasized that a person’s “track record” is most important in establishing oneself as an entrepreneur. In his case, those who were interested in hiring him could see his success: He had gotten buildings built and had filled them. “Capital will come once you get the experience,” he said. “I would rather have someone paying me to learn the business and learn it well before I risk my own capital.”

Understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses is also necessary for business success, says Prentiss. In his case, Prentiss stepped down as CEO of the company when it went public. As chair of the board, he remains active in negotiating real estate transactions, where his strength lies.

Entrepreneurs have to be risk takers, he said. At the same time, though, while they hope for the best, they also need to prepare for the worst. “You have to make sure that you don’t grow too quickly. Make a realistic assessment and don’t get overextended to the point where you can’t solve it.”

Finally, Prentiss recommends that students finish their undergraduate degree, pause, take a deep breath, and then consider going to business school.

“I know your father may not agree with this, but this isn’t a track meet. Enjoy life when you’re young. Once you are on that career track, it’s hard to get off.”

Michael Prentiss, Prentiss Properties
Michael V. Prentiss