Austin Business Journal Profile: Rising high

by A.J. Mistretta, ABJ Staff

Spend a few minutes talking to David Mahn, and you quickly get to know a guy who, despite his numbers-driven CPA sensibilities, always looks at his developments through the eyes of the people who will live there. You’d hardly guess this modest straight shooter is the point man behind one of the most ambitious projects in modern Austin real estate.

When he graduated from college in Michigan in 1981, Mahn’s home state was hardly the place to start a career. Gas was expensive, interest rates were high and the auto industry was in the tank. “Last one out of Michigan, turn out the lights” was the bumper sticker du jour. Mahn got a job with a small-town accounting firm, but hated it. When he heard a friend, who’d moved to Austin a few months before, gush about how great the city was, he was sold. “The Monday morning after, I went in and quit my job, packed my Toyota and moved to Austin with no job lined up. At 22, you can do that.”

Mahn’s preconceived notions of the Lone Star State–or at least Austin–may have been a bit skewed.

“Back then, the TV series ‘Dallas’ was in its heyday,” he says. “That was my image of Texas: big oil and big hats.”

He got a gig with a prominent homebuilder and worked his way up the corporate ladder. After stints through the years in San Antonio and later in Houston, Mahn eventually made his way back to Austin after an interview with businessman John Wooley.

“John had a relationship with this family in Spain, and they had started this business called Benchmark [Group] to do two things: develop real estate and explore for oil and gas in Texas. …I think they must have watched ‘Dallas’ too,” he says with a laugh.

Mahn became the controller for Benchmark, which developed a series of residential projects around Austin through the 1990s and took on the 2,200-acre Plum Creek development in Kyle in 1994.

“Eventually we realized that while the big master-planned communities like Plum Creek are nice…the transportation woes that face Central Texas mean that more people want to gravitate toward employment and shopping areas,” says Mahn. “We wanted to develop close to those centers, and that means close to downtown, and that meant condos.”

Benchmark built several condo projects around Central Austin, but aspirations for a major Class A office building on Congress Avenue eluded the company. After approaching the owners of the property at Second and Congress with an unsolicited offer, a deal was struck. But by that time in late 2005, the CBD office market had seen better days and downtown residential was just picking up steam. A command decision was made to embark on a major, upscale condominium tower the likes of which the city had never seen.

“The site demanded luxury,” says Mahn. “This was a unique piece of property that could not be duplicated and we wanted to make a statement.” Indeed, at a height of 683 feet, the masterfully designed Austonian will dominate the city’s skyline. And Mahn looks forward to the day when he can look out at Austin from the very top.

Q: What do you feel you bring to the table that makes you good at what you do?

A: “I’m a planner … if you ask my wife, she’d tell you that’s a blessing and a curse,” Mahn says with a smile. “I think that I have surrounded myself with good, talented, passionate people because I know that I can’t do it alone.”

Q: It’s certainly going to be tall, and the units are expensive, but what really sets the Austonian apart?

A: Mahn says the project’s location, at the crossroads of Second Street and Congress Avenue, is one major attribute. “Also, the architecture of our building is truly spectacular. The shape and design is very unique. Certainly when construction costs are getting worse and not better, it’s tempting to scale back. But there are certain lines we can’t cross because our design is what makes us.”

Q: How did you get to know Austonian team member Terry Mitchell?

A: Mahn says when Benchmark started Plum Creek in 1994, it took a while for Central Texas homebuilders to get on board with the project, which harkened back to the designs of the early 20th century, with narrower streets, big landscaped areas and front porches to create a sense of community. But the first to bite was Terry Mitchell, then an executive with Milburn Homes. Mitchell saw the vision that Mahn espoused and the two soon became friends, working on a series of projects together. “Terry is a visionary,” says Mahn. “I’ve learned a lot from him.”

Q: There are a lot of questions out there about the Austin condo market today. What are your concerns?

A: “We can control a lot of things about our project — we can make it luxurious and attractive. What I cannot control is buyer sentiment,” says Mahn. Factors from the mortgage debacle to fluctuations in the stock market can have a rapid and dramatic effect on people’s attitude towards major purchases, he says. Still, “even in the turmoil that we see right now in the U.S. real estate market, I think at the highest part there are still going to be people who can afford, and want, the best. I think there will still be the buyer who says, ‘this is where I want to be.’”

“Austin is skeptical [of the condo market], and I think that’s justified,” Mahn says. “A number of projects that have been announced, with much fanfare made, have ended with nothing happening.” But with the backing of an $8 billion parent company and no presale requirements, Austonian will go up as planned. “How deep is the $1 million-plus buyer market? It’s a good question. But I think it’s a pretty deep pool.”

Q: Much has been made of how the Austonian will change the city’s skyline. What will it look like in 10 years?

A: “I would hope that developers who come along in the years ahead will build something that’s interesting — something that I as an Austinite and the rest of us can be proud of,” says Mahn. “I want buildings that we can point to in our skyline and say, ‘Isn’t that cool?’” In the planning process for the Austonian, the development team visited Vancouver, Canada, a city known for its abundance of high-rise residential. But Mahn says he was struck by the sameness of all the structures, down to the grayish green color. “It lacked any kind of individuality — that’s what Austin should avoid.”

In Detail

Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, Ferris State University
Work history: Vice president, Benchmark Group Inc.; controller and real estate manager, Schlotzsky’s Inc.; president/CFO, Wayne Wright Interests Inc.; controller, Doyle Wilson Co.
Family: wife, Linda Campbell; stepchildren, Christopher and Lauren

amistretta@bizjournals.com | (512) 494-2519

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