His Million-Dollar Moment
His Million-Dollar Moment
Money is the root of all evil, they say, but not when it falls into the right hands — the hands, say, of someone like Bob Merrick.
Merrick, CCIM, CRE, a wealthy real estate mogul and owner and CEO of Latter & Blum Inc., REALTORS®, in New Orleans, could have spent $1 million on a lot of things. But it’s his nature to give, so he took that money and wrote a million-dollar check to the United Way of Southeast Louisiana (UWSELA). The gift marked the largest-ever from an individual to UWSELA, and it made Merrick the first person in Louisiana to join the prestigious United Way Million Dollar Roundtable — a group that counts Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and George Clooney among its members.
“I was not born wealthy, and I believe in helping those who are down on their luck pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” Merrick says. “And I hope to encourage more people with the ability to give to do so. Can you imagine all the good we could do for our community if everyone voluntarily gave according to their means?”
“Bob is the first to demonstrate this caliber of giving,” says UWSELA President Michael Williamson. “United Way hopes more will join him because the need is great in southeast Louisiana. Bob Merrick is one of a kind. He’s a man of exceptional character, a man for the ages … and we at United Way have been blessed to call him friend.”
Merrick has a history of giving back to his community that long precedes his generous donation to United Way. He’s been a longtime supporter of Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that brings real-world lessons to the classroom; he helped set up the Max Derbes III Professorship in Real Estate at the University of New Orleans’ Business School; and he runs his own scholarship fund for the children of Latter & Blum employees.
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He even paid for temporary housing himself for employees who were forced to relocate during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
REALTOR® Magazine caught up with Merrick to learn more about him and his penchant for good deeds.
RM: What’s your background in real estate?
Merrick: My stepfather was a wonderful gentleman who had a small commercial real estate appraisal company. I started working weekends and summers, learning the appraisal business. After college (I graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans) and military, I went to work in the appraisal business. At that time, you had to be 28 years old to get your MAI designation. I got mine at 28 — I believe I was one of the youngest in the country.
One of the things I quickly learned is that you are limited in the amount of money you can make doing appraisals, and my interest pretty quickly turned to brokerage and development. I built my first spec warehouse in 1970 (112,500 square feet). It quickly leased up, and I started building more. All of this was done with partners that had money. I contributed the expertise and very little cash.
Fast forwarding, by 1985 I was probably the largest owner of warehouse and distribution space in the greater New Orleans market. In mid-’85, my main lender, Equitable Life Insurance, came to me and said they would like to buy everything I owned for IBM’s pension fund. I sold and had cash for the first time.
In 1986 I bought Latter & Blum Inc., REALTORS®. This was an extremely difficult time in the middle of the oil bust. It took three years to bring the company to profitability. Today, we do $2.9 billion in residential and commercial sales and leasing.
How did charity work become a focus of yours? What has been your inspiration to give back to your community?
My business is selling homes and handling the real estate needs of business. The capacity of a community to take care of the less fortunate is one thing that strongly affects the quality of life in that community. From that standpoint, I am helping my own business as much as helping the less fortunate. It is an investment in my community that comes back in spades.
Why the United Way of Southeast Louisiana? What work do they do that is particularly inspiring to you?
I began my interest in United Way during my 20s and 30s. I was part of a team that would visit with charities that United Way funded to make sure they were handling the money in a business-like manner. This accountability impressed me greatly. I moved on to head the campaign, and I was a board member and chairman of the board of directors. I have always been of a mind to “pay it forward.”
Why a $1 million gift? It seems like quite a large amount for one person to give.
It came about because the Southeast Louisiana chapter was hosting the Million Dollar Roundtable in New Orleans for the first time in 30 years, and there was not a member in the state of Louisiana. I became the first because I wanted us represented, and I wanted to be the “bell cow” that brought in other donors in the state.
What’s the most giving thing anyone has ever done for you?
The most giving thing that anyone has ever done for me has been the mentors that I have had in my life, starting with my stepfather, Max J. Derbes Sr., and a gentleman from Baton Rouge named L. Heidel Brown (both SIORs), whose company, C.J. Brown, I own today.