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Jon Hanson opens up: The most powerful man in N.J. real estate recounts challenges, triumphs

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Jon Hanson
Jon Hanson

During a 55-year career in business and real estate, Jon Hanson has helped his development firm overcome the financial struggles it faced in its earliest days.

He has led a national health care provider out from under the cloud of a federal investigation. And, more recently, he has helmed an effort to revitalize New Jersey's once-proud sports, gaming and tourism industries.

All of those tasks had one thing in common.

"They all looked impossible when I had to start the project," Hanson said recently in Newark, speaking to a crowd of industry professionals. "But what I've learned over the last 55 years is you do a little bit at a time."

That ability to be patient and find solutions has made Hanson one of the most venerated figures in New Jersey's business community, a quality that has helped him build a successful development firm along the way.

It's also why leaders at Rutgers Business School called on the Hampshire Cos. founder and chairman to kick off a lecture series for its new real estate program.

Dozens gathered March 20 at the Newark Museum, where Hanson spoke of the highs and lows of a career that began in the late 1950s, when he and his brothers followed their father into the real estate industry. He recounted the founding of his first development firm, which started as a mortgage company that was forced to finish a borrower's project.

His companies have evolved, he said, from having 10 million square feet of shopping centers across the country to being focused on the region around his Morristown headquarters. That meant overcoming a crisis in the mid-1970s, when the fast-growing Hanson Development Co. effectively ran out of cash and had to reinvent itself.

"We found a way to resolve problems that looked insurmountable," Hanson said, noting the firm managed to recover while avoiding bankruptcy proceedings, giving way to the formation of the present-day Hampshire Cos.

Hanson also recalled other challenges during his career. They included the federal investigation into financial fraud by HealthSouth, a Birmingham, Ala.-based operator of rehabilitation facilities, that began just months after he joined its board in 2002.

The fraud, which resulted in guilty pleas by the company's five previous CFOs and the firing of its CEO, took place before Hanson's appointment. Still, it left HealthSouth in a state of disarray that he is credited with helping to reverse over the next several years.

Hanson detailed his lessons from that experience during his remarks last week, but it's his career as a developer that made him a marquee name for the Rutgers Center for Real Estate Studies. Ronald Shapiro, the program's director, said Hanson's success "is one that our program hopes to emulate" as it rolls out its offerings.

Rutgers announced last year it would launch an MBA concentration in real estate, following a $3 million endowment to establish a chair in the field. The position will be named after Paul V. Profeta, president and owner of West Orange-based Paul V. Proteta and Associates Inc., who donated $1.5 million to the post.

Glenn Shafer, dean of Rutgers Business School, said the university is now conducting interviews for the chair. In the meantime, Rutgers is hoping to reestablish a program that was thriving 20 years ago — for both business students and professionals — but faded with the retirement of its former director.

"Part of what we're trying to do is give our students new opportunities," Shafer said. "Is real estate a new opportunity for us? Well, it's an old opportunity that we need to bring back."

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