By Michelle St. Onge | Photo by Ty Kretser
Hometown: Plattsburgh, NY
Family: Wife, Connie; two adult daughters, Reagan and Rylee
Education: B.S., Food, Hotel, and Tourism Management (R.I.T.), CCIM (Certified Commercial Investment Member), CPM (Certified Property Manager)
Occupation: Principal Broker and Owner, Fesette Realty and Fesette Property Management
When Neil Fesette graduated from high school at the former St. John’s Academy in Plattsburgh, he had dreams of becoming a college coach. He was a talented basketball player whose father was a well-loved coach at his school. He left Plattsburgh to attend college at RIT, admittedly more interested in basketball than academics. He earned his degree in food, hotel and tourism management and did a short stint in a corporate job with Marriott before returning home with the realization that the career path he was on was not a good fit for him.
Starting over, Fesette knew he needed a job, and fast. He wasted no time landing a job managing a local favorite watering hole called Peabody’s. Owner Bob Wallett empowered Fesette to successfully grow the business by putting in lots of hours tending bar, managing the business, and implementing various marketing strategies. When the bar was closed during the day, he often helped his father with his lawn care business. This work piqued his interest in property management, and later rentals. He bought his first single family home at age 23 and converted it into student housing. Shortly after, Fesette started Fesette Property Management and began managing rentals for other investors. Ever self-reliant, Fesette took night classes at BOCES to learn the skills he needed to maintain and repair the rental units he owned and managed. He learned the basics of plumbing, electrical systems, and carpentry. Within a few years he had accumulated multiple rental properties and determined that having a full service brokerage would make the most sense. He launched Fesette Realty in 2004. Since then, the business has grown to offer both commercial and residential real estate brokerage, property management and development services. Today the company has over 25 agents and employees including Fesette’s daughter Rylee, who recently earned her real estate license and began practicing in the family business.
Following are excerpts from Strictly Business’ interview with Neil Fesette.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
NF: Do your homework before you invest significant time or money in any investment or business you’re interested in. I learned this the hard way when I started my property management business. I bid on a big job and ended up losing money on it. When something doesn’t go right, I look in the mirror first because the failure was probably caused by something I overlooked in due diligence. After my first bad experience, I made sure to thoroughly investigate opportunities before making the decision to commit.
SB: What does it take to run a successful business?
NF: A big part of it is making sure that you have a product or service that consumers want and then delivering it better than competitors. You must have good employees who provide excellent customer service. It seems obvious, but it is important to grow your revenue faster than your expenses. Sometimes business people are so focused on top line sales that they lose sight of expense management. You always have to pay attention to both sides of the equation.
SB: What advice do you have for those considering a career in real estate?
NF: I think it is a great business, but I also think that it is not for everybody. I have probably talked as many people out of real estate sale as I have into it. It’s not for someone who doesn’t already have basic financial stability. It’s a business where the way we get paid can be very volatile. You need to take time to learn the business and gain contacts before you can actually start making money. I think people really need to evaluate whether they can weather the learning curve time period financially. It helps to have money in the bank or a significant other who can help new agents through the beginning stages. There are no guarantees of success, so there is a degree of risk to it.
SB: How have you navigated that volatility in your real estate career?
NF: I’m big on diversification, more simply described as not putting all of your eggs in one basket. I’m a business junkie and have developed different income streams over the course of my career. In the beginning I was working at Peabody’s and with my Dad. Then I started the property management business and slowly moved into rentals. That way, if the real estate brokerage business was down, maybe the rental business would make up for it. We purchased Plattsburgh RV Park in the north end of town over 20 years ago which is another example of diversification. That business has gradually become a pretty valuable asset.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
NF: I am a big workout guy. I love all things sports, and my wife Connie is wired the same way. On a Saturday when we don’t really have anywhere to go, I might spend the entire day doing a series of informal workouts around the house. We’ve got a multi-purpose room set up in our garage with weights and cardio equipment. My favorite cardio workout is mountain biking, but I’d say my biggest workout passion is longer distance stand up paddleboarding. I will be out on the lake as soon as the ice is out on calm days. Sometimes I just want to be by myself and there’s nothing like being out on the lake on my board where it’s just me and the ducks and loons. It helps me clear my head and reflect on life.
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
NF: If you’ve ever been to Peabody’s in Plattsburgh, you might know about “Chug-a Mug” night. I started that in the early 1990’s (with Bob Wallett’s permission). The reason I did that was because another local bar had a promotion on Monday nights, and I saw that it was basically dead at Peabody’s. I started to think of some new concepts that might bring some business in, and I came up with that idea. It worked, because once we offered that, Peabody’s was the place to be on Mondays.
SB: What does success look like to you?
NF: Success is not about how much money you make; it is about happiness. Sure, everybody likes to make money and buy things. As I get older, I realize that the material things are not what’s important. If you have a career that fulfills you, good kids and family, and a good relationship with your significant other, that is success. In my business I have had some financial success, but I see that as a byproduct of having a great organization with great people who have fun working together.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person living or dead, who would you pick?
NF: I have always been a sports guy, so it would be a toss-up between Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Derek Jeter. I’d like to sit down with all three of them together, because they have commonalities that I really admire. First, they are all incredible athletes. This requires a lot of God-given talent but also requires a lot of hard work to develop their skills. Second, they are not only winners themselves, but they figured out a way to use their skills and personality to make everybody around them better. All three have been on multiple championship teams, and I think it is because of their individual talent but also their ability to lead their teammates.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
NF: I was fortunate enough to be named “Business Person of the Year” by the North Country Chamber of Commerce in 2015. It was incredibly humbling to be chosen, because we have so many talented businesspeople in the community.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
NF: I have been a part of our business community for over 30 years. Our best natural resource is the lake, and after all this time its potential is still significantly untapped. Our inability to develop our waterfront over time is a big shortcoming of our area. At the local level, many of us have tried to make a difference. The city does not have the financial means to do it in a way that would be transformational, so I think the county should lead and fund the development initiative. I personally think a public-private partnership provides the greatest potential for transformational waterfront development that can make the Plattsburgh area a travel destination. Plattsburgh’s waterfront has such great potential to be more than what it is and I’m hopeful that at some point our political leaders will work together and figure out a way to make something big happen.