Martin Melaver, eco-friendly real-estate entrepreneur, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m CEO of Melaver, Inc., which is a third-generation, family-owned real-estate company based in Savannah, Ga.
What does your organization do?
We really do a bit of everything in real estate, which I guess is typical for a business with roots in a smallish town. We develop, acquire, renovate, manage, broker, and own commercial and residential properties. And we’re trying to do it all sustainably, which is a mouthful.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
It’s easy enough to develop, manage, acquire, and rehab sustainably (if you’re committed to the idea), because these are decisions you make on your own dollar. Much more challenging is trying to become a sustainable third-party brokerage firm, because you’re simply putting together buyers and sellers. As a middleman, you really don’t have a lot of control over what happens. In a perfect world, we would have sufficient inventory of sustainable real estate such that our brokers made a nice living simply representing this inventory. That would be cool.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in my family’s grocery business, working my way through pretty much every department, from bagging groceries to produce to meat-cutting to warehouse, etc. My father was pretty damn innovative in how we built that business, and I think I enjoyed being a part of the cutting-edge stuff he was doing. I also enjoyed the simple camaraderie of a people-oriented business, but running a grocery business really wasn’t my thing.
For a while, I was heading for a career as a teacher. I got a Ph.D. in English, and probably would have ended up teaching college somewhere except for a promise to one of my old college roommates to join him on a trip through Africa. We spent two years traversing Africa, from Algiers down to Capetown. The experience changed my life in ways I’m still coming to terms with.
After the trip, I began the journey of trying to create a new family business that would do real estate in a socially responsible fashion. It took about eight years before all the pieces fell into place.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Savannah. I now “commute” between Tel Aviv, Israel, where my wife and kids live, and Georgia, where I work.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I was in a taxi one day in Chicago, and the driver was listening to one of those “vent radio shows” (calling it talk radio would be overly generous). And the shock jock was saying, “We’re the wealthiest damn country on the planet, and no one’s gonna tell me what I can and can’t do. If I want to drive a car that gets two miles to the gallon, then damn it, it’s my god-given right.”
It’s this mind-set that I find the most infuriating.
Who is your environmental hero?
Paul Hawken came to a small one-day seminar my company sponsored about four years ago when our family was at a crossroads: Should we sell our real-estate holdings and invest in mutual funds that practice socially responsible investing? Or should we somehow try to create a socially responsible real-estate company? Paul’s answer was stunning in its simplicity: Why give over your hard-earned assets to someone else to do your thinking for you and manage as he/she deems appropriate, when you can do the things you feel most passionate about? It was a pivotal moment for me personally and for our company.
My other environmental hero is Ray Anderson, who sits on our board. Ray, to my mind, is a true mensch: humble about his own remarkable accomplishments, entirely forthcoming about his pre-environmental tendencies as a self-described “plunderer,” tireless in guiding others along the path he is committed to, and generous with his time in mentoring others.
What’s your environmental vice?
OK, if you promise my kids won’t see this, I enjoy a very good cigar now and again.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
I live on the coast, so fresh-caught shrimp or crab is right up there. Add a sharp sauvignon blanc, a kick-ass chipotle sauce on some appetizer, and a spinach salad with blueberries and goat cheese, and I’m yours.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The marshlands and barrier islands along the southeast Georgia coast.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d like to see an energy-usage tax, based on the efficiency of whatever mechanical system is being utilized.
What’s your favorite movie?
I really am a movie junkie. Anything done by Robert Altman, Terry Gilliam, or the Coen brothers. A “classic” favorite for me is The Conversation.
What are you happy about right now?
I love being on the cutting edge of an industry. There really isn’t, to our knowledge, a real-estate company anywhere that has committed to doing everything sustainably. Of course, we wonder whether we’re on the leading edge or bleeding edge, but the thrill is there.