That’s how Ray Breeden went from running a business out of the trunk of his car to being a titan of U.S. real estate
by ERIC J. WALLACE | photograph by KEITH LANPHER
Ray Breeden founded a real estate empire that’s become too big for any one city: Its billion-dollar portfolio is one of the largest in the U.S. and runs from Hampton Roads to Richmond to Washington, D.C. and beyond.
A resident of Virginia Beach, he’s given away tens of millions of dollars to charitable causes in Tidewater alone, and is a longtime title sponsor for annual events like the Neptune Festival and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony by the Sea series.
But there was a time when The Breeden Company fit nicely in the trunk of an old convertible, and the idea of becoming wealthy, much less a philanthropist, seemed absurd. “My beginnings were very humble,” says Breeden, 86. “There were no silver spoons, no small loans of one million dollars.”
Breeden was born to working-class parents in a poor Richmond neighborhood during the Great Depression. His father was a foreman at a printing plant; his mom, a homemaker.
“People said we didn’t have much and, in a material sense, I guess that was true,” Breeden says. “But as a kid I never thought of us as poor. We were self-reliant, we always got by. And my parents were very loving, very moral. I never felt like anything was missing.”
Breeden helped his mom grow and can vegetables. His dad taught him to fix problems with the house, appliances and cars. They stressed values like hard work, honesty and prudence. Breeden internalized those lessons. He worked odd jobs to earn money for baseball equipment and a bike, which he rode to practices and school. He studied hard, graduated near the top of his class, and won a partial college scholarship.
“My parents were simple people,” Breeden says. “They believed if you worked hard and were a good person, you’d make it. But they wanted more for me, they saw a college education as the gateway to a better life.”
After high school Breeden attended the University of Virginia with a goal of studying engineering. He tried out for the baseball team and landed a starting position.
“Everything was suddenly so different,” he says. He was living the life he’d been working toward for years. But he ran into a challenge in during his sophomore year. Financial problems left his parents unable to afford tuition. He quit the baseball team and got three part-time jobs to pay his way through school. Meanwhile, inflexible scheduling in the engineering program forced him to change direction and study business instead.
The next three years were tough. Breeden worked round-the-clock and had little time for socializing. But juggling long hours of work and study brought discipline, organization and comfort in solitude.
“People ask me do I regret what happened,” he says. “Well, I loved baseball. So, at first, I was bitter. Later, I realized if I’d come from a wealthy family, if things had been easy for me, I probably never would’ve been able to achieve what I’ve achieved.”
After graduation Breeden took a job teaching math at a Richmond-area high school. He began thinking about starting a family. Reflecting on his time at UVA ignited a desire for greater financial success to better provide for a wife and children. A friend was selling real estate and doing well. Breeden learned as much as he could from his friend and then bought books to study the business. Impressed, the friend got him a job in the family’s brokerage. “That went okay,” Breeden says, “but it didn’t take long to see where the real money was being made.”
Developers and lenders were at the top of the housing market food chain. But he knew nothing about either. Going back to school wasn’t an option, so Breeden bought more books and spent his free time researching the fundamentals of building and financing. He decided to learn the industry from the ground up.
Phase two of Breeden’s DIY education began at the Richmond branch of a national mortgage company. He got a job as a junior agent and rose quickly. By 1960, he was married and had been promoted to a regional management position in Virginia Beach.
“My wife, Mary Jane, and I were able to buy a little house,” Breeden says. The couple had entered the middle class, but just barely. Climbing higher felt like a long shot. “I realized spending all my time making money for other people wasn’t paying off.”
Breeden decided to launch his own mortgage business. Doing it without capital demanded creativity, but he discovered a loophole essentially allowing him to partner with a New York title company to initiate government-backed mortgages using his name and their credentials. Breeden bought a bus ticket to the city and made a list of companies who could help him achieve that golden opportunity.
One of those companies happened to be owned by an older man who was from Lynchburg, Virginia. The two hit it off. “I told him what I wanted to do and he mulled it over. Finally, he says, ‘Son, I’m inclined to give you a chance. Am I going to be disappointed?’ I said, ‘No sir, I can tell you for a fact, you will not.’”
The 1961 meeting marked the birth of The Breeden Company. For the next two years, Breeden ran it from his car and kitchen table, and initiated about 240 mortgages. He deployed savings to buy a property in Virginia Beach and hire contractors to build a single-family home. When it was finished, he found a buyer and initiated the mortgage. “That was my first taste of doing business truly for myself,” he says. “It was exhilarating. It left me wanting more.”
Breeden reinvested every penny in a bigger lot and two new homes. Meanwhile, he kept selling mortgages, freeing up capital for increasingly ambitious projects. By 1967, he’d created a construction subsidiary, hired dozens of full-time workers, and built a brick-and-mortar headquarters. Breeden was now developing shopping centers, apartment complexes and subdivisions. Within a decade, trade organizations like Associated Builders and Contractors were naming him one of the top builders in the U.S.
Today, The Breeden Company is one of the largest and most successful real estate development firms in the U.S.
It’s split into three divisions – construction, realty and property management – that together employ more than 400 people. Their combined portfolio is valued around $1.4 billion and includes about 15,000 apartments, 2 million square feet of retail and office space, and 1,700 residential homes. Revenues for 2019 construction projects alone were in the ballpark of $75 million.
Still, Breeden says he isn’t finished growing the company. In the past decade, he’s focused on expanding its territory throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
Breeden could have retired years ago but stepping away isn’t appealing. “Some people go to work and it’s just a job,” he says. “But for me, my business is my hobby, my passion. It’s what I love to do.”
Chief financial officer Terry Marshall agrees. He says Breeden has nurtured the company like a family. “Ray may say he’ll be gone for a week, but his ‘vacations’ rarely last more than two or three days,” says Marshall, who’s worked for Breeden since 1986. “He’s such a hands-on guy, he can’t stand not to be there in the thick of things.”
That’s the main reason Breeden obtained a pilot’s license and bought a jet and helicopter. They let him do things like go snorkeling with his family in Palm Beach for the weekend and still attend Monday meetings, or work a 12-hour day and take a sunset horseback ride with his current wife, Lucy. (His first wife, Mary Jane, died of breast cancer in the early 1990s.)
But Breeden’s drive to keep working isn’t just about personal enjoyment. “Ray feels a sincere obligation to his employees,” Marshall says. For Breeden, ensuring the company’s success is synonymous with keeping a promise to his workers.
“When Ray offers you a job, it can be a little intense,” says Marshall. For instance, Breeden may seal the deal with a statement like, ‘Now you’re gonna take care of me. And in return, I’m gonna take care of you.’ “And Ray always keeps his word,” Marshall says. If you’re sincere about your job, “he’s over-the-top supportive and willing to invest heavily in your growth and development. … Because of that, this office is filled with people that’ve been here for 10, 20, 30 years.”
When asked about his ability to retain employees, Breeden shrugs and says the secret is simple. He finds great people, gives them freedom to do their jobs and pays them well. “But it’s more than that,” says marketing director Christine Gustafson. “Ray cares about you. He’ll walk into your office, sit down and ask about your family, your plans for the future, or whatever. And he listens.”
In the past he’s paid hospital bills for employees with sick children, chartered vacations and travel on his jet for wedding anniversaries, funded unexpected funerals, paid for college tuition – the list goes on.
And if an employee wants to climb the corporate ladder? Breeden almost always offers to provide further education, training or personal tutoring. “I want my employees to be happy,” Breeden says. “It’s important to me that they feel secure and know they don’t have to worry about losing their jobs. I want them to go home to their families feeling proud.”
These days, Breeden gets invited to speak at a lot of business school events, including those at his alma mater. While he enjoys discussing the development industry, his talks often focus more on character and the role it plays in shaping a business’s identity.
“I started this company with nothing but an idea and my word,” Breeden says. “I knew I wasn’t the smartest guy, but I was the hardest working, and I was honest. I told myself, ‘When someone trusts you with an opportunity, you cannot let them down.’ That was my strategy. I didn’t take shortcuts; I made sure the job got done right and was completed on time, no matter what.”
The approach won Breeden a reputation. As his company grew, he hired employees with similar values and did everything in his power to help them succeed. And they returned the favor.
“Through the years, we became like a family,” Breeden says. “We cared about each other, looked out for each other, pushed one another to succeed and grow. … With a team like that, the sky is the limit. You can achieve anything.”