Don Wood, chief executive of Federal Realty Investment Trust and chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, was one of the honorees at the Breath of Life Gala at the National Building Museum on November 10. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the summer of 2010, with the real estate industry in tatters, the owners of the second largest shopping mall company in America came knocking on Donald C. Wood’s door in Rockville.

General Growth, based in Chicago, owned or part-owned more than 200 malls and shopping centers across the country, including Faneuil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York.

But it had built its empire by amassing $27 billion in debt, and less than a year earlier, had filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history. Other companies were targeting its top properties, and General Growth’s owners, led by Blackstone Group and Brookfield Property Partners, wanted to hand the reins to Wood to bring the company back.

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For someone whose business is shopping centers, it was about as big a job offer as one can get, but for Wood, it marked a logical next step. Seven years prior, he had wrestled his way to the top spot at Federal Realty Investment Trust, a real estate firm based in Rockville, and led its stock on a terrific run. He’d also shown a steady nerve, having been fired early in his career personally by Donald Trump, and bouncing back.

Wood figured if he turned General Growth down, he would effectively be committing to Federal for the rest of his career. “There was a lot of soul-searching at that time. A lot of soul-searching,” he said.

After months of discussions, he turned General Growth down, citing family commitments. “The biggest reason is, from a lifestyle perspective, I like Washington. My family likes Washington,” he said.

It’s a line a lot of people use to explain career choices. But for Wood, leaving would have meant interrupting not only the money he was making for Federal, but for his daughter Rachel. And no one knows how much time Rachel has.

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Shortly after learning that their infant daughter had the chronic disease cystic fibrosis in 1995, Wood and his wife had decided to keep the diagnosis to themselves. They would deal with the disease on their own terms. He was working in New York for ITT Corp., and he could afford the best doctors.

That was the plan. Then he got shamed out of it.

A woman working with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation walked into his 34th floor Manhattan office and asked how a man of his means could refuse to play a role in finding a cure for a terminal disease affecting 30,000 Americans, including her child and his. Those with the disease suffer from a lung-clogging mucus that worsens as they age, and the life expectancy for Americans with cystic fibrosis then was less than 30 years. Relatively few people have the disease, however, so pharmaceutical companies don’t focus on a cure.

“Why are you so selfish?” she asked.

Wood eventually left ITT to be chief financial officer at Federal Realty, in part to live near the National Institutes of Health, and in 2003, he agreed to chair the annual Breath of Life Gala for the foundation’s local chapter. They raised around $400,000.

Wood was just getting started with the gala, and at the same time, he was taking control of Federal Realty, following a dispute with the chief executive at the time. “We had different ideas in terms of how we add value and how to move the company forward, and mine was a more focused, back-to-basics approach,” he said.

The company owns and operates 87 shopping centers, many of them — such as Bethesda Row — in wealthy suburbs, but its stock had been on a slide, and Wood said he thought the company had gotten sidetracked. When he took over in 2003, he overhauled the staff.

“I told them, this is the direction I’m going to go, this is the direction we’re going to go in. You’ve got 30 days to decide whether you want to be a part of it or not. And if you’re not, that’s okay. But you’re not going to do it here.”

Federal Realty’s stock was trading at $27 a share when Wood took over. It topped $95 before the 2007 financial collapse and, despite bankruptcies from Circuit City, Borders and other major retail chains that leased Federal’s buildings, has surged back more quickly than many of its competitors, trading at $107 last week.

“He’s done a great job,” said Jonathan Morris, a former Boston Properties vice president and current adjunct real estate professor at Georgetown University who studies real estate investment companies such as Federal Realty. “He is a tremendous company advocate to [Wall] Street, to the investors, to the bankers, to the analysts, to the press ... He’s very transparent. He is totally approachable. I mean, I think if you e-mailed him out of the clear blue sky, he’d e-mail you back in an hour or two, unless he’s traveling.”

Wood’s showmanship is on display during appearances on CNBC’s “Mad Money” and quarterly investor calls, when he thanks analysts for their “astute” ideas or “fair” criticisms. “That’s a great question,” is a common refrain. In turning down the General Growth job, Wood gained leverage at Federal Realty. The board raised his base pay from $700,000 to $850,000, and hiked his target bonus by 50 percent. He also got $5 million worth of stock.

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Wood may do his best negotiating, however, wrangling money out of people for the Breath of Life Gala so he can give the money to cystic fibrosis research in the hopes that a cure might save Rachel, now 17.

A decade ago, he said he persuaded Scott Pelley, now managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” to emcee the event after seeing him at their children’s soccer game. Pelley, now the annual emcee, once offered Wood the chance to sell a trip to ride with him on a reporting assignment in the Patagonia region of South America. Wood got on the phone and sold two seats instead, for $125,000 each, after worrying foundation staff by turning down an offer of $50,000. “I got calls from the CF Foundation and they said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”

Ryan Seacrest, host of “American Idol,” records a video for the gala and offers seats to the show’s filming through a connection Wood made with a Seacrest staffer. They went for $30,000 this year.

Wood convinced Jim Cramer, host of “Mad Money,” to host auction winners for his show and dinner in New York, a trip that has sold for $25,000 to $30,000.

After fellow classic car collector, Robert K. Tanenbaum, principal of Lerner Enterprises, tried to sell him a ’67 Lincoln convertible with suicide doors, Wood began pestering him to donate the car to the gala. “That one took months,” he said. It sold for $40,000.

This year’s event, held Nov. 9 at the National Building Museum, raised $4.23 million, the most ever raised in the 56-year-old foundation’s history or any of its 55 chapters, and by a wide margin. The second-best two events this year, in New York and Seattle, might each respectively raise half of that, said Richard Mattingly, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the national foundation. “That was by far the best single night to fight cystic fibrosis in our foundation’s history,” he said.

Local philanthropic experts said it also ranks among the highest of any charitable event in the region. It topped the $4 million take from Fight Night, the education fundraiser founded by the late real estate investor Joe Robert, and the gala for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which raised about $3 million. “There are a lot of organizations that have big galas — that’s a pretty phenomenal amount to raise,” said Jaye Lopez, president-elect of the Association for Fundraising Professionals’ local chapter, of Breath of Life.

In the 11 years Wood has been involved in the gala, it has raised nearly $30 million.

He said he managed the company and the fundraising simultaneously by eliminating distinctions between business, family and charity. “My lines are not my kids this and then there’s a hard line and then my business. And when they’re connected in that way, you can be more effective in all of them,” he said.

Wood’s daughter, Rachel, a high school senior, is barely five feet tall. Every day she takes two dozen pills and wears a percussion vest for 45 minutes in the morning to shake up the encroaching mucus. But with the money it has raised, the foundation began funding research that last year, for the first time, produced a trial drug addressing the disease’s root cause. Discovery Magazine referred to it in September as a “doorway to a cure.” Rachel is on a six-month trial that could save her life. “The concept is now proven that we can build drugs that can attack the basic defect,” Mattingly said. “When you attack the basic defect, you’re not going to add years of life, you’re going to add decades.”

This year’s gala honored the 53-year-old Wood for his work, but he was not alone. Also honored was Sandeep Mathrani, the man who became chief executive at General Growth after Wood turned the job down. Wood got to know him and pressed him into service: “We became great friends as a result of this.”

Vanessa Small contributed to this story.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.

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