Through bravado and persistence, Mr. Robert asserted his place in Washington’s business firmament from an unlikely starting place. He had barely muddled through high school and was kicked out of college for fighting, rendering him homeless for more than a month. After working as a bouncer, selling encyclopedias and unloading trucks, he had an epiphany.
Convinced that he was throwing away his life, Mr. Robert decided to go into the real estate business and focus on distressed assets. He bought handfuls of real estate books and started purchasing condos in Beltsville when he was 20. In 1981, he launched his asset-management company, despite having been told that it was an unwise venture during a recession. He went to nearly 20 Washington area banks seeking a $500,000 loan.
Riggs National Bank finally agreed to give him the money after Mr. Robert assured the loan officer that he was “going to be the biggest real estate workout guy in town.”
He was right. In one of his most publicized deals, his J.E. Robert Cos. in 1990 won a government contract worth $41 million over three years to sell a grab bag of strip malls, apartment complexes and other assets worth billions of dollars held by failed savings and loan associations in Texas. The deal was part of an unprecedented effort by the Resolution Trust Corp., which oversaw the enormous S&L bailout, to recruit private asset-management companies.
By the 1990s, Mr. Robert had offices and properties around the world and at one point estimated his wealth at about $1 billion. Even when he went skiing, business came first. To keep up with business deals taking place in different time zones, he had a ski helmet equipped with a cellphone.
He had homes from Potomac to Colorado and a list of friends that included Oprah Winfrey, the rock star Bono, Middle East sheiks and Russian oligarchs. He squired glamorous women across the Mediterranean, survived a helicopter explosion near the North Pole and explored the Colombian jungle in search of guerrilla fighters.
Mr. Robert’s most prized possession: a piece of string from the garment of a Colombian tribal chief. He wore it tied around his wrist. Receiving the string “was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” Mr. Robert told Washington Business Journal. “I gave him the Gucci sunglasses I was wearing.”
After he made a huge fortune performing complicated financial transactions during the S&L crisis, Mr. Robert became one of the softest touches in town, raising and giving bushels of money for his two philanthropic devotions: children’s education and children’s health care.