The last time Frank Saul gave an interview to a newspaper reporter, it was characteristically brief.
A 2012 filing from his father’s company revealed that Saul had resigned as president “to pursue other interests.” On the phone that day, he said having just turned 50, he had decided to start his own company.
“This is the right time to do it,” he said.
That’s more than the Saul family usually says publicly, even as over the past 125 years they created dozens of companies that shaped Washington’s real estate and finance sectors and generated billions of dollars in wealth along the way.
Saul, formally B.F. Saul III, had nearly reached the peak of that empire, a march he began on his father’s construction sites during summers in elementary school. As president of Saul Centers, he oversaw a portfolio of dozens of shopping centers and office complexes from New Jersey to Florida.
Then he walked away.
On a recent Friday afternoon, he expressed no regret while showing off a project he purchased with his new company, Saul Urban. Built in 1903 overlooking Dupont Circle, the Patterson Mansion was a hub of socially elite Washington in the 1920s and served as the White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 while the actual executive mansion was being renovated.
Saul is preserving many of the original features of the four-story white marble and brick building for modern use: a grand fireplace in the entrance hall, a carved marble fountain and the bedroom where Charles Lindbergh stayed following his historic transatlantic flight.
He bought the property two years ago with a partner and started work last year turning it into a furnished complex of studio apartments and common areas catering to millennials. He led a tour of the property midway through construction, showing off century-old exposed beams and intricately preserved trim as water dripped through the ceiling and workers consulted engineering drawings. He hopes to have work complete by March.
This is why he got into real estate in the first place.
“I was climbing around on earth-movers when I was 8. And I was working on construction sites when I was 15, hammering shingles. I was pretty certain I was going to be in real estate, in some form or fashion. I mean, I liked it,” he said.
At Saul Centers, he wore suits and attended more meetings with lawyers and accountants than he cared for. He oversaw 59 properties totaling 9.3 million square feet, including Seven Corners shopping center in Falls Church and Park Van Ness in the District.
Now he carries a backpack, rides the Metro and has two properties, Patterson and a similar project in Blagden Alley, in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest.
Real estate is at the center of a vast network of building, finance and mortgage companies spawned from a property-management company his grandfather founded in 1892. Saul’s father, having led the $520 million sale of Chevy Chase Bank to Capital One in 2008, has a net worth of $3.5 billion, according to Forbes, making him one of the 200 wealthiest Americans.
The current portfolio of companies includes Saul Trust, a private real estate venture; Chevy Chase Trust, a wealth management firm; and ASB Capital Management, an institutional investment manager.
Saul is the only of his five siblings to get into the family business.
His brother Andrew, founder and chief executive of an electric car company, Genovation, recalled his brother reading the Wall Street Journal as a teenager. “I think that’s kind of unusual,” he said.
Saul went to boarding school at Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Abbey School, where he played hockey. He graduated from the University of Virginia and then Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Along the way, he was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of leaking business information from his father to his former college roommate, resulting in penalties for insider trading in 1992.
Competitors of Saul Centers raised their eyebrows when Saul left the company two decades later. The company released only a short note in its regulatory filing saying the resignation “was not in connection with any disagreement with the Company about any matter.”
Saul said he enjoyed working for his father, describing him as “creative, hard-working, demanding, generous, kind.”
“We worked hand-in-glove for a long time,” he said.
Before his current venture, Saul began a firm, SB-Urban, with partner Mike Balaban. The pair recently went their separate ways, running companies that Balaban said in an interview “are generally of the same character.”
Reached by phone, Balaban initially declined to discuss Saul, hung up and then called back to say that Saul is a “really seasoned practitioner in Washington who has a lot of vision and hands-on-capability.” He said he could not talk about why they split.
“It didn’t end badly, but when partners split up, they sometimes make arrangements, and in this case, that’s what we’ve done,” he said.
Saul’s father is not an investor in his son’s new company and did not return a call asking to discuss the venture. “I have never given a personal interview,” Saul II told The Washington Post in 1983. “Our style is to be low-key and private.”
He said then that his companies “advertise when we need to, but otherwise we just try to do our job and stay out of the limelight.”
In that way, at least, his son continues in his father’s footsteps. After agreeing to an interview and photo shoot to promote the mansion, Saul was asked what it means to carry his family name.
“There’s a lot that comes with it,” he said. “It opens doors, but it carries a lot of baggage. To me, it’s what I’m used to. So I don’t really think about it.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz