A primary goal in everyone’s life should be to build meaningful relationships with their family members. The time spent with family directly impacts the quality of the family relationships. It doesn’t always have to be a momentous, planned event. Time spent together, involved in activities, or just hanging out is where children learn about virtues and values. That’s when they establish their compass for life, and right and wrong. That’s also where you help bring out their personality and strengths. That’s when they develop curiosity and find their passions in life. That’s when they gain self-confidence — and self-discipline. The foundation for how they’re going to build character for the rest of their lives starts in the home.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Robert Duncan. Robert is the Founder and Chairman of Transwestern, a national diversified commercial real estate organization. A native Texan, Robert started Transwestern as a development company in Houston in 1978. Over the next 40 years, he and his team grew the organization into three separate companies performing investment management, development and services in 34 cities nationwide with global capabilities. In 1986, he married his wife, Marcy, and they have six boys. Four of their sons have now joined Robert at Transwestern.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
I was very blessed to grow up in a normal and nurturing environment. We didn’t have a big family — it was my parents, my older brother and me. Growing up, our family was very close, and we spent a lot of time together. My parents constantly went above and beyond to create opportunities for my brother and me, be it education or travel or other life experiences.
I enjoyed my eight years at the University of Texas at Austin getting BBA, MBA and LLB degrees. I didn’t intend to practice law, but I thought it would provide a strong foundation for whatever career I chose.
I always had a keen interest in real estate because my father was a real estate broker. I always looked up to my dad and was fascinated by the industry. After studying real estate in school and doing some research, I wanted to get into development. I wrote a letter to Trammell Crow, which led to multiple interviews and, eventually, a position with the Trammell Crow Company industrial leasing team in Dallas. After only a year on the job, there was an economic downturn, and I was promoted to oversee the company’s operations in San Antonio. There, we were developing warehouses, offices, and what we called service centers, which are flex buildings with office and warehouse components. I am thankful for how much I learned at the Trammell Crow Company and the exposure I received to different property types.
I then moved to Houston and partnered with a former Trammell Crow Company senior partner, John Collins. We formed Transwestern in 1978 and worked together for 10 years until he retired.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
When we started Transwestern, we had specific character traits we looked for in people we considered hiring. We wanted to attract bright, ambitious, character-driven people who wanted to make a difference and do something significant. The initial group we brought on board set the pace culturally for the next 40 years. It was a fun, team-driven environment, and we’ve worked to try and keep that. It’s harder when a company grows and opens offices across a broad geography and with different companies, but we have worked hard to preserve a team-oriented, entrepreneurial culture. I’m very proud of the organization we have built so far.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
I get up early and work out three or four days a week. I get back home from the gym with enough time to see our youngest son, Michael, off to high school and spend a few minutes with Marcy before I leave for work. I get to work fairly early and usually work pretty late, but I try to always make it home for dinner. Marcy has always felt that it’s important to have meals at home, so we always did that when the boys were growing up. Marcy is our “Rock of Gibraltar” and our cornerstone for family values. Unless we have a specific engagement, Marcy cooks dinner for Michael and me every night. Michael is into sports, specifically football and baseball. If he has a game in the afternoon, we will always plan around that. We try to make all his games. Marcy and I have various civic and social activities that take us out at night sometimes, but, for the most part, we have quiet evenings at home together.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
When you see the benefits from spending time with your children, it really answers that question. God’s gift to our family was Marcy. She was “all in” with family time from the start, and she always kept me in the fairway.
On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
A primary goal in everyone’s life should be to build meaningful relationships with their family members. The time spent with family directly impacts the quality of the family relationships. It doesn’t always have to be a momentous, planned event. Time spent together, involved in activities, or just hanging out is where children learn about virtues and values. That’s when they establish their compass for life, and right and wrong. That’s also where you help bring out their personality and strengths. That’s when they develop curiosity and find their passions in life. That’s when they gain self-confidence — and self-discipline. The foundation for how they’re going to build character for the rest of their lives starts in the home. It isn’t a matter of a few minutes here and there, and it’s not something you leave up to chance. If your priorities are right, the quality of the family relationships becomes a nurturing component in the lives of all the family members. It’s not a question of if the time spent with family checked a box; it’s an achievement in its own right. It is how values are passed along from one generation to another.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
I think studies like this sometimes get bogged down in metrics and miss the point. I believe that both the quantity and quality of time is very important. I completely agree that you need to make your time with your family count, but it doesn’t mean you should have less of it.
That said, we have made a conscious effort to spend quality time with our children throughout their lives, and being a parent doesn’t stop when children move out of the house, so it’s equally important to continue being a parent to adult sons and daughters. Here are a few of the ways we’ve accomplished that.
When kids are young, playing together can create some of the most treasured memories. The boys still talk about when we would play Mad Bull in the backyard. I would act like a rodeo bull, and they would try to ride me. They waited in line. Once I threw one off, the next one jumped on. We would do that until we were all exhausted. We had a ball together and laughed our heads off.
With six boys, sports were a big part of their youth. I didn’t think I had time, but Marcy told me I needed to coach. The rest was history. I loved being involved in this aspect of their childhood and coaching gave me that opportunity. I coached for 18 years — baseball, football and sometimes basketball. It was a wonderful experience and a wholesome environment. It allowed me to spend time with our boys, and today I would not trade for a single minute of it. I was able to teach them about much more than swinging a bat. Whatever your kids’ hobbies or interests are, be it sports, scouts, fishing, hunting, or anything else, I recommend not only attending but getting involved and engaged. So many life lessons are learned during these types of activities; it’s crucial that parents are involved enough to influence that learning. And the bonding that takes place is immeasurable.
I also suggest finding a hobby or activity that everyone in the family enjoys. Ours was hunting and fishing. Specifically, we developed a love for archery hunting. The whole family, Marcy included, goes to our hunting lease in South Texas regularly. We’ve also been to Argentina and Africa. Being outdoors has its own benefits for children and can help them develop a love for being active and adventurous. Our trip to Africa was very special for all of us. We spent three weeks there and would go out every day in three trucks. Marcy and I would each ride in one of the trucks with two of the boys and rotate each day. This allowed us to spend the entire day in the wilderness with two boys one day, two the next day, and so on. We still talk about those experiences we shared.
We are very fortunate that five of our six sons are in the Houston area, which makes it much easier for us all to get together for a family dinner each week. We can usually pick out one night a week to have everyone over for dinner. It doesn’t always happen and not everyone can make it each week, but we try to have as many of them over as we can.
My last example won’t work for every family, but it’s a wonderful experience if it fits your situation. Our sons have heard about Transwestern all their lives, and now, we’re extremely fortunate that four of them have chosen to work here with me. I’m thankful that Transwestern has grown enough so that each of them can pursue their specific interests. John is with our multifamily development group, Thomas is with our corporate support services group, David is in industrial development, and James works with our healthcare group.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
Well, I’m not the expert here, and I attribute most of our good family activity ideas to my wife, Marcy. But, I’m happy to share with you some of the things we did.
Going to church as a family is as good as it gets — with lunch afterward. We believe that building faith as a family is the most important component for kids to be well-grounded and to live purpose-centered lives.
I would also suggest trying to make your house the favorite venue for your kids and their friends. We did everything we could to get their friends to want to hang out at our house. This not only allowed us to keep an eye on our own kids, but we could make sure they were hanging out with other kids we thought were a good influence. For example, we were fortunate to have enough space to build a baseball diamond and batting cage in our backyard. They had an instant place to play baseball and football. On any night, we could have anywhere from 10 to 20 kids in our backyard, and on weekends we had even more. It was wonderful. It kept Marcy and me involved and let us get to know their friends well.
Family vacations should be a forever thing. Work hard to find a time slot where everyone can be there — 100 percent attendance. As the years go by and the logistics get tougher, figure out how to do it, even if it is a shorter time slot. I’m sure we wouldn’t be working together today if we had not bonded so well together as a close family over the years — with shared values.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
Well, it’s tough. You can tell your children anything, but what they do is watch you. The key is how you manage your own life. Certainly, the things you tell them are important, but it starts by trying to be a good person yourself. I think to be really good parents, we have to work at being really good role models. For me, that’s hard sometimes! I have to work at that.
Good parents are engaged, involved, and good listeners. They have developed the kind of relationships where their children will talk openly with them. Boys can be challenging because sometimes they don’t like to talk. Thankfully, Marcy is a good listener and has helped me with this. She tells me not to try and come up with a quick solution, but rather just listen. It’s important to recognize when they’re trying to get something off their chest and only need you to listen. Similarly, when they are trying to solve an issue, help them think through it critically and come up with solutions themselves.
Good parents also recognize they may not have all the answers their children need. A wonderful gift parents can give their children is finding great mentors for them. Children certainly watch and learn from their parents, but they also listen to others. It’s important that the people around children are instilling the same values you wish them to emulate. This means coaches, teachers, extended family, priests, tutors, and friends. If you can, find someone who can serve a need that also has the characteristics you value. For instance, if a little league coach is also a good role model, it can mean a lot for their character development. Similarly, if they have friends or others who are not a good influence, it’s your responsibility as a parent to steer them away from those people.
Good parents must find the balance between being both disciplinarians and good friends. Parents who spend a lot of time with their children, like we did, are going to develop a close relationship with them. This means you have to know when to be tough, even if they’re your best friends. That has been a hard one for me sometimes.
I also think it is really important to teach your children how to set goals and write them down. Then monitor their progress. This helps them think, stay focused, and learn accountability.
Perhaps the biggest responsibility a father has for his family is being their protector. More important than mentorship or building relationships is protecting your family. A good father, first and foremost, is not only establishing a vision for the family and the values of the family, but preserving the integrity of the family and guarding it from destructive influences.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I don’t think a parent has to do a whole lot to inspire a child to dream big. Children do that naturally. Parents simply need to not stymie their children’s curiosity. Kids have an enormous, beaming, beautiful curiosity. They are bright eyed with an unfiltered view of the world. Parents should help cultivate that curiosity through reading, travel, and experiential learning. But mainly just let them dream without correcting them all the time with all the practicalities. Appreciate, recognize, encourage, and commend them. Parents can stimulate ideas, but the key is to let their natural creativity run free.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
Thank you, but I only wish I could master that balance. It’s a constant struggle. Like most things in life, success is relative. Success is a moving target that I don’t think we ever fully achieve. We can certainly achieve specific goals, which in itself is fulfilling. Once you achieve that specific goal, what’s next? A higher goal! That’s why I say success is a moving target that we are all constantly struggling toward.
As a man of faith, I view success as becoming a worthy servant of God. My priorities are God first, family second, vocation third, friends fourth, and community fifth. If I feel like I’m appropriately managing my time, interests and potential within that priority system, then I think I’m succeeding. If I can make a positive difference in the lives of others, I am succeeding. Everyone has to identify their own parameters for success. It won’t look the same for everyone.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
As far as resources, people are my top priority. I am intentional about spending time with people who I admire and respect. They bring out the best in me. Additionally, there’s a wonderful program within the Catholic faith that has been helpful for me as a father. It’s a version of a Bible study called That Man Is You. It’s a program where men get together to discuss how to lead their families faithfully.
Several books have helped me become a better parent, such as The Road to Character by David Brooks, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Good to Great by James C. Collins, and Cowboy Ethics by James P Owen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Malcom Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Tom Lawyer, the president of our services company, just recently shared this with me. Isn’t that great?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For people to live purposeful lives with God and family as the foundation. In my opinion, this would help resolve many of the issues we face today as a society.
When not busy with all of the above, Dr. Ely works hard at practicing what he preaches, raising his adorable brood (which includes a set of twins and a set of triplets!) together with his wife in Toms River, New Jersey.