Zaya Younan (BSME ’85) returned to the University of Illinois in April to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. He boasts nearly 30 years of executive management experience with publicly traded Fortune 500 companies. In 2002, he founded commercial real estate company Younan Properties, serving as its chairman and CEO. He has grown the company’s portfolio to $2.8 billion of Class A buildings and nearly 150 employees in six cities across the country. He has been recognized by Real Estate Forum as one of the industry’s CEOs to Watch. He supports many charitable organizations and lends his expertise to several boards of directors.
While on campus, Mr. Younan discussed his career with us and provided advice for today’s students.
Let’s start off with your first career after you left the department after graduation. Can you talk about how your time spent here in the department helped you out when you went into industry?
As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be an engineer. And from early on, as long as I can remember, I wanted to get my degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That was very important for me. I like this school, I wanted to be at this school, and I’m glad I followed that intuition because the experience and the study and completing my degree in Champaign-Urbana truly had a profound impact on my life and my career. First of all, academically it is a great institution. I learned a lot and I was able to find a better way of understanding how to analyze and solve things. And that could be anything, either work-related issues or life-related issues. The problem-solving method became very easy because we did so much of it here at this university.
Second, the university has a great recruiting program. As students, we would go to the placement office, and representatives from all the Fortune-500 companies would come and talk to students and try to recruit them. That was critical because early on I was able to get internship opportunities with a number of companies. And I chose to go with General Motors—that was the first company I worked for. So before I graduated, I did two summer internships with General Motors. The experience was invaluable, financially it was great, and more important, that experience alone determined exactly what I wanted to do the day I graduated. My first job out of the school was working for General Motors, Electromotor Division, in LaGrange, Illinois.
Can you tell us more about that job?
As I mentioned, I wanted to be an engineer my whole life. When I was at General Motors, I was very fortunate early on. I was able to invent some products and invent some processes and procedures that saved General Motors billions of dollars. This was not in the first five to 10 years, but just over the first year working at General Motors. So my engineering career became very short because I developed a lot of products and a lot of processes, and they moved me to manufacturing. I went to manufacturing and then I went to sales and then to distribution. Following that, I went to the dealer to set up programs and then I went to advanced engineering and then I was able to rotate among different departments of major companies. In the 1980’s, General Motors was the largest company in the world. I was able to have an unbelievable rotation of learning programs. I was able to grow and develop very fast and learn all the aspects of running the company.
Shortly after that, I was recruited by one of the suppliers for General Motors. I went there and I built manufacturing plants for them, from the ground up. This was three years after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. So I was 24 years old, and I built 15 manufacturing plants for Johnson Controls. They were in Northern California. We built new manufacturing plants to supply new components for all the major car makers. I was able to travel the world, meet a lot of people, learn different cultures. But by that time I understood all aspects of designing, building, and selling a complex product and more important, see the product through the duration of its life with the consumer with reliability and assurance.
Is that when you made the leap to commercial real estate?
It wasn’t. After that I was recruited by automotive companies. We were the early inventor of airbag crash sensors. This was in the early ‘80s when there weren’t any airbags in cars. We developed the technology. We started equipping cars with the airbags and we were very fortunate that it was such an effective component in automobiles. The government realized that early on and passed legislation that every car needed to have an airbag crash sensor. Then it was like the product was on fire. It instantly grew and became successful. We developed many products like keyless entry systems and variable temperature technology for heating and cooling automobile seats. By now I was a CEO. I ran companies; I was able to make a lot of startup decisions in the early ‘90s and I had many new opportunities as well. I was recruited by venture capitalists and major investment bankers.
For example, I worked for the Walton family, the founders of Walmart. One of their sons had a dream of revolutionizing the farming industry because farmers were using old equipment that was very physical and inefficient. John Walton, the second oldest son, always felt that he should do something with the wealth they’d created from selling to average Americans. Back then, for crop dusting you had to have flag men in the field. You had a guy in the field with a flag in his hands, flagging at aircraft to show them where to drop the chemicals. You have a human being standing there with a cover over him for protection. But of course, there’s no protection—these are chemical pesticides. These chemicals kill things. He came up with a concept but couldn’t develop a product. So I was hired to develop a product. There were many components, but we called it a precision GPS farming component. You would put these sophisticated computers into the aircraft and they could calculate air drift, height, particle drop, and they could pinpoint exactly where to drop the chemicals.
Or when the farmer drives his combine down his field, he doesn’t know what part of the soil is wet and what part is dry, where the seed actually penetrated and where the seed didn’t penetrate. So he has to get out of his combine constantly and check the soil, analyze it, get back in. We developed technology so that as he’s driving his tractor, all of that information is being gathered simultaneously and being displayed on a computer in front of him. We developed that, I developed that, and we launched that product. Today it’s in every combine/tractor everywhere in the world.
After that, I was hired by a company that had a concept for a navigation system but couldn’t launch it. This was the early ‘90s before anyone had navigation in their car or in their cell phone. The product wasn’t working, the concept wasn’t working, the market wasn’t there. People said, “Look, I don’t want to be driving and have someone telling me to turn left, turn right, I hate that. I know where I’m going, I’ll eventually find out where I’m going. I can pull into the gas station and ask where I want to go. I don’t need that.” So we developed a navigation system and introduced it to the market. Then we developed a next-generation product which was a voice-interactive navigation system. You could talk to the navigation system and it would listen to you and follow you and give you step-by-step directions to your destination. We launched that system and sold the company to Sony.
After that, I was exposed to other products in the petroleum, oil, and gas industry. When you have oil and gas in a pipeline and there’s a leak, there is a high probability for injury or death. Depending on the size of the pipe, for miles before the oil and for miles after, workers must cut the pipe, clean it, weld it, and put it back together. You can’t weld a pipe that has gas in it because it would blow. We developed a compression technology. When there’s a leak in an oil line, either on land or below in the ocean, you have this technology where you put a piece of metal on it and use a significant amount of compression and friction. You basically burn the surface of the two metals and the two metals adhere together. It fixes the hole in less than a minute, versus fixing the hole in six to eight months. We sold that company to GE back then.
My last company before I started my company was a European company called Cyberview. They developed a technology that could take all gaming and make it internet based; IP-based gaming industry. For example, a slot machine used to be huge with a lot of mechanical components behind it. Cyberview developed technology so that in that box there would be only one chip and that chip would control everything. The chip could be controlled from anywhere in the world. This revolutionized the gaming industry. We sold that company to IGT, which is the biggest gaming component manufacturer in the world, based in the United States. It’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
So my career has been short for engineering, long in innovation, long in company leadership, and long in launching a consumer product to the market. By the age of 37 I was totally burned out from working long and hard hours. I decided to take a break and go sit under a tree and read all the books I always wanted to read. But in the meantime I needed to generate some revenue. So, I decided to get into commercial real estate, just do it as a passive business—buy a few assets and let them cash flow so I could live life until I figured out what to do next. Younan Properties was established in 2002. By 2008, we were a $4 billion company, the largest private commercial real estate company in the United States. Today we’re an international company. We have mid- to high-rises all over the United States and we have hotels in Europe, like France, and we’re growing from there. So that’s my career over the past 30 years.
So after you bought those first properties, did you indeed relax?
Actually, I didn’t. Fortunately or unfortunately, with the “Type A” personality that I have, when I see an opportunity I seize it. I could be on vacation and see an opportunity. I could not say, “I see an opportunity, but I have two weeks of vacation so let me have my vacation and then I’ll look into it.” We don’t do it that way at YPI; we jump right into it and immediately start working. So I’ve still been working very hard, but it’s very enjoyable work, building a company. It’s very enjoyable building something that doesn’t exist and creating a lot of jobs. It’s very enjoyable creating a company that a lot of people work for, and you know every day that those people depend on you, on the decisions you make, on the direction you choose. Their life depends on you and they have wives and husbands and children. I feel responsible, that I have to be on top of my game in order to create a future where my employees can grow. I have always said to people, the worst job in the world is when you’re a manager. When you’re a manager, you have people depending on you and on every decision that you make, and those people have families. You feel responsible to make sure that you can provide an environment in which they can prosper and they can grow.
We have a lot of students here with entrepreneurial dreams and aspirations. Any advice for students who are about to graduate or are starting out?
I think that students truly have to try hard to get everything that they can out of their education at the University of Illinois. This is the most important thing. Second thing is that it is very good to have ideas, but having ideas by themselves really doesn’t mean anything—99.9% of the people who live on this earth will come up with good ideas in their lifetime. They probably say, “Oh man, I’m smart, I’m a great inventor, I just came up with an idea nobody else thought about.” They shouldn’t feel so good about that because probably everybody else in their lifetime came up with good ideas, every human being does that. What separates an entrepreneur from a person with good ideas is that the individual can take that idea and make a product out of it, create demand, and make a market for it. I have invented a lot of products in my lifetime, and I have introduced a lot of products in the marketplace. Coming up with the invention was the easiest part of that. The most difficult aspect was, how can I take this idea and make a product out of it that 1) adds value to the consumer, and 2) the consumer wants. The consumer has to willingly want it and pay for it, buy it, and use it. And 3), it has to be feasible, it has to add value, it has to work. So it starts by having an idea, but it does not end by having an idea. The hard work comes after, when you make the commitment that you will take that idea and make a product out of it. That’s where education comes into the picture. You’re going to have a lot of problems, issues, obstacles. Are you going to quit anywhere in the process? Or every time, will you try to solve the problem and move on to the next one? These individual young people have to learn that now that they’re graduating, solving problems, taking tests, it’s just the beginning of all that. You’ll be solving problems and taking tests every step of your life. And when you look back, the university and academic part was the easiest one. Living in a society and being effective is the most difficult.
No one should call themselves an entrepreneur because they have great ideas. My mother is 80 years old and sometimes she has great ideas. Sometimes my wife says, “I have a great idea. You should make it into a product.” I say, “Well, that is a good idea. But you want me to do the hard work. If you really think it’s a good idea, you find a way of taking it to the market.” That’s the most difficult thing. Imagine, what is the idea? I want water. The idea is that this bottle flies through the air to my mouth, opens itself, pours enough water in my mouth, and then goes back on the table. Is this a good idea, where you don’t have to use your hand anymore? Of course it’s a good idea. But can we make it happen? That is the difficult part. So all of these people need to know this. They need to know this because they have a good idea and they say, “I have a great idea! I’m going to be a billionaire tomorrow.” And often when they step into the reality arena, then 99.9 percent of them back away from it. They stop, they say, “You know what, it’s too complex,” and they walk away. Those few persons per million are the ones who say, “No matter how hard it is, no matter what obstacles there are, I’m going to find a way through every one of them until I get to the end goal.” Having a product that people want, that people pay money for and value, that’s the true entrepreneur.