Charlie and Jim Dahlem are featured in the May 11, 2018 issue of Business First
Charlie and Jim Dahlem have led Louisville real estate firm Dahlem since the early 1990s, focusing on Louisville and Southern Indiana while also managing select properties in Walton, Ky., and the Atlanta, Cincinnati and Nashville, Tenn., markets. In all, Dahlem manages about 450,000 square feet of commercial space in about a half-dozen states.
Dahlem is a small, family-owned business that has been around since the 1930s. The company for decades was actively involved in the construction industry, but it sold that business about two decades ago.
The company recently rebranded, putting Dahlem Enterprises and Dahlem Realty Co. Inc. under the umbrella name of Dahlem, which is represented through a new logo, signage and an updated website.
As the brothers recently told me during a lengthy interview inside their Lyndon office, the company started with their grandfather and continued on with their father, Bernard Asman Dahlem, who died March 6 at the age of 88, surrounded by family.
“He was a good guy and a really wonderful father,” Charlie said.
Affectionately known as “Bernie,” Bernard Dahlem was a titan of local construction. His obituary reads as a rundown of well-known local projects.
His firm built Actors Theatre of Louisville, Iroquois Manor, Indian Trail Square, Gardiner Lane Shopping Center, Shelbyville Road Plaza, Bashford Manor Mall, Holiday Manor and McMahan Plaza, among others.
The early years
The Dahlem twins shared the same room growing up, only separating in the same house when they grew too large to physically share the space. And the family business was in their blood.
“Growing up, it was part of the dinner table conversation,” Jim said.
Both of the twins are graduates of Kentucky Country Day, but they went their separate ways after high school. And their father required them to work elsewhere before returning to the company’s fold.
Jim graduated from Centre College in Danville, Ky., and worked for a few years in Washington, D.C., in politics, first in the White House for the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, before moving to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office.
Charlie said he took the less interesting route, graduating from Vanderbilt University and moving to Atlanta to work at Citizens & Southern National Bank.
Both brothers eventually heard from their father in the early 1990s.
The call came first for Jim, who sensed his father was easing toward retirement by the start of the 1990s. He elected to move back home, filling a role in property management.
“I went ahead and made the move because I wanted to be around when he was around,” Jim said.
Charlie moved back roughly a year later, but initially resisted his father’s pull.
“I turned the job down because I was having too much fun in Atlanta,” he said.
But Bernard was persuasive, letting Charlie know that retirement was lurking and he needed to know if Charlie was serious about carrying on the family business.
The two brothers eventually were reunited but didn’t work side-by-side. While Jim was in the field handling property management, Charlie was in the field on the construction side of the business.
Meanwhile, their father was gradually backing away from the business. They knew he had retired when they called him for advice on a project one day and he told them to make the decision. This was roughly 1993.
“He never did let us have a retirement party. He never did make it official,” Jim said, chuckling.
But the men said his imprints are still firmly on the company 25 years later, even though Charlie never worked a single day in the office with him. Jim did, but his father installed another employee as supervisor and mentor to keep a buffer between himself and his sons.
Looking back, they said their father was a superb teacher, and he loved passing on his knowledge to others. He also had great foresight and was well-versed in teaching people how to grow a business in a smart, tactical and ethical way, Jim said.
“He instilled in us the idea of looking down the road so you don’t get surprised” by being proactive business and property managers, Jim said of his father.
“Things should look like they were caused,” he said. “They just didn’t happen.”
That mindset, he said, helped them weather the 2008 recession because they were disciplined during the good times so they weren’t floundering when the economy faltered.
“A lot of people start chasing deals to do a deal, and then they get into trouble,” Charlie said. “They’ve got to do the next deal to pay for the last deal.”
During our conversation, the twins talked about their dynamic with one another. Charlie said Jim was a great asset when he made the difficult decision to sell the construction arm of the Dahlem business years ago, ensuring Charlie was up-to-speed and well-versed on the real estate side of the business.
“Not every brother and not every person would do that for someone else,” Charlie said of Jim. “Not that we don’t still have our disagreements, because we are siblings.”
Jim, meanwhile, discussed his twin’s personability, noting he’s more analytical in his approach.
“He’s a natural salesman,” Jim said of his brother. “He knows how to connect people and work with people.”
That mix of approaches works out well for the twins, and because of their genetic makeup, they have great empathy one another and often know one another is thinking. They also noted that the separation after high school was much-needed, allowing them to find their own identities while also creating a newfound appreciation for one another.
Unfortunately, they can’t as easily cut out the confusion in the industry. They have told me more than once that they get mistaken for the other often, which can make greetings challenging, especially if a client doesn’t know both twins and assumes rudeness on their behalf.
“I’m sure we have insulted a lot of people over the years unintentionally,” he said.
They took some time to answer a few more of our questions:
Describe your leadership philosophy in a few words?
Charlie: Don’t ask someone to do something you haven’t done or would not do yourself.
Jim: I worked for the family business on construction sites as a laborer when I was in college. My father told me to remember that the people I am working with know a lot of things that I will never be taught in school. Listen, respect them and learn from them. He was right.
I learned everyone has a talent, a story to tell and add value to the company. I lead by example. I am honest, ethical, hardworking and treat everyone — no matter their job or experience — with respect. I expect the same from my employees.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your industry and why?
Charlie: Obviously, the constant news about retailer bankruptcy and store closures are in the news all of the time. It’s not all doom and gloom. The economy is gaining strength and unemployment is at its lowest point in years. So people are spending money.
There are actually new stores and concepts opening that aren’t making news. Let’s be clear, the majority of the bankruptcies and store closures are product of retailers who have not evolved.
People are looking for an experience … it’s not just about the commodity. Successfully engaging the consumer online and giving them a reason to come to the bricks-and-mortar store is the challenge. Also, remember you can’t get your nails done or hair cut on the internet and Jimmy John’s is “Freaky Fast” because they have a location near you.
Jim: The biggest challenge in the retail real estate industry is the growth of online shopping impacting sales with bricks-and-mortar stores; however, the idea that retail is dead is overblown.
The retail real estate business is going through yet another change, although this is a significant evolution. I believe the winners will be those who can harness technology and use it to their advantage and the losers will be those who won’t leverage technology or whose business model does not allow them to do so.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
Charlie: I worked for one of our concrete subcontractors pouring footings, foundations and slabs all summer. Among other things, I learned that I did not want to do that job in the winter and going to school suddenly wasn’t as hard as I thought it was.
Jim: The first job I had was at a local sporting goods store when I was in the eighth grade. I worked in the photography department. I was young, inexperienced and I was certainly naive when it came to what an employee’s responsibilities are to an employer.
At times business was slow, so I decided to bring my homework into the store for these occasions so I could keep up with my school work. I thought that would be OK since I didn’t need to help any customers at that time. Eventually, my employer told me that he was downsizing and he was not going to continue the photography department, so I was no longer needed.
Two months later, I was in my mother’s car driving by the store and I noticed the photography department was still running and someone had taken my place. I was hurt. Upon reflection, I realized that I was fired because I was not doing my job. This was my fault. My full attention should have been given to learning about and selling photography equipment.
At a very young age, I realized the definition of work ethic and what happens if you do not devote 110 percent of your efforts to your employer during working hours. I still see this former employer now and then and we always exchange pleasantries. He is a great guy to whom I will be forever grateful for teaching me a valuable lesson at a very young age.
Who would play you in a movie, and what would be the title?
Charlie: Chevy Chase in “Missing Somewhere in the Caribbean.”
Jim: Ed Helms in “Identical Confusion.”
Tell us something about yourself your brother doesn’t know.
Charlie: Mom and Dad told me I’m their favorite.
Jim: Mom and Dad told me I had a higher IQ than Charlie.
Title: President, Dahlem Realty Co./vice president, Dahlem Enterprises Inc.
Lives: St. Matthews
Work History: President, Dahlem Realty Co., Louisville, 1998-present; vice president, Dahlem Enterprises Inc., Louisville, 1998-present; CEO, Dahlem Construction Co., Louisville, 1991-98; Citizens & Southern National Bank (now Bank of America), Atlanta, 1988-91
Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., 1988; licensed real estate broker; certified commercial real estate member
Family: Wife, Lisa; and one daughter, Kate Henderson
Title: President, Dahlem Enterprises Inc./vice president, Dahlem Realty Co.
Lives: Indian Hills
Work history: President, Dahlem Enterprises Inc., Louisville, 1990-present; vice president, Dahlem Realty Co., Louisville, 1990-present; special assistant, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Office, Washington, D.C., 1989-90
Education history: Bachelor’s degree, political science/government, Centre College, Danville, Ky., 1988; master of science in real estate and construction management; University of Denver Daniels College of Business, 2008
Family: Wife, Cathy; and two sons, Blythe and Charlie.