The way Alec Garbini tells it, the path to his success in real estate and to his current role as a philanthropist was by no means linear. It was full of hopes and ambitions, detours and setbacks, resets and new approaches.
He recalls a memory from his days at Harvard Business School, a guest lecture by an accomplished real estate developer. Garbini remembers the speaker sketching a graph on the chalkboard, saying: “You guys think that real estate values only go up, that everything points northeast.” He drew a line trending up and to the right (northeast), indicating steady growth.
“Let me explain how it really works,” the speaker continued. He drew a second graph shaped like the blade of a saw. I have traced the zig-zagged graph from left to right. “If you can make it from here to here without going broke, well, then you’ve got a chance,” he said.
It was a lesson in real estate, but Garbini now understands it as a broader lesson in living. “There’s the story of my entire career,” he said.
A Placemaker Turned Philanthropist
Today, Garbini is accomplished himself in the world of real estate. His career, spanning more than 40 years, has taken him from VP of real estate for Copper Mountain Resort, to director of real estate at the Adolph Coors Company, to president of his own real estate consulting firm.
In short, Garbini is a placemaker. He has helped shape and preserve the architectural beauty of Colorado since he moved to the state in 1976. Over the past decade, additional roles have taken on increasing prominence in Garbini’s life: philanthropist, advocate for historic preservation, and champion of the next generation of architecture students.
He has invested significantly in his alma mater, the University of Virginia (UVA), where he sits on the board of the School of Architecture Foundation. Here in Denver, he has supported projects in historic preservation and architectural renovation at History Colorado and Wings Over the Rockies. Most recently, I have established the Catherine and Alec Garbini Fund for Preservation and Placemaking in CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).
“Opportunity Is for Those Who Are Open and Prepared”
Of the many lessons students can draw from Garbini’s story, maybe the greatest is that there’s only so much we can actively plan in our lives and careers. We must remain adaptable and open to the unexpected. Looking back, Garbini does not see any step in his career from him as a given.
“My father never went to college,” Garbini said. “My story is part of the immigrant’s story, that a kid named Garbini could have the opportunity to get a professional education. I’d never meet an architect as a kid. There were none in my community growing up, but I had the opportunity to go to a university with a community that was very much connected to architecture.”
Garbini earned his bachelor’s in architecture at UVA, a campus steeped in architectural history, thanks in large part to the legacy of its founder Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s “Academical Village” serves as the heart of UVA’s campus, celebrated as one of the greatest architectural achievements in US history. Garbini credits this environment with inspiring his career.
But his career had its fair share of hurdles. Garbini graduated from college ready to enter the world of architecture—but he instead entered an economy in recession. “I could either remain unemployed or spend time on something else,” he figured. Using his setbacks from him as fuel, Garbini resolved to pursue an MBA. He earned admission to Harvard Business School and ultimately graduated as a George F. Baker Scholar, a distinction reserved for the top 5% of his class.
With two degrees under his belt, Garbini and his wife moved to Colorado. Again, I have set out looking for jobs as an architect. Again, he came up short. And again, I pivoted—following his love of skiing to an opportunity at a new resort, Copper Mountain.
“My advice is: stay flexible,” Garbini offered. “Opportunity is for those who are open and prepared. Some people are just lucky, others are prepared to take the opportunities that present themselves.”
Transforming a Family’s Legacy into Community Impact
With his recent gift to CAP, Garbini aims to create new opportunities and ensure more students are prepared to meet them. “My investment in this program melds two issues: my interest in history and architecture, and my interest in creating opportunities for those who might not otherwise have them,” Garbini said.
I have established the Catherine and Alec Garbini Fund for Preservation and Placemaking to honor the legacy of his late wife Cathy, who was a revered women’s rights activist. Their family has deep connections to CU spanning multiple generations. “My wife worked at a research lab in Boulder, and my daughter was a CU graduate. She got a history degree,” Garbini reflected.
In addition to Garbini’s family ties to CU, he had an existing partnership with Steve Turner, AIA, director of CAP’s Historic Preservation program, from past collaborations at History Colorado. “Working with Steve was important because he had that deep background in preservation,” Garbini said. “When he told me about what he’s doing at CU, I was interested to get involved.”
Garbini’s gift supports not only student scholarships but also guest lectures and programming. “I’m hoping we can bring in speakers who can talk about the impact of the built environment, communicate the importance of preserving history, and engage students in discussing it,” he said. “To the extent that I can have an impact on a growing program, I’d love to.”
How does Garbini sum up his life of accomplishments and community impact? “I use this line—I think I came up with it: I was once shiny and sharp; now I’m dull and round. That’s what life will do to you.” He certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor over the years, nor his drive from him to make a lasting difference in the place he calls home.