Green Chips has a conversation with the community leader who has spent 36 years analyzing regional economic trends in the interest of helping other community and business leaders make good decisions, RCG Economics Principal, John Restrepo. Green Chips Executive Director, Lauren Boitel, has known John for over a decade – since she used to make his tall nonfat one equal lattes at Starbucks. He’s an all-around great guy and it was fun to sit down with him and hear more about his story.
October 13, 2015
As this is a feature about community leaders, what do you think makes a good leader?
Someone who stays firm with their principles and who is honest and direct about what his or her views are. I think circling the target too much, or speaking in overly politically correct terms where you aren’t getting the point across, is not very effective and leads to bad decisions. I also firmly believe in giving the people that you work with the responsibility AND authority to get things done – stepping in when you need to but making sure they are empowered to do their jobs.
Do you have a personal philosophy or approach to life?
Just be honest and relentlessly pragmatic about the reality of the situation. As the saying goes, facts are stubborn things. They can be ignored – for a while – but the facts are what they are. In our world, because we deal in numbers and data, the truth can be inconvenient, but we have to be honest about our analyses and our conclusions. On a personal basis, it’s the same way, be honest about what your feelings are, be respectful when expressing your feelings and concerns, but stick strongly to your beliefs. Hopefully those beliefs are based in reality.
What was your major in college and your path to your current position?
I have a Bachelors in Economics from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and a Masters in Economics and Latin American Studies from Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge. When I got out of grad school I got a job offer in New Orleans, my hometown, from a consulting firm that had a contract to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Transportation to do social and economic impact studies. I was the head of research at that firm for about 8 years. The economy in Louisiana started to decline, in late ’88, and I got laid off. I started looking for other positions, and found a job with a firm out of Phoenix, Mountain West Research. They recruited me to help open an office in Vegas because they had been hired by the state of Nevada to fight Yucca Mountain through social and economic impact studies. I worked for the company for about a year before Mountain West was bought out by Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). I ran the Las Vegas office for about 7 or 8 years before going out on my own, to open RCG, back in 1997 – I really wanted to see what it would be like to be an entrepreneur.
Why Latin American Studies?
My family is from Latin America; I was born in Colombia and my parents moved to the States when I was about 18 months old. We would go back every two or three years for vacation and as I got older I got intrigued with Latin America, especially about its economic development. When I graduated from U of L, I started looking at grad schools and learned that LSU, at the time, had a prominent Latin American Studies graduate program. When the opportunity came up, I enrolled in the program and got accepted as a graduate assistant, with an emphasis in Economics.
Is this where you thought you would be?
No. When I was in grad school, I really wanted to work for an International Development organization like USAID, or one of those nongovernmental organizations that worked on development issues in developing countries. I applied for many of those jobs and found out they really didn’t hire grads from schools in the south. If you didn’t go to an Ivy League school on the East Coast, you probably weren’t going to get a job with one of those organizations. I never thought I would end up in Vegas either. I had never even been to Vegas even as a visitor before I moved out here for the position with Mountain West.
Is there one word that best describes how you work?
Collaboratively. I don’t have a command and control structure. I have worked for folks like that in the past and found that the people under them didn’t learn as much as they could have, because they were intimidated. The structure of RCG is a little haphazard. When we get a new project in the door, we all sit down and strategize about it then I give it to my guys to run with it under my guidance. If they’ve never done a certain type of study, I tell them to look at our library of similar studies we’ve done in the past, how we’ve tackled them, follow that method, and to come see me if they run into roadblocks or can’t figure out how we analyzed certain data, etc. But my focus is to let them use their training as economists and their creativity to solve the problem at hand on their own. If I’m doing it all, what’s the point of having good people? It can be problematic at first if one of my guys is unfamiliar with the data and what it means. But, I have an open door policy, people come into my office all the time with questions and we can usually get to an answer pretty quickly. So, that is how I work: collaboratively; giving people the opportunity to make their decisions. This collaboration extends to partnering with HighTower Advisors on the Stat Pack online business and economic newsletter and our Quarterly Commercial Real Estate Surveys we prepare with the Lied Institute of Real Estate Studies at UNLV.
What keeps you engaged/passionate about your job; what drives you?
I want to believe we are providing value to our clients and the community by the work we do. One of the most important things I learned early on in my career from a number of mentors was to base my opinions on facts and not base my facts on opinions. As an analyst, you are not an advocate other than for the facts. So, that’s our focus, providing our clients with objective and independent advice and analysis. By focusing on this, I hope we provide value to them and our colleagues, whether we are doing a custom study or the Stat Pack, Monthly Job Flash or Commercial Real Estate Surveys. What is critical to me is to provide high quality information AND analysis that leads to better decision-making.
How do you re-charge?
My wife and I like travel whenever we can. Not necessarily long trips but short trips to California, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest. For longer trips we go a lot to New Orleans to visit family. Also, going out to dinner. We are pretty big foodies so we like to find “niche-y” new restaurants in town. Seeing the latest movies is fun also.
What are you better at than anyone else and what is your secret?
My strength as a professional, and the strength of this company, is being honest with the numbers; factual based analysis and telling the client the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding our findings. I always let clients know that if they hire us they have to be prepared to get an answer they don’t like. Sometimes this means not getting hired or not being rehired by a certain client. But, what I’ve found is that if you do the kind of work we do, you have to stay independent and objective. Like all professions, reputation is the most important asset you have.
Where are you from originally and what has surprised you the most about this community?
I’ve mentioned this earlier, but I was born in Colombia (Bogota) and grew up in New Orleans.
What surprised me the most about Las Vegas when I moved here in 1988 is that we are very forward looking. There isn’t a lot of living in the past. This applies whether it’s the gaming/resort industry and how it’s constantly reinventing itself for visitors, or how we are re-thinking the kind of economy we want to have. This is what has always impressed me about Las Vegas – its ability to reinvent itself for the better when its had to without getting stuck in the past. This is one of our major strengths. It’s probably due to a combination of factors like being a relatively new urban area, and being a community of migrants; but it’s also the nature of the people who move here. They are generally risk takers, willing to invest, and be more forward thinking.
What is your biggest hope for this community in the next 10 years? 50?
As important as it is to invest in hard, physical infrastructure (roads, water, energy, etc.) it is as important to focus on investing in our socioeconomic infrastructure; meaning workforce training and development, education, and other areas that develop our human assets. All the while we have to understand that if Southern Nevada is going to prosper over time, stay viable, and be sustainable; we all have to share in the success. Lets not forget the people that are marginalized or in need. Nevada has done a very good job growing state domestic product per capita basis – it’s pretty high – we just haven’t done as good of a job making sure that everyone has shared in the this prosperity. We need to keep in mind that for a community to be successful in the long-term, all it’s citizens must have the opportunity to share in its success.
What app or technical gadget can’t you live without?
From an app standpoint, probably Excel and Word. I couldn’t live without either. From a tool standpoint, probably my cell phone – it’s even more important than my laptop.
What is the best advice you ever received?
The older you get the more you realize what you don’t know.
What advice would you give young professionals starting out?
You don’t know as much as you think you know. Be humble. Be quiet. And above all else, listen.
What is your favorite word?
Fact. I’m always asking, “Is that a fact or just your opinion?” I use that one all the time.
Do you know your Meyer’s Briggs Personality type?
I did at one time. It was introvert dash something – I don’t remember the rest. Definitely analytical would be a part of it.
Last question, what are you reading right now?
I am reading Thomas Piketty’s (a French economist) Capital In The Twenty-First Century. It speaks to the issue of economic opportunity and income inequality. It’s a heavy book. I’m hooked on this kind of stuff… I’m always trying to figure out why things work the way they work.
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