Name: Herman Bulls

Age: 50

Company: Bulls Capital Partners

Title: CEO

An Officer and a Gentleman

When Herman Bulls first entered the commercial real estate field in the early 1990s, he often went a month on the job without rubbing elbows with another African-American real estate professional. And that was in Washington, D.C., a city with a large black population.

But breaking into institutions has never been a problem for Bulls personally. In fact, he seems to have the opposite problem: Bulls burns so few bridges, he has a habit of acquiring jobs without giving the old one up. A former U.S. Army officer, Bulls continues to serve as a colonel in the Army Reserves, and satisfies his duty by teaching finance at his alma mater, West Point, where he is also on the board of trustees.

A longtime Jones Lang LaSalle executive as well, he is still serving as the president of the 100-employee public institutions division he founded. At the same time, he wears yet another hat as CEO of Bulls Capital Partners, a multifamily lender that works with Fannie Mae and SunTrust Bank. In fact, Harvard Business School seems to be one of the few institutions he's ever really left.

Bulls attributes part of his success to luck and hard work, and part of it to a habit he calls “connecting,” not networking. The latter term implies handing out resumes or business cards as fast as possible. Instead, Bulls attempts to make a real connection with someone by helping that person with no expectation of an immediate return. “If you do that over and over and over again, I'll tell you what happens: you'll get more business than you'll know what to do with.”

One of those good deeds was his work as the first president of African American Real Estate Professionals, a group he co-founded in the mid-1990s with 30 to 40 other African-American real estate professionals in the Washington, D.C. area. That group has since expanded to more than 150 members. Other chapters have sprung up in Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York. The D.C. chapter's annual dinner recently attracted more than 350 attendees, not only African Americans, but “a who's who of Washington real estate.”

His advice to minority candidates: “Establish a dream, establish a vision. Don't segregate it, or don't make it smaller based on some perceived idea of what the opportunities are.”

Name: Samir Idris

Age: 29

Company: Cushman & Wakefield, Atlanta

Title: Investment Broker, Capital Markets Group

The Rainmaker

Not many commercial real estate brokers reach $1 billion in sales, much less within their first three years in the business. But Samir Idris did it. “It's a feat that I'm really proud of,” says Idris, 29, of Cushman & Wakefield in Atlanta.

The son of Ethiopian immigrants who own a number of businesses, including a commercial real estate holding company, Idris began his career working in the real estate division of his family's business. After serving three years in that capacity, the Georgia State University graduate decided he wanted a larger role than what the family business could offer. So, he went back to school to earn his MBA.

While working on a finance degree at Clark Atlanta University, he networked with as many professionals in the industry as he could. “I was determined to be in this business,” he says. That determination paid off when a Cushman & Wakefield recruiter hired Idris for a summer job. After he graduated, an offer in the investment sales department of C&W's Atlanta office followed.

The industry is more inclusive today than ever before, Idris says. “It's evolved from what relationships you had in the past to what value you bring to the table now. Today, it's how much you know of the business and the task at hand.”

Although credentials may be more important than they once were, Idris acknowledges that relationships still count. But these days, it's not always the good old boys' network that's getting the deal done. In the case of the young broker's largest transaction — he was on the team that sold the $305 million, 1.1 million sq. ft. One Atlantic Center building in Atlanta — Idris knew the key decision-maker. It happened to be an African-American woman married to one of his professors. It was a stroke of good luck for Idris, and he made the most of the opportunity. “It made it easier for us to win the business.”

Name: Michael V. Roberts

Age: 57

Company: The Roberts Companies

Title: CEO

The ‘Actionaire’

Michael Roberts sometimes describes himself as an “actionaire” — a word he coined to describe someone who seizes the opportunities of his time. The St. Louis businessman and his brother Steve began building the family empire piece by piece in the 1970s. “I developed strategically,” recalls Roberts, a former St. Louis alderman and a lawyer by training. “I didn't have the wealthy uncles and friends to invest with me.”

Today, all that action has paid off. The Roberts own a variety of businesses, including eight hotels and two shopping centers, several television stations, and the country's eighth-largest cell phone tower company. He's widely recognized, too. Roberts is president of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners and was recently named a trustee on the International Council of Shopping Centers, the first African-American trustee in the organization's 49-year history.

Despite all his success, the St. Louis businessman believes that the odds are stacked heavily against African- American developers. The most significant obstacle, he says, is access to capital. Traditional banks might talk about making loans to minority communities, but it's just lip service, Roberts observes. “If you want to buy a Cadillac, no problem, but if you want to go buy a legitimate business that can employ people, there seems to be a problem.”

Even the most experienced African- American developer finds it a challenge to get bank approval, says Roberts. “They don't necessarily take you seriously sometimes when you walk through the door. No matter what your level of experience may be, you still find de facto segregation…you don't necessarily find people on the other side of the table who look like you.”

A black developer trying to develop an inner-city shopping center faces a second obstacle: Potential tenants often shy away from inner-city locations even when the density and income levels appear promising, according to Roberts. “Either that's a form of institutional racism, or it's a form of laziness on the part of these companies.”