Chip Johnson

Potential in Time of Crisis

When the real estate market took its toll on Chip Johnson, the 2017 Alumnus of the Year leaned on the relationships he started at UNLV.

Editor's Note

: The UNLV Alumni Association will celebrate the accomplishments of graduates at its annual reception and awards ceremony April 26. For a full list of honorees and event details, visit the alumni awards website. Chip Johnson will receive the Fred C. Albrecht Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award, the association's top honor.

In 2009, when the real estate odds were stacked against him and the product he developed was deemed worthless, Chip Johnson looked in the mirror. He looked around and listened to the stories of broken people losing wealth and hope. He did his share of soul searching, too. There were lessons to be learned. Less debt, more cash would be the new normal. But even with all the heartache, when he looked out his office window, he saw a city that was down but not out.

The founder of Real Estate Services Group in Las Vegas moved to the valley at the age of 5 when his father took a job as a carpenter at the Nevada Test Site. He saw the city’s rise, embraced it, and couldn’t wait to make his living in real estate. Like many others, Johnson, ’71 BS Business Administration, prospered handsomely.

“Real estate is an industry I’ve always believed in. It’s like air and water. You have to have it. And at the end you’re buried in it. It’s something that has true value,” he said.

When the real estate industry cratered, Johnson had to tap into the ephemeral — past UNLV friendships and his unwavering belief in Southern Nevada — to find his way back to prosperity.

Losing It and Getting It Back 

As a UNLV student in the late 1960s, Johnson earned money photographing homes and properties for the multiple listing service (MLS) book. Thrifty and ambitious, he soon started investing. One site was across the street from today’s Fiesta Hotel-Casino in North Las Vegas. It had a small apartment complex that he later tore it down to build a retail building.

“In a town of about 100,000 people, I had my niche. … It helped me to kind of develop a scope and understanding of real estate,” he said.

With the Great Recession’s real estate collapse, Johnson faced his toughest life challenges. Longtime banking friends now sat across the table for heated negotiations. He even lost some of his early holdings, including that parcel near the Fiesta.

“It was the first time in my life I felt like everything I had was thrown away,” he recalled. “It was our deepest disappointment. … We ended up giving back a number of things to the bank. … But we got it all behind us. There were no hard feelings.”

Chip and Helen JohnsonJohnson persevered by turning to past investment clients, some of whom were longtime friends from his days at UNLV.

“I paid attention to the positive. I started knocking on doors of past investors and said, ‘If you only have 10 bucks, give me a dollar,’” he recalled. “Basically, we went out and bought up the market again when it was absolutely at the bottom.”

Now, the longtime real estate pro views that down time as an opportunity of a lifetime. “I was very fortunate in so many ways,” he said. “Even though real estate gave me a beating at one point, it ended up taking care of me again.”

Those relationships that helped him through crisis were nurtured by decades of UNLV alumni event involvement. 

He credits the late Fred Albrecht, a longtime administrator who created UNLV’s alumni relations program, as key to keeping him involved in the university. “He was always such a champion of the university … It’s one of the greatest decisions I’ve made, to be involved with that group,” Johnson said.

He is a member of UNLV Foundation Board of Trustees and chairs its real estate committee. He also serves as president of the Commercial Development and Management Corp., which oversees UNLV’s Harry Reid Research and Technology Park as well as all university real estate assets. 

He and his wife, Helen, commissioned the bronze “Hey Reb!” statue in front of the Richard Tam Alumni Center, and they were the drivers behind the Jerry Tarkanian statue outside the Thomas & Mack Center. 

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