Leigh Burch (HCB, ’79, ’81) jumps into things. From real estate and later the revitalization of downtown Knoxville, the East Tennessee native says much of his success has centered around moving forward with passion. “I always felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do,” Burch says.
LAUNCHING A CAREER
After attending the Haslam College of Business and falling in love with economics during his freshman year, he pursued a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the discipline. He and his can-do attitude came up against a major challenge as he finished his time at the business school in the midst of a recession. He moved to Atlanta to take a job as a buyer at a department store. “I worked a second job on the weekends,” he says. “That rough start to my career made me very hungry and humble.”
His supervisor at the store had previously worked for IBM. “He took me under his wing and bought me one of the very first personal computers,” Burch recalls. “I knew it would be an incredible tool to further my career.”
After two years of an intense work schedule, Burch saw an announcement about a real estate development project in downtown Atlanta by the Portman Companies. “They were the largest and most reputable development company in Atlanta,” he says. “When I called them and said I had an economics degree and knew how to use a PC, they asked me to come in.”
The Portman Companies offered Burch a job that set him on a course for success. While he didn’t have a background in real estate, he applied his economics training and affinity for computers to become the “deal guy,” running numbers and sitting at the table with highprofile clients. “I mastered the computer and took part in negotiations for a lot of really exciting projects all over the world, from Shanghai to New York,” he says. “My real estate career was launched.”
DOWNTOWN KNOXVILLE’S REBIRTH
In 1996, Burch started Terminus Real Estate, which quickly became the most active commercial real estate firm in downtown Atlanta.
With family still in East Tennessee, Burch traveled back to Knoxville regularly. On a visit in 1998, he took a walk downtown and saw potential. “Downtown Knoxville was loaded with really cool, empty historic buildings, and virtually all of them were for sale,” he says. “It was ripe for redevelopment.”
Burch decided to purchase the Sterchi Building, constructed in 1925, and convert it into 100 loft-style units. The Sterchi Lofts project proved not only successful, but continues to serve as a blueprint in urban revitalization and residential development. It sparked a new era in rapid growth for downtown Knoxville. Burch himself says he underestimated just how fast it would catch on. Since then, his company has worked on a number of other downtown projects, including the Walnut Building and Lerner Lofts.
Buzz Goss, president of Marble Alley Development, has worked with Burch for more than 20 years on a variety of such projects. “Leigh’s success comes from hard work and self-motivation,” Goss says. “He’s driven to succeed without taking from others.”
“Leigh draws from extensive real estate knowledge,” says Alvin Nance, executive director at Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation. “He enjoys challenges and finds innovative ways to meet market demand.”
Burch, who has taught economics courses at several universities over the years, recently created a faculty endowment in Haslam’s Department of Economics. “My education at Haslam left me with all the confidence that I needed to sit at the table with some of the smartest people in the business world,” he says. “I hope my gift will spark other alumni to realize how many fantastic opportunities our education has given us.”