James Oraha: “Be prepared to make mistakes”

Be prepared to make mistakes, take criticism, and even lose money, but only the strong will survive and succeed. You need to be able to adapt, evolve, and always think outside the box. As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Oraha. After […]

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Be prepared to make mistakes, take criticism, and even lose money, but only the strong will survive and succeed. You need to be able to adapt, evolve, and always think outside the box.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Oraha.

After years of building driving retail ventures from concept to opening, James decided to start a General Contracting firm that would specialize in medical, office, retail and restaurant ventures. Level Builders delivers exceptional value to its clients and project partners through turnkey services including project administration, zone requirements, field supervision, site safety, pre-acquisition, cost estimation, and design-build. Providing clients with expertise through every step of the construction process from design to completion, Level Builders’ portfolio includes top franchises like Starbucks, Tide Cleaners, T-Mobile, and Chipotle as well as local Chicagoland establishments in the retail, restaurants, and wellness industries. Fifteen years later, Level Builders is Chicago’s premier retail builder and has doubled its volume each year for the last three years. An impressive feat in and of itself, but one that is made even more gratifying when considering that over the last five years, retail has been facing many challenging conditions since the 2009 bubble burst. James alongside with his brother George Oraha, and longtime business partner Myles Cunningham, started a real estate company called “THE LEVEL GROUP” and has been quietly purchasing value-add multi-unit apartment buildings for the past 3 years.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When starting any of the businesses I built in the past, I didn’t have much money, so my brother George Oraha and I physically built out our spaces ourselves and hired only tradesmen when we needed them. Doing this gave us the ability to understand construction and value the cost of engineers. Myles Cunningham, my leasing broker at the time, had a client that needed a general contractor to build out their space. Myles asked us if we would be interested in building someone else’s space, and having an entrepreneur attitude; you take every opportunity that knocks and figure out how to make money. Seventeen years later, Level Builders is Chicago’s medium commercial construction company. Today, we only build business for people. We are using our construction knowledge to buy distressed multi-unit apartment buildings, updating them, and renting each unit with an increase of 30% to 45% from the time we bought it. Our construction company is Level Builders, and our real estate company is called The Level Group.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

Make sure you are well-capitalized. Having enough capital is extremely important and often overlooked in an entrepreneur’s journey. New entrepreneurs need to be more realistic and not too optimistic. You can’t predict what happens. Meaningful life and cultural events like the real estate bubble bust, Covid-19 pandemic, and the protests can all happen without any notice. Being able to adapt and pivot is a must in these times.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Hard work, will, learning from failing, and surrounding yourself with smarter, more successful people.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You can’t do everything alone! If you try to start a new business, make sure you have the right people in place with the right skills so you can delegate tasks.
  2. Don’t try to open any business if you are not well-capitalized. Have enough money in reserve, and don’t open any business if you can’t support your business and your living for six months.
  3. Marketing — When starting a business, make sure you have a large budget for marketing. With today’s social media platforms, you can reach out to the exact clientele you are trying to target.
  4. Don’t expect a set schedule. Be prepared to put in 7 days a week, 10 hours a day. Also, be ready to sleep 3 hours a day, because when you do get home after a 10-hour day, you will be thinking about work for another 10 hours until you fall asleep.
  5. Be prepared to make mistakes, take criticism, and even lose money, but only the strong will survive and succeed. You need to be able to adapt, evolve, and always think outside the box.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves if they have the will to succeed. Make sure you’re willing to give it 110%, ready to sleep 20 hours a week, and make sure you’re willing to lose it all and walk away saying to yourself, “Next time I will do it this way,” and not make the same mistakes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are multiple people that I owe most of my success to. I would say all the right people that wanted me to succeed, and those who wanted me to fail are responsible for my success. I tried to make the people cheering for me proud of what I became, and prove to the ones that wanted me to fail that I could make it.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Raising my family, the best way I can. I want to give the world good kids that can leave this place better than when they were born. As far as my professional goal, I like where I’m at, but I’d like to see a 20% increase in the amount of property I own each year for the next ten years.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

My family and children Isaac, Mason, & Emma James Oraha

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

We need to start teaching children about money and business at a young age. I don’t think our schools do a good job teaching our kids about money, spending, and feeling like entrepreneurs. I believe everything, from our country to our families, should be treated like a business. If you succeed in business, you can succeed in being a father, husband, son, friend.

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