When we go through the applications for our Best Bosses of the Year awards, there are a few qualities we keep front-and-center as we make our selections.
Inspirational. Knowledgeable. Approachable. Personable.
Trustworthy. The list goes on, as you can imagine.
It is the rare individual that can check all the boxes, but
occasionally we will find that person. This year, John Combs,
founder and principal of RiverRock Real Estate Group is that
individual. His impressive background was the least of the factors that went into our decision to give him this title—
although his career, which includes roles as COO of Insignia/
ESG, for the Americas and Asia, and as president
of US Property Services for the company, are
Even one of his old cohorts from back then sung
his praises. “In all the years I worked with John, he’s
always thought out of the box,” says Stephen B.
Siegel, chairman of global brokerage for CBRE,
which bought Insignia/ESG. “His instinct about
business changes is spot on, and he has a knack for
creative problem solving. He helps to lead people to
the right answers, rather than shutting them down or ignoring
In fact, Combs received so many positive accolades from his
staff and colleagues in the industry that some of us on the selec-
tion team were ready to go work for him ourselves.
Chip Julin, a broker associate with Keller Williams
Commercial, has known Combs since before RiverRock was
formed. “He’s who I point to when I want to personify an
admired respected leader in the CRE industry.”
Cal Meeder, a project management RVP in Northern
California says Combs was the main reason he joined RiverRock
and has remained with the company. “He’s effective in relating
to the multitude of unique individuals in the organization.”
When he established RiverRock, Combs had a specific goal
in mind. According to the CEO, one of the company’s key per-
formance indicators would be to win a ‘Best Place to Work’
accolate, “because happy people give better service.” Sure
enough, RiverRock has been named a “Best Place to Work in
Orange County” for each year the company has entered over
the past eight consecutive years.
There are a number of reasons why RiverRock has achieved
its goal more than eight times. Some of it is in the little gestures
from Combs himself. He does the welcome calls to the new
employees and has set a policy in which employees receive
cards, a paid day off and a $75 gift card for their birthdays each
year. He also makes sure that he reaches out to communicate
personally, sending a hand-written birthday card to each of his
120 employees. He reaches out to employees for other reasons
as well, says Michelle Weber, regional VP of the RiverRock Real
Estate Group in Arizona. “When my mother passed away three
years ago, he called to offer his heartfelt condolences,” she
shares. A call or email on work anniversaries is also standard.
The company has established strong programs to benefit its
employees, such as Rock University, the company’s training and
development arm, and the RiverRock Wellness Program, where
wmployees are offered financial incentives to take annual exams.
That benefit saved one employee’s life who ordi-
narily felt “too healthy” to bother with an exam.
Incentivized to do so, she received an early diag-
nosis for an aggressive form of cancer.
This incident motivated Combs to increase the
incentives; today employees can earn up to
$2,700 in health insurance premium discounts
every year by participating in various activities.
The participation rate has grown from 73% at the
wellness program’s launch in 2015 to 93% last
year. In short, one assistant property manager says, Combs “has
created a company and a workplace environment that far exceeds
any place I’ve worked. The work-home balance is constantly rein-
forced with summer hours and generous vacations policies.”
Combs himself maintains his own revolving list of mentors.
Over the years he’s found that mentorships have helped him
open new markets and take on new business lines, not to men-
tion drawing amazing talent to the firm.
Combs has built a company “that is the envy of the industry,”
says Julien Bieckert, a RiverRock project coordinator. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people and kept his troops motivated. A great leader of men and women, he’s created a company culture that promotes kindness, empathy and family,
without compromising on the quality of work. John treats
everyone with the upmost respect and has all the qualities one
looks for in a leader.”
The Leadership Issue | Cover Story
2018’S BEST BOSS IN
COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE