[caption id="attachment_28426" align="alignleft" width="400"] Robert Wittig and his brother and business partner, Fred, survey construction at the site of the former Lone Star restaurant. The project will include a Chipotle, Panda Express, and an AT&T store.[/caption]
By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
When Robert Wittig talks about Diamond State Management's (DSM) new development project on U.S. 13 in New Castle, he is understandably excited. The old Lone Star Steakhouse is gone, replaced by a shopping center that will include the existing Wawa, a new Chipotle, Panda Express and an AT&T store.
"It was a piece of ground that was underdeveloped and vacant," he said. "It was employing no one. Now, there will be 50 full-time employees there and plenty of part-timers."
It's the latest example of DSM's ability to create retail opportunities from parcels that were dormant or poorly utilized, and it shows how well Wittig and his team have built their business.
"What gets me out of bed in the morning is the creativity and challenge of seeing something you envisioned come to fruition," Wittig said. "My brother and I imagine things and then go out and make them happen."
Fred and Robert Wittig launched Diamond State Management in 1988 and have since expanded it to include brokerage and construction companies. The organization's portfolio of properties and relationships with companies like Wawa, Walgreens and WSFS Bank assures that it will always have anchors at its sites.
DSM is thriving, and from a business standpoint, that is great news for Wittig. The man is a success, by just about any definition of the word. But his true triumph has nothing to do with a single brick or an ounce of concrete. Wittig's most significant calling, and the thing that has made him a hero to scores of people, is providing support to recovering alcoholics and substance abusers.
Wittig has been sober for 27 years and during that time has made it a priority to help others stay that way. After overcoming the behaviors that had torpedoed his life - along with a huge assist from his wife Connie - Wittig felt that the best way to pay back those who had helped him was to be a resource for others. One of them is Tripp Way, Wittig's business partner who runs Diamond State Management Commercial, a real estate brokerage. Way attributes any success he has had during the past seven-plus years to Wittig. And it all started with a call to Wittig one morning with Way at the bottom and seemingly no path to sobriety.
"Robert turned my life around," Way said. "I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and asked myself, "˜What are you doing with your life? You need to do something.' I picked up the phone and called Robert, and I never had another drink."
Wittig doesn't brag about his work - either with DSM or for those he helps maintain their sobriety. That's not his way, and it's not The Way, either. Wittig understands the one-day-at-a-time mantra and lives it.
For him, it's a key to his success in all facets of his life. Sticking with the fundamentals has allowed him
to thrive as a businessman and a human being.
That's why, when the recession hit last decade, DSM was able to continue developing properties. Its strong business model and commitment to ethical practices convinced banks to keep partnering with it, even when money was tight, and few people were getting loans. And thanks to Wittig's commitment to living sober every day, he can be an effective steward for others. He doesn't take shortcuts, and the results prove that.
"The knowledge and experience with addiction and recovery and believing in the process has helped us watch promises come to fruition," he said. "People who were unemployable and darn near homeless are now employable and accountable. When that happens, you want to keep sharing the success with others. "Somebody helped me. I'm very fortunate for that."
When Wittig is asked about the concept of building brick-and-mortar shops in an age where more and more people are buying things online, he has a quite reasonable response: "You can't get a Wawa hoagie on the Internet."
That is true, and it's why DSM isn't in the big-box retail business. Amazon and its drones are doing a good job putting those on life support. But people need coffee in the morning, prescriptions at all hours and someone to sit down with and discuss a loan or college savings account. And no matter how popular Uber Eats gets, it's hard to replace the experience of joining friends to enjoy a meal. That's why he focuses on stocking his properties with businesses that provide convenience and services that can't be easily replicated on a computer.
The Wittigs started DSM after working with their father, who launched Diamond State Realty in 1969. He owned and operated that until his retirement in the late '90s, but his sons broke off before that to go their own way. A defining characteristic of the business is that it chooses its spots well. When Wittig is asked about the number of developments with which he has been associated or the combined value of his portfolio, he demurs. He, DSM and its subsidiaries are successful, to be sure, but the bottom line isn't as important to him as the quality of the work, they said.
"The numbers have never been a driving focus to me," he said. "It's always about good, solid projects with good partners, good real estate and putting people to work. We like to create jobs."
One of Wittig's jobs now is completing his degree at the University of Delaware, where he started more than 30 years ago. His life choices sidelined his education, and now he finds himself chasing a degree in agriculture business. "When I applied to UD, the easiest path of acceptance was the School of Agriculture," he said - and getting "all A's." He's 23 credits short of a degree, and his midlife college stint gives him something in common with his and Connie's two sons, Alex and Robert, who are also at UD.
Some might think his path of study doesn't make sense, but Wittig finds some serendipity. "I always wanted to be in real estate," he said. "It's land, so it does make sense."
Wittig's work with others rings even more loudly. Jerry DiEleuterio, a retired Wilmington police officer who is now a field sales rep for Sunbelt Rentals, met Wittig back in the late '80s, when Wittig was a bartender.
DiEleuterio is more than nine years sober, but it was a hard road to the clean life, as his multiple treatment center stints indicate. A constant throughout his struggle and subsequent success has been Wittig, who has been available constantly.
At one point, when DiEleuterio was particularly low and trying to enter a facility, Wittig dispatched eight of his employees to DiEleuterio's apartment to pack it up. He then stored his friend's belongings for four years while DiEleuterio fought for his life. Now in his tenth year of sobriety, DiEleuterio calls Wittig his "guardian angel" and praises him for "wearing his recovery on his sleeve" for others to see, emulate and draw strength from.
"I tear up as I tell you this," DiEleuterio said. "The man has had that much of an impact on me."