Danny Nikitas’ office is cluttered.
Littered throughout his modern corner office lie decades of art he’s collected from garage sales to galleries and everywhere in between. The collection, which ranges from paintings to record album covers, includes a John Hancock Center-shaped radiator and a print of a rhinoceros with one horn as the former-Sears tower and the other as the Hancock.
Nikitas, a principal and managing director for Avison Young, has transformed his office into an ode to his love for Chicago buildings and real estate.
“Real estate is art,” Nikitas said, who is set to speak as a panelist at Real Estate Publishing Group’s 15th Annual Commercial Real Estate Forecast Conference on Wednesday,
The roots of his love for the industry, which evolved from a young age, trace back to his Greek ancestors.
It was while eating breakfast at the Northfield Diner, a Greek breakfast shop in Northfield, Illinois, when Nikitas was reminded that his ancestor’s village in Greece, called Lagadia, in Tripoli, was historically known for one thing — Building things.
He had traveled the world playing basketball, including professionally for three years in Greece, home of some of the world’s oldest buildings. He had worked for his father as a tour guide on a double-decker bus showing the Second City off as his own prized gem. And now, Nikitas’s ancestry ties directly in with his career path.
After more than 20 years working in the Chicago real estate market, his love for the industry comes from a simple appreciation for the balance between beauty and functionality.
“It was another level of my love for buildings,” he said.
Growing up in Oak Park, or “Frank Lloyd Wright land” as he called it, Nikitas has been submersed in building design and real estate his whole life. But he never knew that he would end up doing it for a living.
His one focus for most of his life was basketball. A star at Deerfield High School, Nikitas went on to play two years at Lake Forest College, eventually transferring to St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where as a two-time captain he recorded 371 assists in two seasons with the Purple Knights, the 10th most in program history.
But in Greece, where Nikitas learned to speak the native language, he became “something of a local hero,” according to a 1983 Chicago Tribune article. Nikitas was featured in the piece, which described scenes where fans would honk horns and call out his name in the street.
At Avison Young, Nikitas simply described his goal as to improve the performance of the entire team, which is said to be growing in Chicago. He said the firm’s successes are largely dependent on the work culture the company spreads throughout its 78 locations across the globe.
“Avison Young to me just feels like a family business,” he said.
Prior to joining the largest independently owned, commercial real estate firm in Canada, Nikitas spent nearly eight years at MB Real Estate in Chicago, most recently as an executive vice president. MB Real Estate was a place he never even imagined him leaving because it was such a small operation that he called “a wonderful place to work.”
Now, at the helm of Avison Young’s Chicago office, Nikitas views his job the same way as coaching, which tended to be “real lame” when he played in Greece, per the Tribune article.
“I’m really the coach of the office,” he said. “It’s a really great evolution to having played, being a player coach at MB and now a coach here.”
Nikitas credits the start of his career in Chicago real estate to his growing up in the Greek community. Tony Loukas, a principal at Loukas Development, recognized Nikitas’ love of the city and for buildings, and quickly brought him under his wing introducing him to the real estate world with his first job while he worked to get his license.
Eventually, Nikitas met Dean Lampros, a part owner at Tishman Midwest and a fellow Greek community member, through Loukas and went on to work for Lampros at Tishman. Lampros played a “huge” role in Nikitas’ development, he said. Nikitas said Lampros brought him onto a deal to lease 500 West Madison, now Ogilvie Transportation Center, or “truly the big leagues,” as Nikitas put it. Nikitas said Lampros coached him through the entire process.
“There was a real Greek influence in my career,” he said.
Today, Nikitas has worked on deals, securing more than 500 lease transactions sized at more than 4.5 million square feet for buildings and clients like the Willis Tower, AIG and General Electric.
It’s his roots working back as a tour guide that makes Nikitas so passionate about Chicago though.
Nikitas simply calls it “a fundamental love for buildings.”