Residents of Greater Phoenix will likely remember Mark Sklar as a real estate developer who helped shape the city’s growth, or as a philanthropist who gave generously of his time and money to Jewish and secular causes.
But those lucky enough to have known him well, will remember him as a great but humble man who loved his family, made friends everywhere and lived life to its fullest measure — a man who embodied both wisdom and exuberance in equal parts.
Sklar died at home in Phoenix on Nov. 11.
He was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1948, and grew up in Milwaukee. He met his future wife, JoAnn (Cookie), at Camp Ojibwa, where both children were part of a theatrical production. Their families lived close and the two grew up in similar circles. Sklar returned to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin and when Cookie transferred there after her sophomore year, it didn’t take long for them to fall in love.
(Sklar also fell in love with Badger basketball. He was a sports fan generally, but college basketball was his favorite, and he always had seats to the Final Four. And if Wisconsin was playing, “it was total chaos and excitement,” said Michael Sklar, his son. “He lived for his Badgers.”)
Sklar and Cookie married in 1969, moved to Arizona and had two children, Michael and Debbie. Sklar, who spent his life globetrotting, started a travel agency in Phoenix.
When Sklar sold his agency after roughly five years, he told people he was retired. But that didn’t last long. The first day into Sklar’s “retirement,” he settled into his chair and asked Cookie, “What’s for lunch?” She told him it was time “to go get a job,” Michael said.
Soon after, Sklar got into real estate.
In 1984, Sklar and two partners founded DMB Associates. In the 1990s, DMB developed DC Ranch in Scottsdale, which became a model for developers across the nation, and built a reputation for transforming Metro Phoenix and creating more livable spaces.
The company also became known for its integrity, taking the long view in terms of building a community rather than turning a short-term profit.
Verrado, DMB’s second big community in Buckeye, exemplified this instinct. The development saw very successful sales early on, but then the 2008 real estate market crashed. While other home builders were returning lots to lenders, DMB bought unsold Verrado lots from the banks to keep the community as planned rather than allow others to build small houses cheaply to snag a quick sale.
The company even subsidized Verrado’s Bashas’ grocery store and kept it open during a difficult economic time.
“DMB is in it for the long haul,” Gadi Kaufman, an analyst with Washington, D.C.-based Robert Charles Lessor & Co., told The Arizona Republic in 2012. “Look at the other big builders in Phoenix who bought parcels and had grand plans but handed them back when the market fell.”
According to Kaufman, if not for “DMB’s level of commitment,” the crash would have been worse.
DMB hasn’t been about one specific project, Sklar told the Republic in 2018.
“It’s about three people who became friends and formed a business that has purpose beyond making money,” he said.
Drew Brown, one of DMB’s three co-founders, said that while Sklar had a deep love of architecture, he was always more focused on relationship building than the nuts and bolts of development.
“Mark was important to all of our partners because he was 100% trustworthy,” Brown said. “He was deeply involved in the personal aspects of the business and the partnerships.”
Brown often found himself turning to his co-founder for advice.
“He was full of great advice about doing the right thing at all times,” Brown said. “I always turned to Mark to ask how to make the best, fairest and most equitable decision.”
Brown was not alone in seeking out Sklar’s counsel and mentorship.
Michael said his father had a quiet way of teaching him about the world and how to navigate it. Simply by reading books together, for example, Sklar could impart valuable lessons.
Michael said his dad encouraged him to read “The Snow Leopard,” a 1978 book by Peter Matthiessen, after graduating from college. It is a first-person account of the search for the seldom-seen snow leopard in Nepal. The long and arduous pursuit results only in uncovering the leopard’s tracks.
Sklar told him what some might see as failure was actually a success because it became about the journey rather than the destination.
“I hated it,” Michael said. “At that time, I wanted a destination — a job and to get on with it — but he embraced the journey.”
It wasn’t until after Michael married and had his own children that he understood his dad’s lesson, but he didn’t rub it in his son’s face.
“My dad didn’t take pride in being right,” Michael said. “He would say, ‘You just wait. The journey never ends. There will always be a new one.’”
Jonathan Hoffer, managing partner of SMS Financial, LLC and Jewish community stalwart, saw Sklar as his most valuable mentor in business, philanthropy and life.
He was a teenager when he got to know Sklar and the two bonded quickly over sports. Hoffer’s father didn’t like sports and neither did Michael, so Sklar took Hoffer, Cookie’s young cousin, to games. Their relationship developed from there and when Hoffer entered the commercial real estate business, he gleaned invaluable lessons just from watching how Sklar did things.
The same was true for being a philanthropist.
“He taught me that when you pick a cause, you have to give both your time and money, especially when you’re asking others to do the same thing,” Hoffer said.
“He was also a phenomenal listener; people felt like they could talk to him,” Hoffer added. “He always put the best interest of the community first.”
Richard Kasper, CJP’s CEO, agreed.
Sklar was a key mentor, someone he could call for advice even though Sklar never gave him a clear-cut answer. Still, “by the end of our conversation, my problem was solved,” Kasper said.
Kasper even started calling Sklar “Batman” because “I could metaphorically put the bat signal in the sky and Mark would come.”
Sklar served on numerous boards in the Jewish community and his was the quiet but influential voice others listened to. Kasper said that if Sklar got behind an initiative, others would follow suit. If he opposed an idea, however, no one else would support it.
And it was all done with a sense of humility.
“There was no ego in him,” Kasper said. “Mark was always generous with his time and his spirit.”
In his eulogy, Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider called Sklar one of those “rare individuals, who by some quality within themselves succeed in creating an atmosphere, an aura about them, a climate which is the extension of their personality.”
Sklar’s infectious joie de vivre and love of fun, even at work where he was famous for wearing slippers for comfort, will be missed.
“Mark just loved life and got so much out of it,” Hoffer said. “He could deliver a great speech, gamble and drink with you, mentor you, talk history with you or plan trips with his photographic memory. He was just so engaging and interesting and kind and knowledgeable.”
Michael remembers his dad as “the fun parent. He was pretty much a goofball and we did a lot of dancing around the house.”
Sklar and Cookie were peripatetic travelers and took their kids everywhere, hitting it off with people and making friends easily.
“We met a brother and sister who worked on a cruise ship when I was 15. Five years later, my dad was still in touch with them,” Michael said. Sklar took his family to visit the pair in their small Slovakian town, toured the area and met their parents, neither of whom spoke English.
“That was just normal for my dad,” he said.
Hoffer and his wife Rachel became close friends with Sklar and Cookie, often taking trips together. From such an intimate vantage point, Hoffer could see what a genuinely kind person Sklar was.
He described Sklar as unassuming despite his material success, something he didn’t brag about. “He didn’t wear fancy clothes or seek a high profile,” Hoffer said. He simply treated everyone with respect and dignity, whether he was talking to a billionaire donor or the busboy at a restaurant.
Brown and Hoffer said if they needed restaurant recommendations in Rome or Paris, they would ask Sklar, who knew the best places everywhere. But Michael said that his dad was also just as happy to eat Chinese takeout at home with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s.
What mattered were the people he was with.
Until Cookie died at the end of 2017, Sklar was her sole caregiver. A little more than three months later, Sklar had a stroke. During that brief window in early 2018, he started the process of retiring from DMB and moved into Michael’s office.
“We spent three months together before his stroke and we had really deep conversations, reevaluating and talking about everything. I got more of him directly,” Michael said.
Michael said his dad radiated charisma, such that everyone seemed to want to know him — and he wanted to connect and be with people, too.
“He was a lot of things to a lot of people, but he’s my dad first. He was the world’s greatest dad,” Michael said. JN
The family has requested that donations in Mark Sklar’s memory be directed to either the Center for Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Phoenix or the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
Jewish News is published by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, a component of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Phoenix.