Juan Estrada found his niche through process of elimination. The attorney came to understand what he wanted out of a career by ruling out what he didn’t want.
While studying at George Washington University Law School, Estrada interned with the US Department of Justice and in the chambers of a federal judge. He was impressed with the lawyers he worked with, but ultimately decided that adversarial litigation work wasn’t for him. After graduating with honors, he joined Covington & Burling, where he got his first exposure to commercial real estate.
“I learned at Covington that transactional real estate was what I wanted to do,” he says. “You advocate for your client, but both sides are working toward the same goal—get the deal done. And real estate is tangible—you can see what you’re working on. That was a big difference for me as compared to other practice areas.”
As he developed a love for real estate, Estrada also knew that he didn’t want to stay with a big firm for his entire career. After five years of learning the ropes, he found an opportunity with local real estate developer Van Metre. “I wanted to get more directly involved in matters and closer to the business.” Estrada says. “I thought of it as moving away from a more academic practice and getting my hands in the dirt.”
As he describes it, everything had fallen into place and Estrada had found a home.
“When I first started at Van Metre, I visited a number of our project sites and saw in action the businesses and projects that I would be working on. That made a big impact on me. It’s pretty amazing to walk a site and see raw land turned into a community of homes, amenities, schools. It’s something you can touch and feel. In my practice here, I get to learn more about the business considerations for transactions,” he says. “I’m not just writing contracts or involved for a matter at one stage. I understand the why and am more invested in the work because of it.”
After eight years with Van Metre, Estrada was promoted to General Counsel in 2014. Estrada’s role is divided between the area of risk management and compliance and a second area focusing on transactions. Risk management and compliance includes litigation management, insurance, educating the business departments about legal requirements and trends, and implementing standard processes and forms. In terms of transactions, Estrada says the in-house legal team handles the bulk of the work and is assisted by exceptional outside counsel who are specialists that have served the company for many years. Estrada says that this approach is great for the company because the business and legal teams are both involved early on in any transaction, can better manage risk, and shape outcomes.
Van Metre’s bread and butter is planned communities in the DC area, but the company has also sought growth by diversifying into investment properties. Since 2008, the company has made a big push to grow its apartment holdings, especially in DC. Most recently, the company expanded into third-party property management.
“We’ve owned our own investment properties for sixty years and have done really well at managing them, so it was a natural step to bring that experience to managing for other owners,” Estrada says. “The investment properties group came out of the gate sprinting, and we are now managing a commercial portfolio for a third party that is equal in size to our own, and continue to add apartment communities in the DC area.”
Estrada says Van Metre has been able to stay ahead of the pack in real estate in part because of its size and ownership.
“We’re big enough to be a public company, and we benefit from the resources that come with that size,” he says. “But we’re a private, family-owned company, which means we can be nimble and move quickly. Our owners are always focused on long-term value and long-term growth. A public company might be thinking about the next quarter or two. We are way past that, and our decisions aren’t made based on a short-term horizon.”
As a family-owned company with deep roots in Northern Virginia, Van Metre has a history of philanthropy and supporting employees’ volunteer efforts. “This comes from the top,” Estrada says of the charitable initiatives. “The Van Metre owners have always valued and placed a high importance on philanthropy and encouraging employees to get involved.”
“It’s pretty amazing to walk a site and see raw land turned into a community of homes, amenities, schools. It’s something you can touch and feel.”
The company provides each employee with paid volunteer days every year that can be used for the employee’s volunteer activity of choice. Estrada has been able to donate his time to the charities that Van Metre has supported for years: Children’s Hospital, HomeAid Northern Virginia, and Women Giving Back. The company also supports CentroNia!, a charity that Estrada introduced. The nonprofit focuses on bilingual early childhood education and services. Estrada recently joined the organization’s board of directors.
As Van Metre continues to grow—more than 600 employees now—Estrada has been tasked with helping to develop a mentorship program that will increase a sense of community and partnership in the company. After an initial test group, the goal is for every employee in the company to have a designated mentor, who they will meet with once a quarter. “The company takes company culture and finding a healthy work/life balance very seriously,” Estrada says. “Our leaders believe in the complete individual, and that is evident in their support of the mentor program.”
Estrada’s involvement with the mentor program is just one example of how the legal department is working to provide value beyond legal services. The company recognized that the legal department was the only group that collaborated with every other department. “They said, ‘You can be one of the key idea centers for the company,’” Estrada explains.
Leading the Van Metre legal team and working to provide value to the business groups has Estrada’s hands in the dirt and eyes on Van Metre’s future.
Van Metre Portfolio
Planned communities: Van Metre acquires land to plan and build communities. Van Metre communities include Broadlands, Stone Ridge, and Lansdowne in Virginia.
New homes: Van Metre Homes offers homebuilding services in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.
Apartments: Communities range from garden-style designs to mid-rise buildings in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and in Orlando, FL.
Commercial properties: Grocery-anchored neighborhood shopping centers, office buildings, mixed-use buildings, and flex-industrial buildings in Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia.
Athletic facilities: Van Metre has owned and operated Mount Vernon Athletic Club since 1972.
Golf courses: Van Metre-developed golf courses in Virginia include the Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club in Leesburg, VA, and a few other world-class courses.