Bernard I. Obletz
1918 - 2010
Founder, friend and mentor
Bernard I. Obletz passed away April 1, 2010, at the age of 92. A lifelong resident of Western New York, Bernie graduated from Bennett High School. Bernie received his BBA from the University of Buffalo in 1939. He went on to serve in World War II as a U.S. Navy Ensign in the Pacific and retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant, JG in 1945. Returning from the war, Bernie earned an MBA from Harvard University and received his JD from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1949.
Bernie returned to Harvard for a short time for pre-doctoral studies in Economics, but Buffalo continued to pull him back. Back in Buffalo, he taught urban studies and business organization courses at UB for over two decades. Bernie loved the classroom and was able to bring his students a wonderful mix of teaching based on his love of reading and academics, combined with the real world experience of his successful business endeavors. As part of his academic endeavors, he formed Economica Books, publishers of economics, political and business texts that were sold to colleges and universities around the world.
While actively pursuing his academic degrees and teaching duties, Bernie helped run the family retail drug store business with his father Sam. At the peak of their business operations, the Obletz family owned one of the largest independent pharmacy chains in Upstate New York. In 1953, Sam and his wife, Rose, retired to Florida leaving Bernie, at age 35, in charge of the family business.
In 1958, Bernie founded First Amherst Development Group and immediately engaged his entrepreneurial skills to leverage key retail drug store locations into larger shopping centers, office buildings and business parks throughout the suburbs of Buffalo. Bernie eventually sold the retail drug business to focus exclusively on real estate development activities. During the next several decades, Bernie, together with his son Stephen, built First Amherst into one of the region’s most respected real estate development firms catering to Buffalo’s core of strong small businesses as well as local and national retailers.
In the 1990s, Bernie expanded the business into Ontario, Canada, and Portland, Oregon. Bernie invested in several award-winning urban redevelopment projects in Portland, with his youngest son Douglas, and also invested in residential developments in Ontario with his son Stephen. Eventually, his grandson, Benjamin, would join First Amherst to successfully guide and carry the family business forward under third-generation management.
Bernie’s reputation as a pioneer was reinforced in the late 1990s when, while in his 80s, he decided to invest in the Cobblestone District of downtown Buffalo, an area largely abandoned and ignored by everyone else. The century old dry storage food warehouses known as Elk Terminal were Bernie’s target and he turned the vacated two-story concrete buildings into the first successful urban loft-style apartments in Buffalo. While most thought it would never work, they admired Bernie’s risk-taking ability nonetheless. Bernie proved the naysayers wrong and paved the way for an upscale residential rebirth within downtown Buffalo, as numerous other residential reuse and redevelopment projects followed in his footsteps.
The Granite Works, located on the 800 block of Main Street in Buffalo, was Bernie’s most recent success. Together with Benjamin, they completed the project in 2005. Many others had attempted the redevelopment of this block without success, as the 19th century, historically significant buildings on the block slowly deteriorated over a 20+-year period. The City of Buffalo conducted a lengthy national Request for Proposal (RFP) process and it was Bernie’s bold vision for this block that won over politicians and preservationists alike. The Granite Works (as it is known today) is an award-winning, highly successful retail and upscale residential development within the downtown core of Buffalo. The Granite Works is revered as the “gold standard” for historic redevelopment throughout the region.
While “retirement” was never, ever in Bernie’s vocabulary, during his last few years he reduced his direct involvement in the day-to-day operations of First Amherst. Still, he continued to serve as First Amherst’s chairman and resident “visionary.” Bernie was considered by many to be a risk-taking pioneer, true entrepreneur and brilliant businessman. He was often referred to as the ultimate “idea man.”
First Amherst celebrated its 50th year as a third-generation, family-owned business in 2008. It has grown from a single building owner into a full-service commercial real estate firm serving a diverse client base with an extensive portfolio of properties located throughout the greater Buffalo region, Ontario and Portland. First Amherst’s award-winning reputation and long record of success can be attributed to Bernie’s unique visionary ability, pioneering efforts and true entrepreneurial spirit, all of which continue to drive the business philosophy of First Amherst.
Bernie will always be remembered as a loving brother, father, grandfather, friend, teacher, mentor and successful businessman. But most of all, he will be remembered for living the motto from a plaque he brought home from the Navy, which read: “Never Give Up the Ship!”