The savings and loan crisis seems to be working out famously for asset manager Joe Robert.

The 39-year-old enterpreneur is coasting on the sluggish economy, eking profit out of failed banks and thrifts, where others could not.

In its first decade, J.E. Robert Co. has risen to the pinnacle of the real estate workout business and is now the largest handler of troubled portfolios held by the Resolution Turst Corp. The companyt manages $3 billion of assets for the government agency, and oversees or consults on another $8 billion worth, which are in varying states of profitability.

Admired by Competitor

"Joe has done a first-class job," said John Koskinen, president and chief executive officer of competitor Victor Palmieri Co. "In a very short time, he's becme one of the two or three most visible players in the workout business."

The respect is mutual.

Palmieri tops Mr. Robert's "most respected competition" list and was the company he hoped to emulate when he was just 21. Others on the list are NCNB Corp., Los Angeles-based Lowe Associates, and Banc One Corp. Fleet/Norstar Financial Group Inc., a new face on the block, has also recently been proving it's in the game to stay, Mr. Robert said.

While some would say dealing in Texas real estate and other ailing assets is risky, Mr. Robert describes himself as cautious.

Development for Gamblers

"If I were a risk-taker or a gambler, I would've been a developer," he said from his plush quarters in the old Town district of alexandria, Va. The office, lined in muted blues, vibrates with the hush of success.

In fact, Mr. Robert made a good bit of money at property development in the early 1980s. But he got out of the business in 1987, sensing that profits were on the wane. When his friends continued to make money, he wondered whether he was "too chicken or too stupid" to hang in there.

In retrospect, his intuition proved correct. Today, his office shows proff of his success. Full-length windows overlook the Potomac, affording a full view of the Washington Monument and of unnaturally silent jets leaving National Airport.

a red boxing glove and an old photo of Jack Dempsey hang where a master's degree in business administration might be placed in another office.

Unfinished College degree

"My resume wouldn't make it through the door of this place now," said Mr. Robert. He worked his way through five years of night school only to leave unfinished the last few credits needed for a degree.

Mr. Robert won't reveal his net worth, but he asserted that his company is "profitable and very solvent." When compared to competitors, he said, "I'd be surprised if we're not at least as profitable as they."

If Mr. Robert's instincts are right, the whopping $2.3 billion RTC contract he won in Houston will yield $32 million in fees over three years. A Houston Realtors report in August showed median housing prices at their highest level since 1985, backing Mr. Robert's bet that the Texas market had bottomed out and is coming back.

The trick will be to unload the Houston portfolio's raw land and commercial property, assets that are still much softer than single-family homes or apartment buildings.

Lowballing Pooh-Poohed

Nonplussed when asked whether he had lowballed to get the Houston assignment, Mr. Robert smiled and said, "We are a noncharitable organization. We don't buy business for strategic or other reasons."

Even after the agency dissolves in 1996, workout business will be available, Mr. Robert said.

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