“You can’t even make this stuff up!” declared Ed Kobel, as he recalls the story of his life. He was born the product of an affair, to a single mother from a large tenant-farming family in rural western Pennsylvania. From paperboy, to military spy, to real estate mogul, the pieces of God’s plan for Ed’s life were neatly knitted together. “God had all that laid out.” Ed said.
Ed Kobel’s mother, the daughter of German/Swiss immigrants, left the farm to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. While in college and working three jobs, she met Ed’s father, Ed Debartolo Sr., a handsome guy who swept her off her feet. Young and naïve, she held onto the promise that Ed’s father would get a divorce and they would be together as a family. When that dream never materialized, she resorted to alcohol, drugs and an abusive relationship to fill the void.
Ed felt it was up to him to take care of his mother and turned to the military to give him a head start. He took a bus to the Army recruitment office in downtown Pittsburgh and mistakenly followed a man in uniform thinking he would lead him there. “As it turned out, God had me follow a colonel who was involved in military intelligence,” Ed recalled.
After clarifying that he was in the wrong place, the colonel questioned Ed and discovered that he spoke a little German. The Army needed recruits who could speak multiple languages, so after undergoing a variety of tests, Ed was offered a position in the counter-intelligence division.
Preparing to Lead
“Spy School was a very intense and competitive program. It was also where I first heard about the Lord. I listened politely as a stranger shared the Gospel message with me. When asked if I’d like to pray to accept Christ, I declined. I didn’t think being a Christian was in sync with success as a military spy.” Undeterred, the gentleman amazed Ed by saying, “That’s okay. I’m going to pray that you can get through this program. Is that okay?” Ed replied, “Yes, please pray that I can do the 100 chin-ups!” He did and Ed graduated.
“I had a very cool undercover job as a student traveling in Eastern Europe during the cold war. When my time in the service was up, I had to decide whether to re-enlist.” Weighing his options, Ed decided to leave the Army, forgo an appointment to West Point and pursue an opportunity to team up with a former colonel in his real estate business while attending college at night. It didn’t take long for reality to set in.
“I was horrible at it. I was 21 years old and nobody wanted to buy a house from a kid. I only earned $600 in six months.” Knowing that he couldn’t support himself as a real estate salesman, he approached the colonel about pursuing other options. The colonel convinced him to stay in real estate, focusing instead on investments.
Ed used his military benefits and bought a 4-unit apartment building with no money down and sold it 90 days later for a profit of $37,000; a lot of money in 1979! He did that 81 more times and was hooked!
Finding God’s Purpose
As a promising real estate investor, Ed networked with successful businessmen who took him under their wings. “What they were really doing,” Ed reflected, “was pointing me toward a personal relationship with Christ.”
Because he wanted to gain knowledge of the real estate market, Ed accepted their invitations to Bible studies and Christian Business Men’s Connection lunches where they would have a speaker followed by a prayer of salvation. Ed went for six months and every time declined to pray that prayer telling everyone he was uncomfortable with that “evolution thing.”
One of the CBMC meetings featured a guest speaker who had been the lead scientist in the manned lunar missions. He spoke eloquently and in layman’s terms about evolution. Ed recalls, “I cried like a baby and I prayed to receive Christ that day.” His life had a new beginning.
Through his real estate company, Ed met his wife Becky. She ran the title company Ed had used to close those 81 deals. “Becky and I got married and I decided to go from slum lord to professional developer. Through the early 1980s, Becky and I developed $300 million worth of shopping centers and other large commercial projects.”
Tested through Trials
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 dramatically changed the real estate industry, and Ed and Becky found themselves upside down on $115 million worth of loans. Their accountants and lawyers advised them to file for bankruptcy and walk away from all the debt.
“That didn’t sound right to us,” Ed remembered. “We decided to think and pray about it.” They had no peace when considering bankruptcy, so they decided to trust God’s lead instead and not pursue that option. Then everything got much worse.
“Becky and I backed away from the anxiety and pressure of the problem and went to the Lord to ask for help. On an earthly sense, this was a BIG problem, but we got this exhilaration knowing we could call upon the God of the Universe, see the practical application of His Book and make it come alive in our life. The biggest part for us was listening to Him.”
It took five years and every ounce of his spirit to work through all of the challenges, but at the end of that journey, one where God had an incredible hand working in and through them, the Kobels paid back every penny!
Exhausted, but out of debt, Ed was ready to abandon the real estate business and settle down in another career. Feeling that he was at a crossroad in his life, he knew that he had to rely on God’s direction and cried out to Him asking, “What would You like me to do?”
The answer came the next day with a call from a friend who needed help financing a project. Ed was hesitant, but looked to God for direction. The Lord gave him a name and phone number. Ed called the person, got the project financed and ended up owning 40 percent of a shopping center.
Keeping the Faith
Business took off again, and within a year, they headed to Wall Street to secure public funding. After a week of making cold calls and sharing his business plan with the major banks, Ed came home with two term sheets—one from Lehman Brothers and one from Credit Suisse—totaling $500 million, and their business was reborn in a big way.
Years later, Ed asked why Lehman Brothers lent money to him, knowing what a failure his prior business had been. Their response was an affirmation to living according to God’s will. They told Ed that because he and Becky had worked hard to repay their debts instead of filing for bankruptcy, Lehman Brothers knew they could be trusted with the investment.
Through his relationship with Lehman Brothers, Ed was presented with an opportunity to invest in a technology company that provided solutions to the National Football League. Although he wasn’t a “football” guy, he knew of someone who was—the five-time Super Bowl winning owner of the San Francisco 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo.
Healing a Family
Eddie and Ed had shared a bond that only Ed was aware of. “I had a brother who didn’t know I existed, so when this opportunity came up, I decided to write him a letter to see if he knew anything about this technology company. I referenced a gentleman who could vouch for me. Upon checking my reference, Eddie learned that I was his brother. So he called me and said ‘We have to meet!’”
Reflecting on that first meeting, Ed said, “I remember my brother saying ‘I’ve won five Super Bowls and had many accomplishments in business, and I’ve never been more nervous for a meeting in my life!’” Ed responded, “I haven’t had any of those accomplishments but I am still pretty nervous.” After a lifetime apart, God healed a family that day.
Over the next year, the Kobels and DeBartolos got to know each other as family, and Ed and Eddie did a few business deals together. Within two years, Eddie invited the Kobels to move to Tampa to form a partnership in the real estate business, DeBartolo Development, of which Ed is currently president and CEO.
"I’ve had a lot of success in business. But God doesn’t care about that. To Him, it is all about relationships."Ed Kobel
Although he speaks to many groups, the most rewarding encounters are the one-on-one meetings where he shares what he has learned about abiding in Christ.
“I have a whole drawer full of examples of things that God has given when we heard Him speak and stepped out in faith to see what He could do. That is what I’m trying to give away. If you give up and get with God, it is the greatest journey.”