It was past 7 p.m. when Ventas Inc. CEO Debra Cafaro emerged from her last meeting. Her voice echoed in the halls of the mostly empty offices on the 48th floor of 111 S. Wacker Drive.
As she spoke, the last rays of sun disappeared behind the West Loop skyscrapers — a familiar, end-of-the-day scene from the headquarters of Ventas, a real estate investment trust, or REIT, she has ambitiously grown during the past decade through mergers and acquisitions.
Ventas acquired its California-based rival, Nationwide Health Properties Inc., in July for $5.8 billion. The stock deal was valued at $7.4 billion, including debt. Together, Ventas and Nationwide became a company worth $23 billion, making it the leading health care REIT in the country.
Becoming chief executive of one of the nation's largest public REITs marked a new mile post for Cafaro, 53, who has built her career on calculated risks.
Her drive, she said, comes from a very working-class upbringing.
"We never wanted for anything," Cafaro said. "But there was always so much more for me to aspire to: in terms of education, in terms of seeing the world, in terms of working hard and achieving things. And so that drive comes from the kind of upbringing that I had."
Cafaro, a self-motivator and the older of two sisters, was the first in her family to go to college.
She grew up in Pittsburgh hearing her Lebanese-American mother, Dee, speak Arabic and her father, Frank, Italian. He was a mailman. She was a housewife. Now in their early 80s, each was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents at a time when foreign households sought assimilation. As a result, Cafaro didn't pick up either language.
"There are a few swear words I know in both languages," she said, "but that's all, unfortunately."
She was 13 when she announced she had gotten a job at a penny-candy counter. She made $9.06 a week and saved it for a school trip to Rome. (In 2010, her total compensation package was $8.6 million.)
As a teenager, she closely followed the Watergate political scandal and admired the lawyers and journalists she saw on television. She decided she wanted to be one of them.
"My father didn't know a lot of lawyers, but he knew one criminal defense lawyer. And he said, 'That's great, I will take off work and my friend, Tom Livingston, has a trial, and we'll go sit in the trial and watch. … You can really see what it's like to be a lawyer,'" she said.
Her father came from a family where having a boy was "the most important thing," she said, but he didn't box her in. Instead, he took her to football games.
"It was very unusual in that time, in that socioeconomic environment, very working-class and ethnic, that he would be what I would call a feminist. He would never call it that, but he was so supportive of my sister and me, and that was really rare," Cafaro said.
At the trial, Cafaro also met the lawyer's son, Terry Livingston. The young man, who later became her husband, had just graduated high school and was helping his father at the firm by running errands.
Livingston was the only person Cafaro knew who had taken the SAT test, so within seconds of knowing him, she asked him about it. She had been wondering whether to take it and ultimately did.
"My father said that the proudest day of his life was the day that he first wrote the check for me to be able to go to college," Cafaro said.
In 1979, she earned a bachelor's degree in government economics from the University of Notre Dame. Three years later, she earned a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School.
Debra Cafaro, CEO of Ventas