By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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"There was a real nice one with a magnet, so I was able to scrape the 'Berry' off and put something else on," chuckles Monzon. "That's a good kind of bumper sticker."
During Berry's term as student president he became close to several of the school's executives. He and Nandy were regulars at parties hosted by then-chancellor Alex Schilt.
"That was back when UH was blowin' and goin' and really wastefully spending your public dollars," recalls Berry. Since the couple didn't drink, Berry says, they'd grab water glasses for toasts. "It was heady stuff." Berry says he has never used illegal drugs and was something of an anomaly on the student party scene.
"Some people look forward to 'I'm gonna go and lose myself.' Well, I don't like to lose myself. I'm much happier having four friends over for dinner, have a good conversation till late in the night, hustle them off and go to bed," he says. "That's my idea of a good time."
Berry's good time at UH ended when he graduated with honors and a political science degree, then headed to law school at the University of Texas, with some study for a year at the University of Nottingham in England.
When he returned, the couple landed jobs at downtown law firms. Nandy -- she'd gone to UH law school -- went with Haynes and Boone, while Michael signed with Jenkens & Gilchrist. He says he had no sense of accomplishment handling cases that were already under way, and felt trapped by the heavy workload. "I was working a lot of hours, more than any of the associates, and yet by the record I was working just as many, and I didn't see that changing."
After less than a year, he quit.
"I've always believed you should live life like you don't know if there will be a tomorrow. People say, 'Stick it out for a couple of years and see.' I say, 'I don't like it, I'm not going to like it, and life's too short.' "
Berry says he began searching for a new pursuit, "one that wouldn't be too intellectually draining, and that would enable me for a period of years to decide what I'm interested in."
He hit on the idea of real estate. He set up shop in his living room, got a sales license and some referrals from former associates at his old law firm.
"I would sit and look at the phone and hope it would ring. Nandy would call me four or six times a day and make up reasons she was calling, just to get me through. I had to 'eat what I killed' and get people to trust this fair-haired boy, who looks 12 years old, to sell their million- dollar house. It's not easy."
Berry claims that "within a year I knew as much about real estate inside the Loop as anybody." He tells of running the numbers on spreadsheets and compiling more information than veteran realtors.
One of the more intriguing transactions was his own Westheimer business-residence. Berry's company, Brenham Partners Limited, purchased it from a South African in 2000 for $250,000. Five days later, Brenham sold the property to Michael and Nandy for $315,000, a $65,000 markup. A source familiar with the deal claims it was a quick way to realize a swift infusion of cash into the family budget, through the company that Berry controlled.
When questioned about the transaction, Berry initially explained the difference in the two sales prices as improvements made to the building. Confronted with the fact that the transactions were only five days apart, Berry said, "Is that right? I mean, to tell you the truth, I don't really remember."
During that same general period a business associate remembers Berry telling him about traveling to Cuba for recreational purposes, going there by way of Mexico City under an assumed name while Nandy vacationed on her own in Paris. Asked whether he has ever visited Cuba, Berry replied with a flat no, and requested no explanation for the question.
Although Berry didn't volunteer it, a source says one of the less savory aspects of his business was the purchase and quick resale of low-income apartment complexes. This person remembers Berry spending part of his time collecting rents from substandard dwellings full of undocumented immigrants.
"Michael had these people over a barrel. He was basically a slumlord and charged them to live in squalid conditions, and they couldn't complain about it."
Berry denies that. "No, that's not true. I mean, they were not River Oaks properties, but by the same token I didn't check the immigration status, but I feel certain the residents were not illegal aliens."
Berry admits he did collect rents until he hired a collector. "At one point, the company was pretty small. I was fixing doors and changing locks and replacing carpet. So, yeah, I did all that myself."
One of the complexes he purchased was on Brandt Street in east Montrose. Resident Morgan Mull remembers meeting Berry when he bought the dilapidated 30-unit complex in early 2000.
"When he first bought the property he was around quite a bit, fixing it up a little," recalls Mull. "He was very affable, nice. Went through all these paint chips to see what kind of color would be the best, which I thought was kind of odd."