By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Entrepreneurial businessman Rob Kaufman died on April 8, 2022, of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
A Canadian by birth, Kaufman moved to Alexandria in the 1980s and became well-known in the local business community for his historically sensitive renovations of older buildings, including the Old Town Theater.
Local attorney Duncan Blair, who represented Kaufman on numerous acquisitions, said Kaufman was responsible for much of the retail rebirth in Old Town.
“Wellie Goddin in the 1950s bought these buildings and put things in them, then Rob came in and bought them and kind of modernized [them],” Blair said. “It really did help create the retail environment that we see today. That was the template for Asana coming in and getting more tenants.”
Kaufman was a visionary who knew how to turn visions into reality, according to Billy Winburn, who partnered with Kaufman on Connect 113, one of the first co-working spaces in the area.
“I was kind of interested in the co-working phenomenon, so I just went to him one day, I knew him, and said, ‘I’m looking for something to do. And I just think this is something that’s coming.’ … He said, ‘Why don’t we do this together and do it over at that space, at 113 [S. Columbus St.]?’ So that’s what we did,” Winburn said.
Winburn said one of Kaufman’s keys to success was his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do whatever detailed or dirty work needed doing.
“I think what really made him good at what he did and successful was [that] he’s hands on. He’s very detailed,” Winburn said. “He just [did] everything, from pay the bills to work directly with the contractors, to where to put the electrical outlets. We were assembling furniture together.”
Kaufman’s daughter, Jennifer Kaufman Walker, said that her father and mother, Karen, were a team in business as well as in life.
“I think the coolest thing about my dad’s business is that my mom and him built it together. My mom did the interior design, the real estate aspect of it. My dad had the eye for the exterior and the historical part of it, and my mom had the eye for the design of it, for the colors and setup and the layout and fixtures. They worked hand in hand through all of that, which was actually fun to watch as I got older,” Kaufman Walker said.
Longtime director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center Bill Reagan said he appreciated the way Kaufman went about his renovations.
“I admired how much Rob invested – financially and personally – in quality restorations and was sad when the Old Town Theater couldn’t be sustained as a performance venue,” Reagan said.
The site of Old Town Theater, located at 815 King St., is now occupied by Patagonia.
Kaufman was known for being something of a renaissance man. He was an avid photographer, reader and history buff, as well as a tennis champion in Canada. Kaufman had his bartender’s license, a pilot’s license, and he and his wife Karen went through the U.S. Naval Academy’s sailing certification program. They later spent several years on the water sailing and enjoying motorboats.
A free spirit from a young age, Kaufman dropped out of high school in the 1960s and went to tour Europe by motorcycle with a group of friends. This love of life was apparent to all who knew him.
“Rob’s numerous real estate successes and entrepreneurial feats were well known in and around Alexandria, as was his appreciation for a fine cigar and stimulating conversation,” former Alexandria resident and writer John McCaslin said.
“He was incredibly accomplished and had such a diversity of interests and skills, but was always so understated and humble when he talked with you – and when he talked with you it was always an attentive conversation,” Reagan said.
After returning from Europe, Kaufman went to work for his father’s lumber company, then branched out on his own as a developer and builder in Canada.
“He developed an enormous amount of homes and commercial real estate at a very young age, in his early 20s,” Kaufman Walker said.
He later met and married Karen. Soon after they had Jennifer, Kaufman decided to move to the United States to pursue business opportunities and settled his family in Alexandria, where he started Mr. Renovator, then PMA Builders – which stood for “positive mental attitude” – and continued as a builder and developer. He later started PMA Properties and began to refurbish and oversee buildings in Old Town and Del Ray.
Blair said he admired the fact that Kaufman was “selfmade.”
“When he would try something, he would put his heart and soul into it,” Blair said.
“Every project he did was a tour de force. He kind of went where others didn’t,” Winburn said.
Kaufman Walker said that despite his ability and accomplishments, her father was a modest and giving person.
“He had all these incredible talents, and I think probably the best, most amazing talent he had was his ability to be a dad and a grandfather,” Kaufman Walker said. “He was always there to be supportive. He never jumped to conclusions. He listened more than he spoke, which that’s across the board with everyone.”
Former resident Louise Krafft remembered how Kaufman’s humor and kindness helped when her mother was sick with cancer and they ran across Kaufman in a doctor’s waiting room.
“I first saw his tanned bare ankles in a pair of low-key but stylish loafers,” Krafft said. “Looking up, our eyes met, and he smiled that smile. My mom noticed, so I introduced them. He complimented her on her white tiger print velour slacks. She laughed so hard. It made my day and probably her week. He was a dear soul with a brilliant spirit and mind.”
Kaufman Walker said the outpouring of love and support from Alexandrians, including stories of ways in which her father helped others, has helped their family deal with his loss.
“I’ve always been aware here and there of the things he did for others. … I always knew, but I didn’t know the extent that he touched so many people’s lives,” Kaufman Walker said.
Robert Kaufman was born on May 11, 1950, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada to the late Robert Walter and Elizabeth Churchill Kaufman. He is survived by his wife, Karen, his daughter, Jennifer Elizabeth Kaufman Walker, son-in-law, Ryan Walker, and two grandchildren, Josephine Emma “Joie” and Gunnar Robert. He is also survived by his brotherin-law, Robert J. Chapeskie, of Alexandria, his brothers, Peter Kaufman and David Kaufman, and their families, along with numerous extended family members. He was preceded in death by his sister, Maryjane Kaufman Riddell, and brother-in-law, Doug Riddell.
Kaufman Walker said that her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer exactly a year before his death and that he eventually went into the hospital, where he died seven days later, just as he was scheduled to begin a clinical trial. She said the first sign something was wrong, about two years before his diagnosis, was that his glucose levels kept rising.
“Had we known that and didn’t just think it was age-related or weight-related diabetes, he could have figured it out earlier and had a CT sooner and had the surgery and be alive potentially. And I think that’s something he would want people to be aware of …” Kaufman Walker said.
A private celebration of life will be held with friends and family. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Kaufman’s name to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, at panCAN.org.