American Dream: From busboy to top 10 realtor

Santiago Arana stood in front of the restaurant window, peering in at the diners seated inside.

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He was hungry. He had been focused on saving money, and it had been a while since he had a good meal. So, with his first paycheck from bussing tables in hand — approximately $105 — he walked into Montecito, California, eatery.

“I just remember going and sitting by myself and ordering a meal, sitting in Montecito and seeing all this wealth around me,” he told FOX Business in a wide-ranging interview. “I was just so happy that I had just made my first check and I was just so grateful ... The possibilities are endless.”

That was about 17 years ago. In 2014, Arana joined Mauricio Umansky’s The Agency, which is one of the most successful real estate firms in the nation, as a principal and partner. The brokerage firm was co-founded by Umansky's father, Eduardo, as well as real estate broker and architecture specialist Billy Rose and his partner Blair Chang.

Now, the 39-year-old Pacific Palisades resident is a managing partner at the agency, is the No. 7 ranked real estate broker in the nation and the No. 3 broker in California. He owes his success to his drive and his determination that led him to outwork his competitors.

During that meal, Arana saw life from a different perspective. After moving to Santa Barbara from Bolivia at 22 years old, Arana got a job bussing tables at high-end Spanish restaurant, Cava. He barely spoke a word of English and he figured that he could quickly learn the language bussing tables.

“I just saw the opportunities out there that I never was exposed to," he said. "And I was just so grateful to be around it and I knew that if I work hard enough, one day I was going to be able to be one of those guys sitting in there.”

Cava is where he learned the basics of the English language, and it's where he would meet the woman he eventually married. 

Today, Arana is far from the person who first walked through the doors of Cava.

He’s sold more than $340 million in total sales volume during of 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Real Trends 2019 report, “Ranking the Top Real Estate Professionals & Teams,” and he is ranked higher than any other broker working for The Agency, which ranked No. 41 of the Top 250 Real Estate Teams in terms of sales volume.

EARLY LIFE

Arana was raised in Sucre, Bolivia, by his Croatian mother and his Spanish father. He went to college in Bolivia, where he studied business administration and marketing.

At 22, he had won a scholarship for a master's degree in finance, but the program was only taught in English or Hebrew — neither of which Arana spoke.

“And that's really what had gotten me to move to the United States,” he told FOX Business in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview. “I had an aunt that had offered for me to crash on her couch for a month, so I took the offer. I packed my suitcase and I grabbed my savings.”

With only $120 in his pocket, Arana moved to Santa Barbara, where he knew no one except his aunt, whom he had met once before, and his cousins, whom he’d never previously known.

He started picking up the language but soon ran out of money.

After eight months, he decided to ask his aunt for cash. Instead, she suggested he get a job bussing tables.

“I didn't really know what that meant,” he admitted.

Arana soon got the job working at Cava, and attended a free adult education class at night to better learn the language. After approximately three months as a busboy, he asked for a promotion.

“Between 3 and 4 months I picked up enough English where I could communicate a lot better and I went to the manager at the restaurant,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, I think I’m going to do better if you make me a waiter. As a busboy, you know, I'm very limited, and making $30, $40 a night … it’s not enough.’”

Arana waited tables for another eight months, during which time he met his future wife, Kyle, when she was a customer at the restaurant.

Little did he know, she would change the trajectory of his whole life.

After months of seeing each other and going back and forth between Los Angeles, where Kyle lived, and Santa Barbara, Arana decided it was time to move.

“We had this whole romance story and at that point in time, I realized I needed to move down…I really wanted to be closer to her.” He said. “I figured out I was very in love. I was not going to go and do the master’s degree and I was not going to go back to Bolivia and I was going to stay.”

REAL ESTATE

A cousin suggested Arana pursue real estate, and in 2004, he got his license. At the time, he was unsure what to expect.

“When my cousin said, ‘You should do real estate,’ I was like: ‘What is real estate?’ ” he recalled. “You know, in Los Angeles and New York, in big cities like these, you can make a living as a real estate agent, but if you go to Bolivia, it's not an aspiration when you’re in college.”

Arana struggled at first, he admitted. For the second time in his life, he found himself in a new city where he knew few people other than Kyle, who he married in August of that year.

“We didn't have any college friends or roommates or high school friends or relatives or nothing. So, who do you sell a house to?  How do you sell homes?” he asked.  “I really had to, you know, bite to dust.”

For about three and a half years, Arana knocked on strangers’ doors to try to grow his name as an agent and waited tables at night to make extra money.

“I did a little bit of real estate in the day and worked double shifts in restaurants at night in order to survive,” he said. “I started to do better. In 2007, I dropped the restaurant business.'

“As I started to do good and have a little bit of savings, the market in 2008 collapsed, and it was horrible.”

Now with two young sons, Arana had eaten away his savings to the point where he had only $1,000 in the bank. It was a year after the housing market collapsed and he begrudgingly decided it was time to consider waiting tables again.

He went as close as pulling up to a restaurant in Venice to fill out an application, but something stopped him from going in.

“I was sitting in my car and, I remember, something inside me just turn on,” he said.  “At that moment I felt that just something inside me said, ‘You know, what the hell are you doing?... You're not going to fall backward, if you're going to fall, you’re going to fall forwards.”

It was a personal moment, and one that introduced Arana to who he really was, he said.

“Literally, that day I drove straight into my favorite neighborhood, Brentwood Park at the time, and I door-knocked for like three hours nonstop,” he recalled. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going going to go back. I’m gonna make this happen.’”

HIS FIRST MILLION

From that point on, Arana went into overdrive. He hosted open houses on Saturdays and Sundays, he borrowed money for advertisements and he posted signs at 6 a.m. before his workday began.

In 2009 and 2010, “during the worst part of the market, when everybody stopped spending money and started to slow down ... I was one of the few guys that was out there,” he said. “The perception was that I was really busy.”

By 2012, people were calling Arana remarking about how busy he was, and how many of his signs they had seen, he recalled with a laugh.

“As the market turned around in 2012, I remember April of 2012 clearly, it activated and it just exploded...People decided, ‘Okay time to buy, time to sell...Let’s call that guy Santiago.’”

That was the first year he made more than $1 million in commission, and he's never had a worse year, he said.

Since then, his clientele has included Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, popstar and breakout actress Lady Gaga, and even billionaire bond fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach, who is the chief investment officer and CEO of DoubleLine Capital in Los Angeles.

Arana is known for his familiarity with California’s western region and has previously been lauded as the No. 1 broker “west of the 405 freeway,” his webpage states.

He boasts more than $2 billion in real estate sales.

Arana and Kyle recently celebrated a 15-year wedding anniversary, and live in Pacific Palisades just north of Santa Monica with their 10- and 12-year-old sons. He is actively involved in Giveback Homes and Habitat for Humanity, often working alongside his wife in doing so.

Santiago Arana (L) with wife Kyle. (Photo courtesy of The Agency)

Looking back, Arana kept his advice to his younger, twenty-something self simple: “Enjoy the moment more.”

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"When my first son was born is when I realized, ‘Okay, now I need to enjoy my son, my family, and everything,” he said. “This time is going to go fast … You can’t go back in time, so take it all in.”