In 2004 newly elected Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. made a leap of faith and installed a 25-year old still in college as his chief of staff.
At the time, Pete Novak was juggling his job as a mortgage broker with finance and accounting classes at Purdue University Calumet and had just finished a stint as McDermott’s campaign treasurer.
“That is probably the best practical experience I’ve ever had,” Novak says of his time working in city government, first as chief of staff to McDermott and then heading up the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “It got me thinking about the how and why of things,” he adds.
He says McDermott placing his faith in a youngster with little experience is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout his varied career. After attending Ball State for just one year, the 19-year-old Novak was brought into the red-hot mortgage industry by banker cousin Pete Sokolovich.
Working at the home-lending arm of the major bank where his cousin was an executive in Arizona, Novak describes a “boiler-room” environment of men all older than himself “who made lots of money.”
But he wasn’t as impressed by that as he was by the helping hand his cousin had extended him.
“I’ve been fortunate to meet some good people along the way that would take me under their wing,” he says. “There are a lot of talented people out there who never get that break.”
Today, Novak, 32, is chief executive officer of the 2,000-member Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors. Since being hired for the job in 2007, he has kept busy raising the organization’s public profile.
That includes having its member Realtors play a key role in finding and arranging for housing for flood-stricken families in the fall of 2008 and publicizing the organization’s stand on sometimes highly-charged public policy issues such as the South Shore extension.
Five months ago, Mayor McDermott appointed Novak to a seat on the Northwest Indiana Regional Developlment Authority, a two-county organization funding major economic development projects across the region. RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna says Novak, the seven-member board’s youngest member, has added value already to the organization. “He’s able to look at the issues facing us from multiple perspectives, as well as helping us find solutions.”
The RDA is at a critical juncture in its short history, with the Porter County Council attempting to exit the organization at the same time as the RDA is seeking to build bridges with local communities.
But getting thrown into the fire feet first is nothing new for Novak.
“I came into local government and we had the property tax crisis,” he says. “And I came into real estate when the market was crashing.”
“Maybe it’s me,” he says, laughing at his habit of always seeming to come on board in the midst of a crisis. In addition to getting a professional boost from people like McDermott, Novak says the solid values he picked up as a child growing up in Hammond laid a good foundation for his varied and rapidly developing career.
He credits his construction worker father, Peter Novak Sr., with doing a good job raising him during his teenage years in the absence of his mother.
He attended Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Hammond as a youngster and graduated from Gavit High in 1996. He still lives in Hammond in the Higgins Park development in Hessville.
He says he knows political disagreements between factions can be savage in Northwest Indiana, where politicians often play for keeps. But he has a basic faith in people that also extends to the region’s leadership. “Most of the groups do care and they care a lot about the community.”