Gerald Hines, the 91-year-old real estate developer, has always been known for his belief in the striking and iconic. He built the Lipstick Building in Manhattan, helped develop Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Jersey City tower and today is constructing the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco.

But it was a little lesson he learned back during the oil bust of the 1970s that deserves equal attention when explaining his firm’s longevity and his family’s billionaire status. As the crash hit Hines and most others in his home base of Houston hard, he increasingly reduced his risk by pulling in partners to take big equity stakes in each project.

That model has served the  Hines Group well during economic downturns -- most recently when oil prices collapsed again in 2014, just a year after the firm had embarked on a $1.7 billion development spree in Houston. This summer, when Hines and its investors walked away from a six-building office complex in the city that they’d owned since the 1990s, the developer’s exposure to the 70 percent-vacant Greenspoint Place was largely limited to its role as property manager.

"They have a lot of different ways they structure transactions," Mark O’Donnell, a director at brokerage Savills Studley, said. "They’ve done a damn good job of exiting equity positions and continuing to maintain less risky positions like property management."

Family Fortune

This approach has helped Hines and his family build a $2 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The firm’s $89 billion property and asset management holdings run to more than 450 buildings spread over five continents, a scale and geographic diversity that serve as another bulwark against real estate’s inevitable whipsaws.

The transformation has only sped up since Hines’ son  Jeff took over the firm as president in 1990. Its structure today is in many ways that of a private equity outfit, deploying the funds of its limited partners, who include the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. It’s the world’s fourth-largest manager of real estate assets on Institutional Real Estate’s 2015 ranking.

Hines, who’s never appeared on an international wealth ranking, declined to comment on his net worth, according to spokesman Mark Clegg.

Far Cry

Hines Group today is a far cry from the one-man outfit Gerald Hines founded in Houston in 1957. His big break came in 1966 when he walked into a meeting with Shell executives clasping a set of bronze door handles. Dropping them on the boardroom table, he pitched the oil company on a 50-story tower his upstart firm was planning in Houston and vowed the entire development would be built to the same quality as the pristine fittings, according to “The Offshore Imperative,” a 2007 book on Shell.