"It's really simple. I just do what I love. I never would get stuck in a job I hated," she said.
The daughter of a Michigan real estate developer, Champion-Cain grew up surrounded by the business she later embraced. Following graduation from the University of Michigan, she headed west to attend California Western School of Law. She chose San Diego because of two key features – proximity to the ocean and the international border. Having grown up on the water near the Canadian border, she was eager to experience Mexican border culture.
Champion-Cain quickly discovered that she didn't want to practice law, yet she recognized the usefulness of a law degree in a business career. She also realized that, as a woman in a male-dominated field, she needed an extra arrow in her quiver and enrolled in the University of San Diego's MBA program.
She started out in the apartment industry in the late 1980s, managing and redeveloping distressed assets spun off by the Resolution Trust Company. Her big break came in 1994 with the Irvine-based Koll Company. She joined their team tasked with redeveloping La Jolla Square Shopping Center, formerly an enclosed mall home to old May Company and I. Magnin stores.
"I got a reputation for rebuilding distressed malls" and flipping them from distress to success, she explained.
By 1997, Champion-Cain was ready to go out on her own, starting American National Investments. Passionate about urban areas, she bought and rehabbed a rundown Woolworth store for her first solo real estate development project, eventually bringing the House of Blues to San Diego to fill the space. No one, she explained, thought she, a rare female developer, could do it.
Now in her 50s and established in her career, Champion-Cain no longer elicits doubts about the potential success of her projects, which focus increasingly on interrelated businesses in the hospitality industry. All resulted from her adaptability in pivoting when the economy tanked, her ability in recognizing a gap in the market and her agility in filling that niche.
She got into the restaurant business by chance when she purchased Pacific Beach's Lamont Street Grill.
Expecting to tear it down and redevelop it, she responded to community requests to retain the restaurant, reinventing it as The Patio. Three other locations, in Mission Hills, Liberty Station and Petco Park, followed, with plans for more up the coast. She acquired Saska's in Mission Beach when the founding owners retired.
A beach and animal lover, Champion-Cain started her network of about 10 pet-friendly up-scale Mission Beach vacation rentals when she found no one welcomed her golden retrievers (or her elderly cat) at a beach rental. Her two Luv Surf apparel companies sprang from requests from her vacation rental guests, while The Swell, her coffee company, Andrea's Truffles, her handmade chocolatier, and Luxury Farms, two specialty gourmet markets in Mission Hills and Coronado, were natural evolutions of her restaurants.
In explaining her formula for success, she returns to her roots in real estate.
"It's location, location, location," she said with a laugh. "You have to be in a great location with great people around you. I always try to look at a market and ask what is missing from this market, what do you need, what works in this demographic."
Champion-Cain says she loves to work and works long hours.
"You have to love what you do,” she says, “and then it's not work."