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J. Clydesdale Cushman: Realizing castles in the sky still need managers.

Byline: Matt Schneiderman

In the early part of the last century, as skyscrapers grew taller and more complicated to oversee, J. Clydesdale Cushman laid the foundation for a modern system of building management.

Cushman was born into a real estate family: His father, Don Alonzo Cushman, founded D.A. Cushman Realty Corp., which developed and owned many of the buildings in Chelsea. (Cushman Row on West 20th Street remains a testament to Don Alonzo's career.)

In 1917, J. Clydesdale Cushman co-founded Cushman & Wakefield, a property management company, out of an office just big enough for two employees. Today the firm is one of the biggest players in the New York City real estate market, leasing dozens of prominent properties. It is the world's largest privately held real estate services firm, with offices in 58 countries employing more than 15,000 -- including Cushman's grandsons John and Louis, who serve as chairman and vice-chairman of the company's board, respectively.

But Cushman's realization that skyscrapers needed specialized managers is perhaps his greatest legacy. He foresaw a federation of individual buildings, each with its own staff that did maintenance and repairs but would also be able to pool resources when needed -- for example, for bulk coal purchases.

It seems obvious now, but back then it was a new concept.

Prior to Cushman's time, building owners acted as landlords, rent collectors, supervisors and advertising agencies for their properties -- a system that became increasingly ineffective as building practices improved, allowing for bigger and more complicated office buildings.

"The multiplicity of perplexing problems of mighty skyscrapers," Cushman wrote, "requires a highly specialized supervising staff... [working in conjunction with] an efficient renting organization."

It was a revolutionary change. "Before Cushman, landlords had been responsible for everything -- they were their buildings' own management," said Jan Alan Lewis, an attorney at the real estate department of Cole, Schotz. "They'd do the floor plans, stacking plans, renewals, ads, answer requests. They'd usually have an in-house accountant for all the billing and collections. But life became more sophisticated, and Cushman saw that an independent, third-party management company could be of tremendous assistance to owners by providing expertise. And this would add value to the owners' bottom lines."

"Management: How Modern Business Buildings Are Operated," which Cushman wrote in 1922, described how to organize modern building management and leasing.

"His book raised the standards for management practices," said John Cushman. "It outlined his philosophy, how to treat people and how to rent buildings. He was a real student of the game."

Cushman was also influential in establishing standards for both floor measurements and advertising practices -- standards that remain largely unchanged today.

A lucky mistake

In 1903, as an 18-year-old, Cushman moved to England where he sold building supplies to American manufacturers. He returned to New York in 1905 and continued in hardware sales until 1906, when he became a renting manager for the MetLife building at 1 Madison Avenue, then the world's tallest office structure.

Prior to founding C & W with his brother-in-law Bernard Wakefield, Cushman intended to take over the company Hecksher & DeSauls, a leasing and management organization. But as luck would have it, he missed the opportunity.

Cushman "was supposed to catch the 7:04 train from Avon, New Jersey, to New York one day in September of 1917 for an appointment with the GM of Hecksher & DeSauls to take over the business," said John Cushman. "But he tripped on a horseshoe and missed the train. That company dissolved, and my grandfather started Cushman & Wakefield instead."

The firm's first office on East 42nd Street consisted of just him and an office boy.

Soon, however, the company grew. By the time he wrote "Management," C & W was operating several of Manhattan's most distinctive buildings in Midtown, including 50 East 42nd Street, 244 Madison Avenue, the Canadian Pacific Building on Madison between 43rd and 44th, and the Hecksher Building at Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th.

C & W managed to stay afloat during the 1930s, despite the Depression. The building boom of the 1940s created more opportunities for the company, including the assemblage of parcels for what became the United Nations complex.

Cushman was also active in the National Association of Building Owners and Managers, now known as the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), in the early '40s and '50s. Cushman served the organization as secretary, vice-president and president.

In presidential speeches at BOMA conventions, Cushman impressed upon his colleagues the importance of public relations to "gain and hold the goodwill of the public." He also stressed the need to rehabilitate and modernize older buildings as a means to keep occupancy rates at near-capacity.

His descendant recalled that Cushman's core values have had a lasting impact on the business.

"My brother Lou and I would go to my grandfather's house for dinners, where the talk was real estate," said John Cushman. "My grandfather was a very ethical man, and didn't tolerate anything less than forthright. Anything unsavory didn't suit him at all. He was formal and committed to excellence, and everything he did was represented in that way. He was a handsome man, always dressed well, walking with a top hat and a cane."

Cushman was president of C & W until his death in 1955 at 68 years of age. His great-grandchildren represent the family's seventh generation in the real estate business.

"We have a genetic disposition for real estate," said John Cushman. "We haven't had a break from this business in 200 years -- since Don Alonzo.

"My grandfather wouldn't recognize the present company as the one that he built," he said. "But he'd be proud."
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Author:Schneiderman, Matt
Publication:The Real Deal
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 27, 2008
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