Face it: When most people think of the commercial real estate industry, they do not think of philanthropy projects. Such stereotypes as the greedy developer and the penny-pinching property manager are firmly entrenched in the minds of many. However, while there are certainly some who are consumed with making a fortune and making it fast, commercial real estate also is home to some very big hearts.
From projects such as tutoring underprivileged children to raising money for breast cancer research, many real estate professionals are working hard to make a real difference in the lives of those who need a helping hand. “To serve others, that's the purpose of life,” said Rick Lackey Jr., executive vice president and managing director of the Atlanta office of Northbrook, Ill.-based Grubb & Ellis. “If you don't have that in your work environment, then there's something flawed there.”
During the past several months, National Real Estate Investor has examined the philanthropic efforts of a dozen commercial real estate individuals and companies. What follows is a series of vignettes detailing some of those undertakings.
This piece is not intended to be a comprehensive collection of all the charitable projects in the industry, or a ranking of the largest ones. Rather, it is simply intended to provide a snapshot of how some in commercial real estate are giving back to the communities around them.
A round of golf, anyone?
There were times in the year 2000 that Paul Hatcher felt much more like an event coordinator than the president of a Wixom, Mich.-based design and construction firm. That is because he and the employees of Oliver/Hatcher Construction & Development Inc. spent a great deal of their energy organizing the first annual Oliver/Hatcher Mulligan Masters golf tournament, held in September at the Bay Pointe Golf Club in West Bloomfield Township, Mich.
The charity event benefited the Child Life Services group at the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. Following the tournament and a corresponding dinner, the Child Life Services group accepted a check in the amount of $44,000, “When I'm spending a great deal of time trying to organize a golf outing, I know I'm not doing what I should be doing in terms of the company, but that's OK,” Hatcher said. “I made a conscious decision to do it that way.”
The genesis of the event was a visit that Hatcher's partner, Paul Oliver, made to the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital to see the daughter of one of the company's employees. The girl had contracted a rare liver disease. While there, Oliver was able to see the Child Life Services group in action.
The group provides a series of recreational and therapeutic services for not only the children who are sick, but also for their siblings. For example, kids can participate in games and crafts, and they can communicate via computers with other children in other hospitals.
“The program made a real impact on my partner, and so we then started to get involved as a company,” Hatcher said. About once a month, volunteers from the company would visit the hospital, located about 30 minutes from the Oliver/Hatcher office, and assist with the various activities.
“As a result, we saw that they had certain needs, such as the upkeep of the computer systems and craft items,” Hatcher said. “We felt we could raise some money and that we could do it via a golf outing.” And so, a little less than a year before the event, the company began planning the tournament.
The company charged an entry fee of $1,200 for a foursome and filled the field primarily with business associates. After the tournament, the participants attended a dinner and silent auction, the proceeds of which also went to the Child Life Services group. The auction featured items ranging from coffee table books about golf to Detroit Red Wings tickets. Joe Falls, a popular and longtime sports columnist for the Detroit News, spoke at the dinner and received an award for his work with the Special Olympics.
This year, Hatcher said the company will again oversee the preparation of the tournament, rather than outsource the management. “We've already created the recipe,” he said.
Hatcher admitted that organizing the event is a ton of work, but said the money raised and the emotional benefits the company receives easily justify it. “The people within our organization got a tremendous amount out of it,” he said. “There was a team-creating aspect to it. That's probably the biggest appreciation that we got out of it.”
Boosting the learning process
Life can be quite busy at Carter & Associates•ONCOR International, an Atlanta-based commercial real estate services firm. But that does not prevent approximately 25 employees from taking an hour or two out of their hectic schedules to tutor students at Capitol View Elementary, a school of approximately 300 students in grades K-5 in inner-city Atlanta.
“People leave in the middle of the day, work with the kids and then go back to their jobs,” said Noel Mayeske, a graphics manager and Web-page creator with the company. “All of a sudden you're in another world for an hour, and it actually refreshes you for the rest of the day.”
Seven years ago, Carter adopted the school through a program run by The Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Company officials say the partnership could not be more rewarding. “We thought it would be good for our people to work with some people who perhaps were less fortunate than they were, but were still wonderful people,” said James B. Carson Jr., Carter's vice chairman. “I tell you, it's heartwarming to work with these kids.”
The tutoring is the core activity of Carter's relationship with Capitol View, but that is far from the only way the company works with the school. Carter has purchased computers and books for the school, and partnered with Capitol View's PTA to build a new playground. The company also hosts several parties at the school each year.
Carter also recently sponsored a “Career Day,” during which fifth-grade students were transported to the company's offices and shown what the various departments do. “We told them that the world was open to them, the world was theirs, and that there was no reason they couldn't do what we were doing,” Carson said.
Both the school and Carter derive enormous benefits from their relationship, Carson added. “The principal was telling me the other day that, because of how concentrated the tutoring effort is this year, the kids are reading more outside of school on their own than ever before,” he said. “For us, it makes people proud of the company that they work for. This is a company that wants to give back to the community. We just think that is very, very important.”
Can't start a fire without a spark
According to Jerry Feldman, president and CEO of Agoura Hills, Calif.-based CallSource, “what began as a spark has grown into a bonfire.” What Feldman is describing is the growth in support of his company's effort to raise money for breast-cancer research.
The campaign began to take shape last July, when Feldman, whose company tracks the advertising efforts of multifamily companies, attended the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council's (NMHC) Executive Leadership Program at the University of North Carolina. There, he attended a discussion of corporate ethics and responsibility headed by Aygmunt Nagorski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Leadership Inc.
On the plane ride home to California, Feldman was consumed with the idea of creating an industry-wide philanthropic program. After discussing possible efforts with CallSource officials and other industry figures, the idea for the breast-cancer fund-raising drive was born.
The reason the company settled on a breast-cancer effort is simple. “It became clear that with nearly 85% of the work force in [the multifamily] industry being women, breast-cancer research is a hot button for all of us,” Feldman said.
At the annual Brainstormers convention, a gathering of multifamily leaders and marketing officials held last November in Reno, Nev., CallSource unveiled the program. To promote interest in its campaign, the company distributed breast-cancer awareness stamps that the U.S. Postal Service issued several years ago and lapel pins emblazoned with a replica of the stamp.
In all, the company spent approximately $25,000 on promotional materials for the Brainstormers show. Around the same time, the company placed launch ads in numerous trade publications, and the NMHC published an open letter to the multifamily industry penned by Feldman.
At the heart of CallSource's fund-raising drive will be the “Pennies from Home” program. The company has spent the first part of this year preparing promotional kits to send to multifamily organizations that encourage and detail a method for soliciting penny donations from employees.
Later this year, more kits will be sent out to launch a similar drive among apartment residents. CallSource is also working to create an umbrella relationship with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society and/or the YMCA's Encore Breast Cancer Program. The alliance will oversee the program.
According to Feldman, the average American household contains $10 to $13 in pennies. “If we're able to get the residents to really participate, there's an awful lot of money that we can raise,” he said, noting that no fund-raising goal has been established. The program will be an ongoing effort, not just a year-long initiative, he added.
Feldman believes the drive has the potential to create better relationships between apartment managers and residents. “The hot button for some of the property owners and management companies is that potentially we're going to engage the residents, and the residents will see that the owner or the managers are giving something back,” he said. “We expect there will be more of a community feeling.”
For those looking to reel in a hefty catch of the world's great sport fish, it is hard to find a better place to be than Cozumel, Mexico, in the spring. That is why Rick Lackey Jr. of Grubb & Ellis takes his top five brokers — whom Lackey prefers to call “advisers” — there each year as a reward for their work.
But the relaxing days spent chasing sailfish and blue marlins amidst the clear, shimmering water and the brilliant blue sky have a purpose other than a reward for success. When the trip is over, Lackey and other Grubb & Ellis employees will fry a good portion of the fish — along with mountains of onion rings, french fries and other goodies — and feed them to the homeless.
Last year's top brokers returned with 70 pounds of mahi mahi fillets, which company employees served the Friday before Father's Day at an Atlanta shelter for sick, disabled and elderly homeless people. After the fish fry was over, Grubb & Ellis employees handed out bags containing socks, toothbrushes, T-shirts and other toiletries, and then spent the night at the shelter. The next morning, the employees prepared breakfast for the residents.
Upon taking over the Atlanta office about 14 months ago, Lackey instituted a philosophy of “work hard, play hard and give back,” he said. “As I see it, you've got to have a real bond and a real close relationship with the people in your office. There is no better way to form that bond than when you go and give to others when they can't give back. There's a real special feeling that's created inside.”
The fish fry is but one of the many charity projects that Grubb & Ellis' Atlanta office has participated in recently. Last Christmas, through the HOPE Worldwide program, the office adopted a family of seven children that lived in Atlanta's inner city and was responsible for providing the kids with presents. The response was overwhelming, as the contributions were enough to fill the entire cargo bay of Lackey's Ford Expedition.
The company also is planning to hold an annual art auction in the lobby of its office building, with the proceeds benefiting the St. Jude's Children Hospital, which is headquartered in Memphis, Tenn. Several other projects are in the works as well. “What we're trying to do is do things right,” Lackey said. “That's one of our major themes: We want to do things the way they ought to be done.”
Working for justice
Jim Kier, chairman of Odgen, Utah-based Kier Corp., a construction, development and property management company that serves the office, retail and multifamily sectors, says community involvement always has been a staple of his organization. Those involved in juvenile justice in Utah are certainly glad that is so.
In the late 1990s, Jim, his wife, Norma, and Kier Corp. aided in the establishment of the Weber/Morgan Children's Justice Center in Odgen and the Davis County Children's Justice Center in Farmington, Utah. At the centers, juvenile justice investigators and prosecutors interview children to gather information about alleged crimes such as sexual and physical abuse.
According to Kier, the process started when the boards of the Weber/Morgan center, which was then seeking to move, approached Kier Corp. to help identify and spruce up a new location for the center. An older home was found, and Kier Corp. remodeled it. Later, the company helped establish the Davis County facility by renovating another old home. The company raised money for the efforts and recruited several subcontractors to donate their time. Each home cost $60,000 to $80,000 to renovate, Kier estimated.
The goal was to make each facility feel as much like a home as possible, said Kier. That way, children are much more likely to open up and discuss difficult issues. Some of the rooms contain hidden video and audio recording equipment, allowing investigators the chance to record a child's version of events without the child being intimidated by a camera or recorder.
Meanwhile, Kier, his wife and his company are gearing up again to move the Weber center into a new facility, as it has already outgrown the current location. Once again, the Kiers will remodel an existing structure.
The Kiers and the Kier Corp. have received awards and plenty of publicity for their work, but Kier maintains he is simply performing his obligations as a successful businessman. “If you take out of the community, then you need to put it back in,” he said. “That's the way I was raised, and that's the way I've always felt.”
Take a little time off
Maurice Riley, an account manager in the Arlington, Va., office of Claritas Inc., recalls that he was shocked at how quickly and decisively his boss responded to his fairly bold proposal. At 5:15 p.m., Riley had fired off an e-mail to Bob Nascenzi, president and CEO of the San Diego-based market research firm, proposing that each company employee be allowed to take off one day per quarter to participate in a charitable activity.
Only 30 minutes later, a reply was sitting in Riley's in box. “Bob embraced the idea wholeheartedly,” Riley recalled. “He said, ‘I want this enacted immediately.’ In fact, he thought some elements of the proposal were too formal.”
Specifically, Riley had proposed creating a database of Claritas-approved organizations that employees could volunteer for on their day off, but Nascenzi told Riley that he wanted workers to be able to work for whomever they wished. “We're on the honor system,” Riley said. “A manager only has to have enough advance warning that an employee is going to be out for the day.”
Last year, Claritas formally unveiled its quarterly program. Riley said the benefit is simply a crystallization of a long-time attitude that both Nascenzi and the company's employees have had toward volunteerism. “One of the objectives that Bob has always set forth for this company has been the idea that Claritas should give back to the community through charity or volunteer works,” he said.
Other companies have similar programs. For example, Charlotte-based Summit Properties holds a “Community Service Day” in September in which the company closes its operations so that employees can participate in projects ranging from cleaning up community centers to building homes for low-income families.
Another side of the industry
The predominant image of the commercial real estate industry is that of one consumed by greed and the desire to make the fastest possible buck. But one can see that a philanthropic spirit is alive and well.
Summing up this principle, Feldman of CallSource said: “In this industry, there are very good businessmen who realize where they are in life and know they have an obligation to give back to the community around them.”
Stephen Ursery covers multifamily and industrial real estate for NREI.