Real Estate Career Advice By John Cushman

The scion of one of America’s oldest real estate families, John Cushman worked his way up the career ladder from elevator operator to chairman of Cushman & Wakefield.

John C. Cushman was born into one of America’s oldest real estate families: seven successive generations have been in the real estate business in New York. The family’s lineage in America goes back even further. The Cushmans are descendants of Mary Allerton, the daughter of Isaac Allerton, a lieutenant governor of Plymouth Colony and called the “father of New England commerce.” Mary Allerton was a passenger on the Mayflower when it arrived in Massachusetts in 1620. She later married Thomas Cushman, who arrived in 1621 on the tiny ship Fortune.

In 1917, John Cushman’s grandfather, John Clydesdale Cushman—known as Clyde Cushman—and Clyde’s brother-in-law Bernard Wakefield founded Cushman & Wakefield in New York City. Today, Cushman & Wakefield is the world’s largest privately held real estate services firm. John Cushman is chairman, and his twin brother Lou is vice chairman. The Cushman family’s real estate legacy continues: three of John Cushman’s sons are in real estate, and the other is an investment banker.

In 1978, John and Lou Cushman left Cushman & Wakefield to found Cushman Realty Corporation. In 2001, Cushman Realty Corporation merged with Cushman & Wakefield, and the Cushman brothers assumed their present positions with the company. Among other activities, John Cushman is director and chairman of Cushman Winery Corporation, owner of Zaca Mesa Winery.

John Cushman has been involved in some of the largest real estate projects on the West Coast, including the sale of the Pacific Lighting Corporation/Southern California Gas Company properties in Los Angeles; the sale of the Unocal headquarters complex, also in Los Angeles; and the relocation of Boeing’s world headquarters from Seattle to Chicago.

Cushman also has been involved in some of the most complicated office building and land sales in the United States, including the Home Insurance Building at 59 Maiden Lane and the Merrill Lynch building at One Liberty Plaza, both in New York City; Mountain Bell Center in Denver; the Renaissance Tower in Dallas; and the largest non-oil-and-gas land sale in Alaska, to Sohio Alaska. His major lease transactions include the largest office lease in the world, the world headquarters of Merrill Lynch & Company, involving 4 million square feet (372,000 sq m), initial occupancy, at the World Financial Center in New York City.

In an interview with writer James Carberry, Cushman spoke about his legacy, how he got started in real estate, and what it takes to succeed in the business. Carberry collaborated with Stan Ross, chair of the board of the University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate, in writing The Inside Track to Careers in Real Estate, recently published by the Urban Land Institute.

How did your family originally get started in real estate in New York?

We had and still have a company called D.A. Cushman Realty Corp., founded by Don Alonzo Cushman, one of my ancestors and a very powerful businessman and developer, who lived from 1792 to 1875. The company developed and owned many of the buildings in the Chelsea–West 23rd Street section of Manhattan. A group of houses on 20th Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues is still known as Cushman Row as a result of Don Alonzo’s activities.

So real estate is in your bloodlines?

When I was growing up, the table talk was constantly about real estate. My grandfather was an international president of BOMA [Building Owners and Managers Association], and my family was active in it. Before I was even in the real estate business, I had attended nine conventions of BOMA, together with my twin brother Lou.

How did you get started in real estate?

Lou and I worked in New York one summer, running an elevator. We were members of Local 32 B-J SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. I ran a manually operated elevator at 521 Fifth Avenue. Lou worked on the lower floors, doing janitorial work. I made a lot of money as a union member. I worked hard, and I met a lot of interesting people in real estate. It was a great experience.

Where did you attend college?

Colgate University. I liked it because it was a small school on a beautiful site and close to our family home in Montclair, New Jersey.

How did you do in college?

I didn’t work as hard in high school as Lou, who went to Amherst. When I got to Colgate, my first year wasn’t terrific. I took a lot of shortcuts in high school, and it caught up with me in my first year in college. If I had worked harder, it wouldn’t have been so difficult. By the end of my second year, however, I had figured it out. After that, I did well.

What was your major?

Economics, which didn’t excite me. My minor was fine arts, and I got very interested in architecture—an interest that continues to this day.

What did you do after graduation?

I worked in construction in Spain, on the Riviera. If young people want to take time off to do something similar today, I’m all for it. The experience is terrific.

What did you do next?

I started working for Cushman & Wakefield in New York in 1963 at various offices in the city. In 1967, the company sent me to Los Angeles to open an office and manage a development project. Cushman was the project manager, leasing agent, managing agent, and part owner of the project. It was a joint development with Bank of America, at the time the world’s biggest bank, and Arco, a prominent oil company. Arco and Bank of America each owned 48 percent and Cushman & Wakefield 4 percent.

What was the project?

Atlantic Richfield Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, which contained two 52-story towers totaling 2.6 million rentable square feet [242,000 sq m] with a 2,500-car parking garage and a retail component of 255,000 square feet [23,700 sq m]. At the time, downtown L.A. was a village, and there was more space available for lease at one time (2 million rentable square feet [186,000 sq m]) in that project than had ever been available in one project anywhere in the world. My job was to get it all leased. It was my first big gamble, and it was huge. Fortunately, it was a big success. And I went from there.

For somebody starting out in real estate today, what does it take to succeed?

If you don’t have the work ethic, you’re not going to make it. The people who do the best work the hardest. I always tell people, the harder you work, the luckier you get. You also must have an insatiable appetite to know, to learn. It doesn’t matter who you are—John Cushman or someone else—every day you have to continue to learn.

How did you learn?

Among other ways, I went to a lot of ULI meetings. The heads of most of the big institutions, the public companies, the private companies, real estate developers, and others participated. It was a great learning experience for me to listen to what was going on and to meet people.

What else is important to success?

Relationships are critical. My whole life has been based on relationships. Relationships are earned over time, and they are built on your reputation. Never do anything to damage your reputation.

What do you look for in hiring brokers for your company?

I rate brokers based on their ability to, first, “find them,” second, “mind them,” and third, “grind them,” with a maximum of ten points for each category, or 30 points total. Brokers hate it because it reveals who they really are and what they’re made of.

How does your rating system work?

“Find them” is the ability to develop and find business. Some people are very bright, but they don’t have the ability to develop relationships. They are afraid to face rejection. If they get knocked down, they have a hard time getting back up. You have to be tough in this business.

And your second category, “mind them”?

“Mind them” is how brokers maintain relationships. I’ve had relationships with firms since the first day I was in business, and I’ve worked hard to serve those relationships my entire career.

And “grind them”?

Here is where a lot of people fall down. You have to know this business, and you have to bring value to your client relationships. Life is all about the difference between fact and perception. If you have the perception that you have a good relationship with your client, but your client doesn’t see it that way, the facts will dictate and the client may not be loyal to you. Other people will come along and take away your business. To combat that, you have to provide what I call “unreasonable” service. You have to overwhelm clients with service.

Who do you try to reach in a client organization?

You have to deal with the key people in a company: the CEO, the CFO, the chief administrative officer, and the head of real estate. Many young people shoot too low. They try to connect with line managers, for example, but not the top people in the company.

So you’re saying not to set the bar too low?

You should never limit yourself. Don’t say, “My goal is to make a million dollars, and then I’ll be happy.” Never have a limit on anything. And don’t quit. If you get knocked down in a transaction, pick yourself up and get going again. A lot of people get bruised, and they go into a funk and never recover.

What’s the value of education to a real estate career?

The people who have an edge in a very competitive world are those who have advanced degrees in business, accounting, law, engineering, or other disciplines. It’s also important to get involved in industry organizations like ULI or CoreNET Global or other organizations like the World Affairs Council so you can stay informed, understand the issues of the day, and build relationships. If you ever have the opportunity to serve on the board of a corporation or nonprofit, take it. I’ve learned more from sitting on the boards of 14 public companies over the years than I ever did in school.

How has the business changed since you started?

It’s much more complex. You have to deal with all sorts of issues: accounting, tax, regulatory, engineering, legal, architectural, and financial issues. No one can be an expert in all these issues, which means that you have to work as part of a team of knowledgeable and experienced people. And to win in a very competitive business, you have to put the best team on the playing field.

So it’s not possible to be a generalist in the brokerage business?

You can’t be a jack-of-all-trades in a large brokerage firm in a big city. You have to decide whether to be in office leasing, or agency leasing, or asset services, or some other area. My life has been involved in office leasing and large, sophisticated sales. You can’t do everything. Specialization is something young people have to think about. People say to me, “I want to be in real estate.” And I ask them, which part of real estate—residential or commercial, development or ownership? You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to be a developer.

At this point in your career, what are your aspirations?

I like to find and help develop people and watch them succeed. That still excites me. I’m enjoying the business today more than ever.

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