My Takeaways from Trammell Crow Master Builder: The Story of America’s Largest Real Estate Empire

Charlie Hawkins

CHARLIE HAWKINS - In the foreword of Trammell Crow - Master Builder, H. Ross Perot remarks that “some of the country’s finest, smartest, brightest, and most ambitious men and women with superb credentials, willingly start out ringing doorbells, seeking leases from clients, at a fraction of the remuneration they might receive in another industry. They do so because they have learned that if they make the grade, they will be employees for a very short time and that down the road a few years out is the promise of a partnership, a share of the action.”

Trammell Crow wasn’t born into wealth and lived beneath his means. He grew up working odd jobs and quickly learned that whatever he was to get out of life had to be earned. Nothing would be given to him.

Trammell Crow began his career as an accountant and didn’t get into real estate development until age 33. He compensated for the lack of a college education with a voracious appetite for reading. He read anything he could get his hands on. One of his favorite aphorisms was that while people can’t do much about the cards that life deals them, they can play them in a variety of ways. 

Crow felt the need to prove himself capable of making it on his own, serving 5 years in the Navy.  Crow’s operations couldn’t be called a company. Rather, it was a series of unrelated deals, each with its own terms, partners, financing, potential, and problems.

In terms of the hiring process, Crow liked to hire young people that were 1) a good guy/girl, 2) someone he’d have a beer with, 3) had brains, and 4) had high ethical standards.

His theory was that a person who earns a salary won’t work the same as a person who owns part of a deal. He believed youth and energy go together, and impecunious individuals work harder than those relatively well off. His financially comfortable associates’ performances suffered.

Trammell Crow in 1996. His company went public in 1997. Credit Mark Graham for The New York Times
Why Trammell Crow valued Dallas, Texas

Unlike other metropolitan areas like New Orleans, New York, and Chicago that came into existence out of geographic happenstance, Dallas emerged because of the efforts of its individuals. It achieved prominence by the sheer willpower of its citizens.

Dallas is one of the few Texas cities that claim a French connection. In 1855, several hundred French men and women settled in La Reunion. When the community failed, they moved to Dallas.

The Big D is an optimistic, freewheeling city, and Dallasites are more willing to act on their informed hunches. They are more trusting than their counterparts in other parts of the country thought Crow who would later remark that “there are many more men in New York than in Dallas who could write a check for $10 Million, but there are probably fewer who would.”

Crow worked on an array of projects in his illustrious career beginning in the Trinity Industrial District. The $2.5 Million Market Hall, which today contains 214,000 sf is the largest privately-owned exhibition hall in the US.

The Dallas Decorative Center (now the Design District) was the first of its kind in the world to serve decorators and the design trade. It opened formally on September 5, 1955, a year before the birth of Bradford’s own CEO Kevin Santaularia.

On opening day, the design center only had 13 tenants. Crow’s deals ranged from his many small Dallas warehouses to the $300 Million Embarcadero in San Francisco or Peachtree Center in Atlanta.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts

Despite his great success, he wasn’t without his failures. His failed venture at a construction startup led him to believe there’s no business in which one takes so many risks for so few prospective rewards as in construction.

Contractors may serve as scapegoats for all that can go wrong. Highly leveraged, at one-point Crow owed $155 Million in debt and was responsible for another $433 Million, requiring him and his partners to sell many of the properties in their portfolio to liquidate that debt.

Building Relationships and Trust

He built over 12 million square feet of warehouse space in Dallas without ever having a written contract. This informal, person-to-person approach where trust begets trust resulted in a level of certainty and confidence between Crow and his clients.

As opposed to commercial development, residential development typically begins with an idea of who will rent but with no actual customers insight. But Crow knew who he wanted as renters and had a good idea of their needs, the competition, and just how much he could charge.

The core of his operations was the warehouse. He organized a company that would operate a public warehousing business. He received goods from others, stored them, and shipped them out as directed by the owner, usually the company that manufactured the goods.

Trammell Crow found a method of operation that ideally suited his business and personality. He kept track of deals through his keen memory, although the scarcity of written contracts presented bewildering difficulties for his associates later. The cryptic Crow preferred to cultivate an aura of enigma and lack of publicity. He wanted to be known as a “mystery man.”

Trammell Crow loved what he did. He believed that no company or organization is stronger than its people. With bringing on young new leasing agents, Crow looked for 2 characteristics - brains and character. When Crow built a warehouse in 1948, he had brains, character, and a willingness to work hard. Chasing experience rather than money, he learned to sacrifice rewards in the present for greater ones in the future.

October 14, 2019

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