Tuesday, January 20, 2009 (SF Chronicle)
Trammell Crow dies, major real estate developer
Douglas Martin, New York Times
Trammell Crow, who began his business career as the teller behind the
window H-to-M at the Mercantile National Bank in Dallas and rose to become
one of America's largest real estate developers and landlords, died
Wednesday at his farm near Tyler, Texas. He was 94.
The death was announced by a family spokeswoman, Cynthia Pharr Lee.
Forbes in 1971 and the Wall Street Journal in 1986 called Mr. Crow the
largest landlord in the United States. The Journal said the company he
founded was then the nation's biggest developer.
Mr. Crow once had interests in nearly 300 million square feet of developed
real estate, comprising 8,000 properties in more than 100 cities.
His projects, always with partners, included the Dallas Market Center, the
Peachtree Center in Atlanta and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco,
and reached from Kansas City to Hong Kong to Brussels.
When Fortune magazine named him to the United States Business Hall of Fame
in 1987, it called him "one of the most innovative developers in history."
The traditional way of developing real estate was to use other people's
money to build a building, depreciate it, sell it and then deploy the
profit to start the process all over again with another building. But Mr.
Crow's formula was to hold on.
"You can get rich selling real estate," he often said, "but you can only
get wealthy by owning it."
William Bragg Ewald in his book "Trammell Crow: A Legacy of Real Estate
Innovation" (2005) wrote that many landlords try to avoid tenants for fear
they might ask for something, but that Mr. Crow aggressively pursued
fixing tenants' problems.
He signed customers to the shortest lease possible, saying this apparent
sacrifice of long-term security allowed him to charge ever-higher rents.
Clinging to properties meant he needed deep-pocketed partners. He first
recruited stalwarts of the Dallas establishment such as civic leader John
Stemmons. As he expanded nationally, he enlisted backers that included
David Rockefeller and Winthrop Rockefeller.
Undoubtedly his most important innovation, which he pioneered in 1948 on
his first project, a Dallas warehouse, was to build buildings for which he
had no tenants lined up in advance. He became, in his own words, "a
confirmed gambler, a speculative builder."
Trammell Crow, whose unusual first name was taken from a family surname,
was born in Dallas on June 10, 1914. At age 10, he began taking odd jobs
until his father, a bookkeeper, forbade it. But as the Great Depression
deepened, the family needed the young man's income, from jobs like
plucking chickens to unloading boxcars.
He graduated from high school in 1932, worked as a bank teller and studied
accounting at night. He passed his CPA exam in 1938 and joined Ernst &
Ernst as an auditor. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he
returned to Dallas in 1946.
He married Margaret Doggett in 1942. She survives him, as do his sons
Robert, Howard, Harlan, Trammell S. and Stuart; his daughter, Lucy
Billingsley; 16 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Crow managed his wife's family's grain elevator business in Dallas and
began winding it down while looking for better opportunities.
Rayovac, the battery-maker, leased space in a warehouse. When it decided
to move to larger quarters, Mr. Crow put together his first real estate
deal. He got loans from an insurance company and a local bank to build a
warehouse on land he had bought from civic leader Stemmons. He leased half
the building to Rayovac and soon found a renter for the rest.
His business strategy was set. Mr. Crow and partners went on to build 50
warehouses in Dallas - and much else.
There were nonetheless plenty of the ups and downs that characterize the
industry. In the 1970s, high interest rates, mounting debt and a glut of
office space combined to hurt the company so badly that it sold off many
properties. But it never stopped building new projects. By the 1980s, it
claimed to be the biggest real estate developer in the country.
Mr. Crow stepped down as chief executive in 1977 but remained involved in
deal-making. One that fell through was a plan for the Trammell Crow Co. to
be one of the developers of a wholesale computer and apparel mart in New
York from 40th to 42nd streets along Eighth Avenue as part of the
redevelopment of Times Square. Mr. Crow made several trips to Manhattan
and personally steered the project before dropping out for undisclosed
Other partners also dropped out as the Times Square plan changed in almost
The Trammell Crow Co. shares began to trade on the New York Stock Exchange
in 1997. In 2006, the company was sold to the CB Richard Ellis Group.
Mr. Crow was instrumental in bringing the Republican National Convention
to Dallas in 1984. He and his wife were avid collectors of Asian art, for
which they established a museum in Dallas.
Mr. Crow had the idea for a bronze sculpture - to be erected in 1995 on a
downtown Dallas plaza - of three cowboys and 70 longhorn steers, each 6
feet high. The local art community sneered. Cynics suggested he was really
trying to forestall a new hotel on the site that could compete with one he
owned nearby. The historically inclined groused that Dallas, unlike nearby
Fort Worth, was never really a cow town.
"I have about 8 or 10 pieces from Rodin in my buildings here," Mr. Crow
said in an interview with the New York Times. "Under their sort of
criticism, we shouldn't have any sculpture from Rodin in Dallas. Rodin
never even came to Dallas."
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