Friday, March 13, 2009

A Master Builder's Blueprint for Success

Love of risk has plunged the nation into some deep doo doo. How about love and risk being a winning formula to get us cleaned up and out of crisis?

It's a question that brings me to legendary real estate developer Trammel Crow, who died two months ago at age 94. His passing slipped by without a great deal of attention, not surprising in a period when any news about commercial real estate is more likely to be riveted on financing troubles, failed projects, and busted developers. His spirit speaks to our troubled times, however, so let me pay tribute before he fades into obscurity.

Crow, in his day, was a classic American success story. Starting out as an accountant, he switched to real estate at age 33, and began a run of projects in the late 1940s that reshaped the skylines of several cities, especially his hometown of Dallas. My only brush with Crow came in 1989, when I published in Directors & Boards an excerpt from a new biography about him. The book, full of color on this master builder, was written by Robert Sobel, a professor of business history at Hofstra University (who died in 1999). Let me share two of the choice anecdotes about Crow that were in our piece:

• "After giving a guest lecture at Harvard Business School, a student asked Crow to identify the most important single element in creating a successful business. 'Love.' Crow firmly believes that if you truly have love for people you will be more successful with them. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful at your job. If you love yourself, you will be a better person."

• "An English businessman, visiting Dallas for the purpose of making some investments, was invited to dinner at Crow's home. Afterward, the two of them and some of Crow's friends and colleagues sat around and talked of many things, including their aspirations and goals. 'Trammel, I'd just like to get a little better view of your circumstances,' the visitor said. 'I've seen your library, I've met many of your friends, I see you're athletic, I understand your involvement in many affairs, and I'm quite impressed with all the beautiful objects of art you have in your home. If you had the opportunity to add another dimension to your life, what would you want to do?' Without the slightest hesitation, Crow responded: 'I'd like to make another deal.' "

Risk taking got us into this economic mess, but it's going to be good old-fashioned, iron-backboned, pioneering-spirit risk taking that is going to get us out. And let's ladle in a hearty dollop of love, something in short supply as the layoffs mount. 

Love and risk takingFor boards longing to reconnect with the spirit of progress and profit, that sounds like a winning formula. It was the empire-building blueprint of an American great like Trammel Crow. Put it to work for you.