Profile in Business
Jack Dill Successfully Manages Time and Space
Jack Dill was asked about the currently slumping commercial real estate market, and, more specifically, how this prolonged downturn compares to the one from two decades ago, and if this sector has finally hit bottom and started back up.
He paused and offered a few facial contortions that conveyed the message that this would be an exercise in basic futility, one not really worth his time or energy. And, speaking broadly, he said that while there have been times when the market is more subdued than others, there are few, if any, occasions when conditions in this realm could actually be called ‘good.’
“How do you know what the bottom is until you’re past it?” he asked. “I said this to someone the other day: ‘I never remember a period of time when I was picking up the financial news and reading that we were in a great economy.’
“If you go back and find the high points of the metrics and read the contemporary business literature at the time,” he continued. “I think you’ll see more things that are concerns, worries, and negative comments about the economy; I don’t think you’d see too many articles saying we’re in the tall grass. It is what it is, and you just have to come to terms with it.”
So rather than discuss about how bad things are, or how bad they are now compared to the recession of the early ’90s, Dill talked instead about a sign that he hung in the offices of Colebrook Realty Services — the former wholly owed subsidiary of what is now TD Bank that he acquired in 1998 — during that slump 20 years ago.
“It said, ‘No Whining Zone,’” he recalled, adding that this became a basic operating philosophy for the firm, which has both brokerage and property-management divisions that have grown steadily over the years.
“I had observed to someone at that time that we tried whining as a strategy and it just wasn’t very productive,” he noted, adding that while the sign is long gone, the attitude prevails. Indeed he told BusinessWest that while the current market is slow, the company continues to search out — and find — opportunities to expand its portfolios and gain market share.
The ‘no whining apparoach’ is an attitude that Dill takes with all aspects of his work at Colebrook — and within the community as well. It was much in evidence during his recent, and ongoing, efforts to assist the diocese of Springfield in its efforts to bounce back from the June 1 tornado, especially with regard to the comprehensive search for temporary quarters for Cathedral High School (see related story, page 19). That search ended with the selection of the former Memorial Elementary School in Wilbraham, after a spirited attempt to place the school on two floors of a building at Springfield Technical Community College failed to materialize due to logistics and time constraints.
“That was a fascinating project in and off itself,” Dill said of the relocation efforts, which were both typical in some respects and atypical in many others, of the site-selection work the company handles for clients. “We spent a lot of time on STCC because there was a lot of sentiment to try to keep things in Springfield.
“We had great cooperation from STCC, FEMA, the congressman’s office, the mayor’s office, and from our contractors and architects,” he continued. “It was a full-court press, and we spent four weeks in intensive analysis … at the end of the day, we just ran out of time. We had the elements in place to pull that off, but when we ran the critical paths schedule from that point forward, we would have been starting school Oct. 19, which really doesn’t work.”
Meanwhile, within the community, Dill has spent years on the board at Baystate Health, and was chairman as that institution blueprinted its $250 million Hospital of the Future, and more recently, he’s become involved with efforts to promote early childhood education as an economic development strategy as important to the region as building a new industrial park.
Looking at the sum of everything he’s doing these days, it’s clear to see that his focus is squarely on what’s down the road, and not what’s in the rear-view mirror.
For this, the latest in its profile series, BusinessWest talked with Dill about everything from the state of the real estate market to the importance of child literacy programs. The common denominator in each case is the passion with which he approaches all matters he’s involved with.
Signs of the Times
Dill leaned back in his chair and glanced toward the ceiling, as if the answer might be written there.
He was asked how many times the signs had changed on the building at 1441 Main St. — where Colebrook, which manages the property, is headquartered — since the brand SIS (Springfield Institution for Savings) disappeared from the local landscape.
“Had we known how the banking business was going to change in the’90s, we would definitely have gone into the sign business,” he started, displaying his trademark dry wit before starting to list off the names that have appeared over the front entranceway, from Peoples Heritage to First Massachusetts, to TD Bank.
Much has changed for Colebrook over the past several years as well, but the same basic operating philosophy hasn’t, said Dill, referencing the ‘No Whining Zone’ without actually saying the words.
Tracing his career path, Dill said he essentially grew up in the real estate financing realm — his father was in the mortgage business on a national level.
“From a very early age, I traveled with him and met his business associates and contacts, said Dill, “and from the age of about 14 on, I could calculate mortgage and bond yields.”
He maintained his interest in finance and real estate, and upon graduating from Williams College in 1974, went to work for SIS, even with opportunities to go to larger institutions in much bigger cities.
“I was sitting in the Friendly’s (in what is now known as Tower Square) on interview day, looking across the street at the bank building, and wondering ‘what am I doing here?’” he recalled. “My offers at the time were in New York and Boston. But SIS had a reputation for a really good management-training program that got people very quickly into the stream of doing things, as opposed to a multi-year credit training program that other people were offering.”
And rise quickly he did. Dill neventually become executive vice president of the bank’s Colebrook Corp. and affiliates, and thus actively engaged in commercial real estate development, finance, brokerage, and consulting work.
“It was highly unusual for a bank to do direct development, rather than just passive financing, so every chance I had when I was in my early career here, I would arrange to be lent to Colebrook, to do consulting work, survey work, or project work,” he said. “I spent time migrating back and forth between the bank and Colebrook.”
Projects initiated by SIS fell into the broad category of community development, he said, adding that initiatives included the Stockbridge Court and Armory Commons apartment projects in downtown Springfield, but also direct investment in high-tech office-park development in the Boston market.
Fast-forwarding a little, he said that over the years, the Colebrook Group, as it came to be called, underwent a steady course of evolution, and is today a multi-faceted service business, with diversity being its strongest asset.
Its individual service areas include brokerage work, property management, asset management, development services, and construction management, he explained, adding that the operating philosophy in each case is to “look at client business like it’s our money.”
The company has enjoyed steady growth across the board, especially in the property-management realm, where a trend toward outsourcing that began in the late ’80s continues in earnest today. As the pictures in the lobby of the Colebrook office attest, the portfolio of managed properties is diversified, including everything from the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke to the the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, a contract the company earned last year.
“Our label on a building means something, even if we don’t own it,” Dill continued, “because we’re the day-to-day contact for people.
“That’s part of our value-added, because one thing we’ve learned in 30 years of developing, owning, and managing buildings is that you really cannot afford to lose tenants,” he went on. “A rational owner will try to avoid losing a tenant at all costs, because it’s very hard to make up that cash flow; in an economy like this, good tenants are hard to find.”
Like most people who were in or near the path of the tornadoes on June 1, Dill has little trouble remembering where he was and what he was doing that fateful afternoon.
After the first tornado tore through downtown Springfield — missing 1441 Main St. by just a few hundred yards — he remembers trying to get updates on several clients that were more in harm’s way, such as the Hall of Fame and the Community Music School, for example, and heading out, first on foot and then by car, for some first-hand accounts.
He remembers being “embargoed” at the Hall of Fame as reports of a second tornado approaching from the Northeast starting coming in, and essentially waiting it out there until the skies cleared.
Starting on June 2, however, most of his energies have been directed toward assisting the diocese of Springfield, which had many facilities damaged by the twister, and specifically the efforts to find temporary quarters for Cathedral, as well as the middle school and a pre-school facility all located at the Surrey Road complex.
“It took 48 hours for people to understand how serious that damage was,” he explained. “The tornado hit on a Wednesday, and by Friday afternoon we were working on solutions. We surveyed the market, and eventually identified about 30 buildings sorted by various criteria that we developed with the diocese.
“About six or eight buildings into the tour, it occurred to me that with the new building codes, adoptive reuse of non-school buildings was going to be a problem,” he continued. “So we shifted gears, with the aphorism I was credited with developing that ‘schools make good schools,’ and that limited the inventory of things that we were considering to schools or buildings that had been schools.”
That list included STCC and the MacDuffie, the latter of which was also extensively damaged by the tornado, he said, adding that for logistical reasons, the former Memorial School made the most sense. And while conducting the search for new quarters, Dill said he’s become inspired by the energy and momentum the Cathedral community has created as it has forged ahead from the disaster.
“This will focus people,” he said of the recovery efforts,” and what I hope it will do is bring the alumni out and get people thinking about how important Cathedral is to this community, and bring resources to bear on this. And I think it will.”
While he admitted that education is not one of his areas of expertise, Dill has nonetheless become involved in many education- and community-oriented endeavors during his career.
In addition to his work with real estate-related groups, such as the Mass. Housing Investment Corp. and the Councilors of Real Estate and its New England and Upstate New York chapter, Dill’s resume includes work (past and present) with the Springfield School Volunteers, Mass. Business Alliance for Higher Education, Greater Springfield YMCA, Community Music School, Springfield Library and Musems Assoc., American International College, for former StageWest, and even the Springfield Parks Commission.
Many of these assignments date back to when he was an SIS employee, he said, adding that in recent years he has scaled back his community work, but remains quite active, especially in the broad realm of education. One current passion is promoting early childhood education and, especially, the importance of literacy, through a project undertaken in conjunction with the Irene E. and George A. David Foundation called “Effective Reading by the Fourth Grade.”
“The research is really clear that if you’re not an effective reader by the fourth grade, the chances of a successful outcome, meaning graduation from high school, are much slimmer,” he said. “The Davis Foundation has reversed engineered education reform in some sense and come to the realization — and they’ve convinced me, at least — that early focus is absolutely critical; the earlier the better.”
The Lease He Can Do
Although somewhat reluctantly, Dill offered some commentary on the state of the local commercial real estate market.
“It’s been a tenant-driven market for 28 of the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” he said. ‘There have been a few very brief periods when landlords had leverage, but for most of that time, it’s been tenants that have had leverage. And in a way, that’s good, because it has a positive impact on the cost of doing business here, and that’s been helpful to growing service businesses and smaller providers of services, and that’s good for the economy.
“We’ve talen some hits with major tenant relocations and consolidations,” he continued. “It’s always great to be dealing with one big transaction with a few hundred employees, but if that goes away, the market has a bigger program. We’ve seen some pretty good growth among smaller, flexible firms, and I think that gives us a better-integrated economy.”
Which led him to again borrow from Bill Bellichick: “it is what it is.”
And with that, he returned to what is still the ‘No Whining Zone,’ even if the sign identifying it as such is gone.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]