The Great Developer

Trammell Crow made millions based on what he called hunches—warehouses, atrium marts, huge hotels—and amazingly, most of his deals he did on a handshake.

Trammell Crow was the first titan I had ever met. It was 1980, and I was just out of college, working as a cub reporter for the Dallas Morning News. Hoping to get me to write a story, a public relations man had asked me to meet him at some downtown restaurant where all the big businessmen of the city gathered. Suddenly, Trammell Crow walked past our table. The PR guy, obviously wanting me to know how connected he was, said, “Mr. Crow,” and the great developer turned around, said hello to him, and then looked at me. He saw my little reporter’s notebook in my hand. After we were introduced, he gave me a kindly smile. “So you’ve taken on the hardest job in the world,” he said. “You should have done something easy, like I did, and built buildings. You’d be making a lot more money.”

I always had assumed titans—especially Texas titans—were supposed to be mean sons of bitches. I knew for a fact—at least I thought I did—that they hated reporters. But Crow was different. Every reporter who got the chance to go into his office would always come out marveling at the way those great bushy eyebrows rose up to the heights of his forehead. And they’d equally marvel at how he was so common—and I use that word only in the best way. You’d sit there and ask him some question that you had spent thirty minutes the night before formulating—a question, say, about business models and real estate economics that made you look vastly intelligent—and he’d raise his eyebrows and look out the window for a few seconds and say, “I don’t know about that. I sort of do things on a hunch. You want a glass of water or something there, young man?”

His first great hunch was what became known as “the spec building.” In the forties, he guessed correctly that businesses in Dallas—where he grew up Depression-era poor—were soon going to need warehouses, so he built hundreds of them “on spec” (meaning without a tenant), dressing them up with windows and landscaping. And only then did he seek out tenants. Some of the warehouses he built for a certain tenant in mind, but he never approached that tenant until he was done.

Crow made millions. Then, in the fifties, he had a hunch that Dallas could use gigantic atrium-decorated merchandising marts, and by the sixties his hunch was on humongous hotels (like the Anatole on Stemmons Freeway) and office towers. By 1989, his hunches had put him in control of nearly 300 million square feet of developed real estate in more than one hundred cities around the country, totaling more than $14 billion in assets. Forbes magazine named Crow the largest private landlord in the United States. And perhaps most amazing? Most of his deals he did on a handshake.

“What would you do to stay one step ahead of everyone in the game?” I remember asking him for a short documentary that I helped produce when he was being initiated into the Texas Business Hall of Fame. “Did you have consultants? Did visions pop into your mind? What?” And he raised his eyebrows and looked away from the camera toward the window and said, “Heck, I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

In truth, he wasn’t inarticulate. When he got talking about a subject such as following your passions, he could talk your head off. Get a load of this great quote: “There must always be a burn in your heart to achieve. In the quiet of your solitude, close your eyes, bow your head, grit your teeth, clench your fists. Achieve in your heart, vow and dedicate yourself to achieve, to achieve.” Or what about this one: “There’s as much risk in doing nothing as in doing something.”

When I heard that Crow finally died this week at the age of 94, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, I thought about that first time I met him. How such a gracious, kind man rose to the top of the cutthroat world of Texas commercial real estate, we’ll never know. But I’m glad he did it. He closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and achieved. 

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