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C&W's living legend

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that is true, then Jim Peters' brothers, Anthony and Leone, must be extremely proud. In 1940, at the age of 18, after listening to his brothers talk about their experience in both real estate and at Cushman & Wakefield, Jim decided to travel down the real estate road as well.

Sixty years after he joined Cushman & Wakefield as an office boy, Jim Peters is still with the company as vice chairman. He's worked on an array of deals including the Detroit Bank & Trust Deal (today known as Comerica), which was C&W's largest transaction at the time.

He's made his way up through the ranks at Cushman & Wakefield as a credit manager, broker and even president of the firm from 1976 until 1982. Recently, Jim spoke to NREI about the real estate business, Cushman & Wakefield and how both have fared over the years.

NREI: How did you get started in the RE business?

PETERS: Easy question. It's not how I got started in the business, it's why I got started. It was because of my two brothers, Leone, who joined the company in 1929, and Anthony, who joined Cushman & Wakefield in 1937.

I decided to go into the real estate business because I found what they used to talk about at home was very exciting to me. So I joined Cushman & Wakefield in 1940 as an officeboy. I made deliveries, and I took care of the stock room. My office was the stock room. I made the fantastic salary of $13.50 a week. At least I was getting paid. Even brokers in those days did not make too much money.

NREI: What were your brothers doing for the firm?

PETERS: [My brother] Anthony joined as an office boy; he didn't make as much [money] as I did. He only got $12 a week. Leone began working at Cushman & Wakefield as a credit manager and very soon went on to brokerage. You have to understand that in 1940, the economic conditions in this country were not that great. [The economy] was still suffering the after effects of The Depression and [the country was] worrying about the war in Europe, so it was not an easy time. The leading broker in 1940 grossed $1,200.

That's how I got started in the business. Of course I did take some time out for the Second World War. At the age of 19, I volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps. I spent the next four years in the service, and I went back to Cushman & Wakefield at the end of 1945.

NREI: Was the real estate business everything you'd hoped it would be?

PETERS: I'm only sorry that I don't have another 60 years to spend in the real estate business. I love it. It's my life, and it has been my life. It's just an exciting, wonderful business, especially when you're successful.

NREI: As a broker, what were some of the most exciting transactions and deals you've worked on?

PETERS: That's not an easy question to answer; I've had many. The first deal would be the Detroit Bank & Trust deal in Detroit, which was a first at the time in the 1960s. The second would be the Sears building in Chicago, which is still the tallest building in Chicago. In this country, it's still the tallest building. However, I understand there's one in another part of the world that's taller.

And then there was the deal that gave me the most satisfaction for finally getting it done, but never received the recognition that it deserved: the American Management Association deal. It was the Crowne Plaza at 1601 Broadway, and it took seven years to complete.

The great thing about that was that the same space was there, the same tenant, all of the things were the same. Can you imagine something lasting that long - seven years - and the space being available? We finally closed it in 1995 after working on it for seven years. I should have a plaque up on my wall for the most ingenious deal of the year.

NREI: What do you enjoy the most about the real estate business?

PETERS: The fact that you really start every day new. You start something new every day, no matter what you're working on. You never stop looking for avenues of transactions. You're constantly meeting new people. It's exciting.

This business has kept me young all these years. I don't know what I would have done without this business. I still get the same kick out of it today that I did back in 1949.

NREI: How has real estate changed over the years?

PETERS: It's changed in many ways. That's a difficult question to answer. Anyone who answers it and says it's simple, don't listen to them. It's not. If you're talking about the manner in which people do things, consider the tremendous change in the technical side of real estate with computers - which I don't own one, by the way. I am one of the few people who don't have one.

NREI: You don't own a computer?

PETERS: No I don't. I still do deals on the back of a cocktail napkin. If there's one thing that hasn't changed, it's the chemistry between people. It's still very important. It's a people's business. I don't care how many new things they come up with. People keep asking me that question. It's probably a silly answer, and I hate to say this, but a great deal of the fun has gone out of the business.

We used to have a lot of fun, but people don't seem to have fun anymore. I try to smile as often as I can and say good morning to people and act like we're still a small family. When you lose that, you're going to lose something very valuable to our business, something that people have no idea what they're missing.

The services you must provide to your clients are far greater today and much more complicated than just 15 years ago. For 27 years as a broker - before I became president of Cushman & Wakefield - I did everything myself. I went out and sold my services to people.

Today when you try to get an account, you have an entourage that goes. You have a whole team that goes, which I still don't understand. However, if you're not a company that's prepared to and equipped to deal globally, you can't do it. When I joined Cushman & Wakefield, there was a total of 18 people. Today we have approximately 9,400 employees. When you ask me how it's changed, my gosh. Just by coming back here after 15 years, I came into a different world.

My selling was myself. I never, ever sold by knocking my competitors. I told them why they should use me, not why they shouldn't use someone else.

NREI: How has Cushman & Wakefield changed over the years?

PETERS: We did not specialize in financing (in the old days we called them mortgages). We now have one of the finest financial departments in the world. In 1982, we had one appraiser. Today we have one of the largest, most productive appraisal departments in the world.

[Our appraisal department] does close to $50 million a year in business. Those things have changed. We never really specialized in sales. We had one sales broker; today we have a tremendous sales department and represent many owners in the sale of buildings.

NREI: Do you have any thoughts about retiring?

PETERS: I would not know what to do with myself. I love the business. As long as my health holds out, I'll be in it. I'm in [the office] at 7 a.m. every morning, sometimes earlier. I've always said, you go to bed at night thinking real estate and wake up thinking real estate and in between you do a few other things.

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