Real estate riches rooted in family, Baltimore for Cordish Cos. | Crain's Washington D.C.

Real estate riches rooted in family, Baltimore for Cordish Cos.

David Cordish, back, photographed with sons Blake (left to right), Jon and Reed, is chairman and CEO of the The Cordish Companies, a 106-year-old real estate development firm based in Baltimore. | Photo courtesy of The Cordish Companies

For more than a century, real estate development has coursed through the veins of four generations of the Cordish family.

The Cordish Companies dates to 1910, when Louis Cordish began developing office and apartment complexes in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Today, the privately held, family-owned business has grown into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate as one of the most successful real estate development companies in the nation. It specializes in entertainment/mixed-use development, gambling and lodging, shopping centers, restaurants, clubs and music venues, offices, and residential and college student housing.

The Cordish Companies has also branched out with a private equity holdings arm and even a film distributor whose documentaries have been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including 1998’s Best Documentary, “The Long Way Home.”

Chairman and CEO David Cordish has earned a reputation nationwide as a turnaround artist, transforming failed urban projects into thriving developments.

“We’re up to four generations and more than a century of Cordishes here,” said David Cordish, whose three sons, Jonathan, Blake and Reed, have worked in key roles at the company for two decades. “But what brings me the most pride looking back over my half-century at the company is that we’ve managed to avoid the curse of rags to riches and back to rags in three generations that befalls the vast majority of family-owned businesses.

“I’m increasingly convinced that we have dodged this curse because of two simple guiding principles that my grandfather and my father, Paul Cordish, impressed over and over on all of us. The first is summed up by a saying my dad repeated around here to the point that it became almost a mantra: ‘Play hard, but play by the rules.’ By this, he meant that we always needed to push ourselves to innovate and grow, but never at the expense of ethics or responsible decision-making. This gave us common vision and values across the generations,” David Cordish said.

“The second is summed up in a saying that started with my grandfather: ‘If your last name is Cordish, you'd better be the one who turns off the lights every night.’ What he meant was, no matter how big the company got, you as an owner-manager had better be willing to work longer and harder than anyone you employ.”

Well into its 11th decade, the company stresses that all employees, whether their last name is Cordish or not, must avoid complacency, the root of many failures.

“You’d better earn the privilege of getting to run this company,” said Cordish, explaining that the family philosophy proved the foundation of generations of pride, fellowship and loyalty.

“People have to see that you care about this place and that you will be with them shoulder-to-shoulder as they help it grow,” he said. “And it sends a clear message across the generations of our family – that no Cordish is to have a sense of entitlement or rest on prior generations’ accomplishments. I think our employees recognize and appreciate this, and this helps motivate them.”

As for keys to success in multigenerational, family-owned businesses, Cordish said he worked to build consensus among all his partners.

“Regardless of their percentage of ownership, or whether their last name is Cordish or not, partners are treated equally from a governance standpoint. At Cordish, no major decisions are ever arrived at without 100 percent unanimity of the partners,” he said. “My dad was adamant about this, and I have been too. And anyone who thinks getting to unanimity is quick or easy has definitely never sat in on a meeting around here.”

The Cordish Companies’ “Live!” entertainment districts across the country draw more than 50 million visitors a year. The firm also has partnered with Anheuser Busch, NASCAR, Comcast Spectator sports management, the Hard Rock Cafe, the St. Louis Cardinals and others.

With development projects from Northern California to Texas and along the Atlantic Coast, The Cordish Companies is the only developer to win five prestigious Urban Land Institute Awards of Excellence.

Still, David Cordish said, the firm remains committed to carrying out its forebears’ advice to give back.

The Cordish Family Foundation, the company’s main philanthropy arm, has focused heavily on education and the arts. And the company’s CDF Development LLC relies on federal tax credits to finance nonprofit developments located in and serving low-income communities, creating local jobs and spin-off projects.

“I’ve tried to further contribute to my family’s and The Cordish Companies’ guiding principles by reinforcing with everyone that success always involves good fortune in addition to good work,” Cordish said. “Certainly, our biggest good fortune has been to be born in this country, but it applies equally to being born in this community. So I try to remind each generation of Cordishes, and all employees of The Cordish Companies, that success comes with an obligation to give back, and to do so with humility.

“It’s been incredibly gratifying for me to see The Cordish Companies, which my grandfather started with nothing, grow into one of the largest corporate philanthropists in the state, and also to watch our family’s giving involve more and more family members, and more and more causes aiding those most at risk in Baltimore,” he said. “My family was recently at Arlington Elementary School in the city, where we helped fund a new Judy Center to help pre-school children and their parents in that community. I was there with three generations of my family, all volunteering.

“My grandfather would have been proud, for he firmly believed – and taught us – a Cordish should strive not only to do well, but also to do good.”

Follow The Cordish Companies on Twitter at @cordishco.

August 24, 2016 - 2:25pm