Six years ago Eleanor Kubacki purchased a 17,000-square-foot, three-story building at 1027 South Clinton Avenue in Trenton, which formerly housed a company that repaired European organs shipped to Trenton from churches. “The building had great bones but we had to completely gut it,” she says. “We had to make it cool.”
The purchase and rehabilitation of the building cost Kubacki slightly under a million dollars. The result: Open architecture, with many communal spaces, a sprinkling of comfortable bean bag chairs and sofas, a big screen TV that can be used for video games as well as business presentations, and a ping pong table and putting green. These give people a place to take breaks so they can come back fresh to their work, says Kubacki. And because all the common spaces have wireless, tenants are not tied to their offices.
Originally EFK Group used just the third floor, then expanded into the second floor, but since the recession it has been using only the second floor, about 6,000 square feet. “When the recession hit, my company got slammed,” she says, and she had to find a way to pay big bills — like $30,000 a year for heating. “So I came up with the concept of renting it,” she says.
Although she was worried it would be a hard sell, within five to six months she had rented out every available space, primarily through Craigs List. On the first floor she decided to build individual offices for startup companies; and those offices also were rented quickly. The building has been fully occupied for three years until recently when two companies moved out.
The building, she says, is a break-even prospect, not a moneymaker, because maintenance costs are so high. “I’ve learned that as landlord, you constantly have to replace things,” she says.
She recently started an experiment downstairs, called “fractional rental,” where people rent desks, Internet service, and use of the common area for up to 10 days a month for $200 a month. For example, a man who just finished law school and has an office in Elizabeth now uses this as an additional address in Trenton.
About her renters she says, “They love it here. It is a creative, cool space. Everything is different about how we rent space,” she continues. “People can bring not only their dogs to work but even their children.”
Comparing herself to more traditional landlords of office buildings, she says, “They are tough as nails; if you use anything, you get charged. We share each other’s supplies and coffee. We are respectful, but at the same time have a more communal, pro-business feeling.”
Several years before companies like Google were making headlines for their funky, non-traditional open office configurations, Kubacki changed the way she did business and how her employees interacted with one another. For example, previously she had her own office, which she had decorated with care to reflect who she was and who her firm was — sort of a “shabby and chic look,” she says. It combines pictures of John Lennon and Martin Luther King, wallpaper from the 1940s, a repainted bench from across the street, antique plates, and in the middle of it all, technology by way of a gigantic screen.
But she has moved out of the office, except when clients need some privacy. She says. “Now I sit in open spacing, and it is so much more productive. We know what is going on with each other.”
The new open architecture has changed the company’s culture. “Everybody lends a hand,” she says. “You know if someone is struggling with something, and you can help them out and give suggestions.” Also, if anyone wants to be in on a meeting, they can join in because there is no door, no separation.
The fact that she and her employees get to know each other on a more intimate level, she adds, makes it more enjoyable to come to work. Noting that once having an office was the American dream, she says, “I’ll never go back to an office again. If I’m there and outside of what is here, I can’t add my two cents,” she says. “It breaks down barriers and gives you opportunities.”