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From Route 130, a Global Real Estate Reach
This story by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.
Don’t tell a Finn that something won’t work. You just
may find yourself eating crow.
That happened in the ’60s in East Windsor, when township fathers opposed
a new way to cluster apartment buildings to offer mixed uses within
the same zone. They lost: Gerald C. Finn developed Twin Rivers, a
pioneering Planned Unit Development and was named "builder of
the year" at a 1968 convention in the Houston Astrodome.
And in the late 1970s, when a Fortune 500 bigwig pooh-poohed the very
notion of a network of far-flung brokers, Finn began to build just
that. From a headquarters near Route 130 in Hightstown, New America
International now operates a 150-member network of independently owned
real estate brokers and serves 200 national and international markets.
Gerry Finn was two decades ahead of his time. When that time did come,
when other brokers coalesced into mega networks, he was already there
and had staked out a singular plan. And though he had to step aside
and watch another builder construct his Twin Rivers project, he is
hanging on to this one. At 68, he has a son, 36-year-old Jeffrey M.
Finn, who as president and COO is building the concept and the company.
"Wanting to give up is not in my lexicon," says Gerry Finn.
"and I hope not in my kids’ lexicons. But I wouldn’t have kept
it up if I didn’t have a son interested in it. You need to have the
longevity of management and a succession plan."
It was 1978 when Gerry Finn encountered the executive who scoffed
at his idea of creating a integrated interwoven team of brokers throughout
the country. Now trade magazines laud him for having pioneered the
idea of offering clients a single source of contact for multiple real
Some who tried to play catch-up have encountered their own Twin River-style
Waterloos. "People have tried," says Jeff Finn. "They
have typically evolved from being a broker to building a national
organization similar to ours, but they never got to critical mass,
and they ran out of capital and went back to local brokerage."
The difference between NAI and everybody else, says Finn, is that
NAI does major account management. "Our competitors focus on local
deals versus service delivery and long-term relationships. We do not
do brokerage: We manage the brokerage process. We drive our own volume
of business by managing the major accounts."
"We have not set up branch offices that are part of a bureaucratic
system," he says, "but have tapped into the entrepreneurial
nature of brokers to tie into independent companies that are deeply
rooted in the local marketplace, and put that into an organized model.
With our technology and staffing we can effectively develop and manage
business to ensure consistent delivery of service."
Just this year NAI has added a new and very familiar name: Fennelly
Associates (see story, page 57). "Whatever business is going to
be done in the Princeton area," says Jeff Finn, "Jerry Fennelly
is going to handle it for us. He has been trained, certified, and
is online to handle it in a very efficient way. We are not focused
solely on helping Jerry Fennelly gaining local market share but in
providing global services to local clients."
Such accounts as International Paper, Pepsi-Cola, Hertz, and Bestfoods
use NAI as an external real estate department, picking up the slack
when the workload gets too large to be handled in house.
About 40 people are employed at the headquarters in Hightstown. With
Amoco NAI is working with 300 projects simultaneously online, managing
all the steps, to make sure all services are being performed. It has
two people doing nothing but taking care of 100 United States Postal
Service projects, which has chosen NAI as its major service provider.
They work with a proprietary leading-edge computer program. "One
of my early ideas was to try to create a marketplace within NAI that
made buying or selling real estate as efficient as buying or selling
stock," says Jeff Finn. At his instigation the firm developed
the program, now on a web-based platform, called REALTrack Transaction
Management System. NAI bought a small software company, which had
a real estate database management system, to launch the global system.
The database has one full-time programmer and one developer, plus
outside consultants. The brokers themselves update the system with
new information, but a team of transaction managers keeps the database
accurate and clean.
Though it is difficult to put a price tag on NAI, Gerry Finn reckons
it to be worth perhaps $30 million. "It depends how you evaluate
it. Our systems and processes and our contracts could be worth $100
million. It’s a strange business. No one has ever done this before."
In real estate, as on Wall Street, even the downturns can be an opportunity.
Last August the Finns announced plans to be acquired by a Real Estate
Investment Trust (REIT). Then the REIT market turned to mush, and
that plan was abandoned. But now the REITs (including the would-be
suitor, Kranzco Realty Trust) need to sell some of their properties
and are therefore some of NAI’s current best customers.
Gerry Finn’s father, an advertising man for a department
store in Trenton, taught that if you make up your mind to do something,
you can do it. But he died when Gerry was 16, and the motto had a
severe test. "I was about to go to college, and I really wanted
to go to an Ivy League school, but we didn’t have the money,"
says Finn. He served in the Army at the Pentagon during the Korean
War and accumulated credits from Rutgers, correspondence courses,
and Rider, though he never received a diploma.
During that period he met and married his wife Norma: They had three
children in the ’50s (one who died in infancy, a son who is an attorney,
and a daughter who is a nurse) and Jeff was born in 1962.
When he came up with the Twin Rivers idea, people called him a fool.
"I took all the money I was making on a number of building projects
and wanted to build a new town, something very different and very
exciting that would set a standard for America. Every builder in New
Jersey was laughing at me," says Gerry Finn. "They said it
would never never happen. It looked like it wasn’t going to, but we
stuck with it." Twin Rivers was a planned unit development, an
attempt to create a community with houses and mixed uses in the same
zone — the "Main Street" concept so popular now.
"It requires a very different approach to planning and zoning,"
says Finn. "It scared East Windsor to death." At the time
he was building Brooktree and battling to get water and sewer into
the town. "Getting Twin Rivers through became a real cause celebre.
There were times when it looked pretty bleak."
He got the zoning but lost the project. After four years, with no
money left and two toddlers at home he sold it to American Standard.
"They made me a millionaire instead of being poor. No, I don’t
necessarily like the way they did Twin Rivers. It is nowhere near
as beautiful as it would have been, and it might have been more profitable."
Another portfolio, including properties in Lawrenceville, New Hope,
District of Columbia, and Florida, was sold to Certainteed under similar
From 1974 to 1978, says Finn, he was in a state of semi-retirement,
doing consulting for major companies. He was making a speech at a
real estate convention when he got into the squabble with the Fortune
500 expert who insisted that no one could use brokers throughout the
country because they would be so fragmented. Thus challenged he founded
New America Development Corporation in 1978 and signed up his first
member in 1980.
Says Gerry Finn: "I like to think I am a visionary. I know I am
a good salesman. I have always been able to sell anything. The only
thing I am not is a day to day management person." That’s where
the son comes in. "Jeff is a thinker, but he has the practical
ability to make it happen. In spite of the nepotism, he’s good."
In 1980 Jeff Finn had just graduated from high school, having cut
his management teeth at a tender age in one of the family businesses.
"My father is a fantastic motivator," says Jeff Finn. "He
has a way of letting you know of ways to grow in a positive way."
A member of the notoriously disciplined Peddie School swim team, he
worked his way up summer jobs at the Brooktree pool from the snack
bar to lifeguard to pool manager, taking the manager’s slot when he
was still in high school. He met his future wife, Cherie, at the pool,
and they now have a six-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son.
After majoring in finance and marketing at Boston U, he graduated
a semester early, and started to work for the firm in January, 1984.
"It is a wonderful place to be and a fantastic company," says
Finn. "We have a team of great people, all focused on the mission,
and an interesting culture — stimulated by the entrepreneurial
nature of our broker members."
Besides communicating by E-mail, on the Web, and on the company’s
Intranet, NAI has frequent conferences, both regional and system wide.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle was the keynote speaker at a conference
Each of the brokerages in the farflung network is independently owned,
but to keep everyone in line, each member is evaluated annually for
technology, training, accounting procedures, and processes. Some are
re-certified, others are helped, and some are terminated as members.
This contrasts, Finn says, to big companies, with fully-owned offices,
that might have difficulty terminating an underperforming office.
Finn declines to say what it costs to be an NAI licensee, but a member
of a competitive network, David Houston, says he pays $100,000 annually
to represent New Jersey as Colliers Houston, and from the network
he gets 20 percent of his business.
Houston casts a different light on differences between NAI and networks
such as his. Colliers, he says, is different from NAI because it is
a "cooperative, a global corporation of equal shareholders."
He lays claim to the single source concept and tells of one office
that has 34 people working on an account for the brokerage firm of
Edward D. Jones, which aims to open 90 small offices every month over
the next for five years.
Rather than develop proprietary software, Colliers handles its record-keeping
and communication with a version of Lotus Notes. "A real estate
manager can get onto our system and see every change in every file,"
Colliers stock is owned by member firms with 246 offices around the
world and a headquarters on prestigious State Street in Boston. The
president and CEO of Colliers is an employee, not an owner, and reports
to the board of directors. "NAI is a for-profit entity," says
Houston. "In Colliers you don’t have the we or they, we are all
Finn’s reply: "When you have a for-profit motive, you have a business
that strives for excellence and that cannot afford to be inefficient.
In their model they focus on doing brokerage, and their model is on
providing brokerage, not providing corporate services."
Jeff Finn says his father taught him motivation and
positive thinking, that "You really can achieve what you dream
you can achieve. I have never had a concept of giving up. We don’t
argue. We think very much alike. If we talk through an issue we come
to an easy and obvious solution. We have a unique relationship."
"We are blessed in that regard," says Gerry Finn. "Jeff
and I have a wonderful relationship.
"He’ll never slow down," says the son. "He has a great
ability to stimulate new ideas and even greater visions for the company."
It’s still a father-son team. "I’m never going to retire,"
says the father. "They can carry me out. What I do is go out and
make big deals and bring in clients. That’s exciting, much more fun
than the day to day."
The only thing Gerry Finn would like to do that he isn’t doing is
get back on the radio. He used to do an hour-long live show on WHWH.
Among his subjects were Mrs. Bruno Hauptmann, Dr. Kevorkian, a madam
from a house of prostitution, and the mayor of every township in three
counties. "I interviewed every politician in the area, I only
did it for fun."
Still, his greatest thrill is watching his work in action: "As
a developer, one of the great excitements is going out in the evenings
and driving through what you built, and seeing the kids play, and
knowing it wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t done it," says
Gerry Finn. "Now, seeing NAI signs all over Barcelona, Spain,
is almost the same kind of excitement."
Box 950, Hightstown 08520. Gerald C. Finn, chairman and CEO. 609-448-4700;
fax, 609-448-8126. Home page: http://www.newamerica.com.
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