Man with the Plan
April 10, 2000
High Profile: David S. Cordish
Mastermind of Hampton complex built career on teamwork concept
David Cordish’s slip-on dress shoes rap the wood floors of his offices atop his company’s signature Power Plant entertainment center.
The knocking signals Cordish is on his way to another meeting. He is a man on the move, in perpetual motion. Hampton is among several cities along for the ride.
The city hired him last year to build an "urban entertainment center."
The center marries upscale retail stores to flashy, entertainment-based restaurants and shops.
He preaches the gospel of public-private partnerships, exalts the virtues of athletics and playing by the rules, and is fueled by the never-ending challenges his business presents.
The Power Plant is one of several similar projects Cordish has built over the years. It contains the first ESPN Zone restaurant, a sports fan’s nirvana with a cutting edge sports game room upstairs. It also includes a Hard Rock Café, two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore, a Gold’s Gym and offices.
The Power Plant concept is spreading. Cordish will expand it next door and spawn another version, "Power Plant Live," down the street.
And that’s just in Baltimore. Hampton believes Cordish can deliver a project like that to jump-start Hampton’s retail community.
Cordish and his staff, who are all athlete-workaholics, are among few national developers focusing on urban areas. He also seeks out public-private partnerships, where a locality pays some of the cost. Those tasks usually involve urban projects the company enjoys shaping and completing. Despite a public contribution, Cordish’s company can afford to do a complete project on its own.
Houston, Detroit, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Charles, S.C., and Landover, Md., are among his clients. Reno, Nev., and Atlantic City, N.J. are the latest to ink multimillion-dollar deals for a Cordish project to revitalize a sagging area.
He’s well connected on many fronts, including government and the retail and entertainment industries. So many cities seek him out, he has to turn down offers.
"I’m pretty convinced that in most of the projects we do of a public-private nature," he said during a March interview in his office, "if we don’t do them, they won’t get done."
In 1977, a high school friend, Robert Embry Jr., introduced Cordish to President Jimmy Carter’s administration. The administration asked Cordish to head a new agency to administer Urban Development Action Grants. The goal was attracting private investment into large cities. That money would be joined by a local subsidy; a public-private partnership.
"There are things cities want to accomplish that the private market enterprise system on its own are not accomplishing," Cordish said. Developers don’t seek out urban projects because they’re more expensive than suburban projects.
"It’s cheaper to build in the suburbs because you buy a cornfield, slap down asphalt, you don’t have structure parking, you don’t have underground parking," he said. The partnerships level the playing field.
"With a little impetus from the public sector, the project gets built, the amenity is there, the jobs get created, the taxes get paid, it all works."
His 20 or so suburban shopping malls are the company’s bread-and-butter. The urban projects aren’t as profitable and are more demanding. But, Cordish said, he has a "passion" for them anyway, shared by his sons, Blake and Reed, who are partners.
With the city projects, "You feel like you’re giving something back," Cordish said. "At the end of the day that you’ve done something like the Power Plant, you’ve taken an empty building, expanded the waterfront, the tourist base."
He also said, "I enjoy the intellectual challenge. It’s stimulating."
The intellectual challenge. Embry partnered with Cordish after their days in Washington and said Cordish executes best with a challenge looming. "I think he would get bored very quickly," he said, "doing something anyone else could do."
The Cordish Co. corporate culture is as deeply rooted in athletics as it is in business. Cordish was a lacrosse standout at Johns Hopkins University and loves tennis, basketball and swimming. He coached his three sons in tennis; they went on to play professionally.
Those he hires are good athletes as well as good businessmen. Sports gear is everywhere. In Reed’s office, a blue-and-black Adidas sport bag sits in one corner. Piles of shorts, socks and running shoes are squirreled away in out-of-the-way washrooms, including one off Cordish’s office.
The ESPN Zone downstairs acts as an annex. He entertains clients there and enjoys shooting hoops in the upstairs game room.
Sports teach people how to compete, to play by the rules and to be a good sport, he said. It builds confidence. Sports also teach how to lose gracefully, learn from any mistakes and come back to win next time.
"We hire a lot of jocks here, not just my sons," he said. "I find that somebody who’s had that discipline-and the higher the level, the better-is going to be a very good employee and a very good partner here. All things being equal, they still have to have brains."