Part 1: Early Adventures
Today Ben F. Kushner Co. is the overseer of over 2,000,000 square feet of commercial real estate with a market value of $100 million. Much gratitude goes to those who have shown confidence and offered support by investing their time and equity in our investment opportunities. Nor could we operate without the determination, commitment, focus and loyalty of a small but highly efficient staff of men and women who maintain the multitude of moving parts that comprise this company.
The company has evolved over a 33 year span of real estate Adventures. The company’s prominent position in Atlanta real estate is the culmination of experience, many mistakes, education, dedication, and happenstance. The entire real estate odyssey began because the owner could not obtain nor maintain a “real” job.
As a journalism and US history student from the University of North Carolina, nary one business course can be found on my transcript. I was convinced that a few years of experience writing for the campus daily and a few moonlighting jobs with the networks televising sports would surely convince Sports Illustrated or Roone Arledge at ABC Sports to rush to hire me. A few months of rejections in New York with little money can be a rude awakening for a 21 year old from Danville, VA (population 45,000- on Saturdays when the tobacco farmers come to town).
Lack of experience, a poor economy and a dwindling purse sent me to find my way in Atlanta, my Mother’s birthplace. I was amazed that few people were willing to hire a college sports writer and an expert on the election of 1896. Finally Otis Brumby, owner of the Marietta Daily Journal, agreed to hire me for his paper…as a circulation supervisor. He didn’t want me to write for newspapers. He wanted me to deliver them. Good thing I had graduated from one of the nation’s prominent universities. He did agree that if I was a good delivery boy, he would let me write a few pieces for the paper.
It wasn’t the humiliation of driving the van full of papers to drop off points for waiting delivery boys and girls that ended my journalism career. Nor was fielding calls from irate subscribers whose paper either didn’t arrive, or had arrived in pages scattered over their lawn, or even those who called the circulation department when they did not like a story that had been delivered in their newspaper that sent me to another career opportunity. Ironically it was the writing part of my job that drove me from the fifth estate. Journalism school teaches you to write good stories and print the truth. Most young journalists are looking for that one story that will make their career. This was three years before Woodward and Bernstein but I really wanted a story that could get me out of that delivery van. Finally I got a tip about a Cobb County auto dealer rolling back odometers. I wrote it and it was going to be a front-page story. The roar of the huge printing press roared to signal the start of the daily run of about 75,000 copies. Then I got a call to go to the office of the Publisher, Otis Brumby then a young heir to an old, wealthy, Cobb County family. Despite being untrue I had the image that somewhere back in 1912, the Brumby’s had been part of the Leo Frank hanging party in Cobb County. Nevertheless I was sure that I was going to get my permanent assignment. Instead I received a lesson in the local newspaper business. Otis proceeded to show me how much advertising this particular car dealer bought from the paper and showed me pictures of the two of them at Rotary and at various groundbreakings. Then he did something I only thought happened in movies. He picked up the phone and yelled, “Stop the presses!” He threw away the entire days edition. After he got another story in my place, he ran off another 75,000 papers with a story in my former column about an upcoming parade.
He did not fire me but I was disappointed and disillusioned with the business of newspapering. A few weeks later I submitted my resignation along with the keys to the delivery van.
I had no idea what I would do next. But I needed to do something to earn living expenses. One problem I faced was transportation. My wife was in a training program at Piedmont Hospital. We had one car so I had to drive her to work very early in the morning from our apartment in Smyrna and pick her up by 4 in the afternoon.
I had the brilliant idea that until I “found myself” I could take a temporary job as a cab driver for Smyrna Taxi. I could solve the dual problem of both transportation and finances.
Despite making only about $75 a week from fares and tips plus another $50 or so from playing poker with the other drivers at the cabstand, it was a positive experience. Driving the taxi provided two very important contributions to my career. Since I had only been in Atlanta for a few months I did not know my way around town. I was a cab driver who could not get hardly anywhere. The first time someone got in my car to go to Hartsfield Airport, I said, “Great. How do you get there?”
Fortunately the dispatcher, a great guy named George Rainwater, knew every location in a 50-mile radius. Whenever anyone got in my car, I would call George on the two way.He would snap out the directions with speed, clarity and precision. Soon I learned my way around town as if I had lived here all my life. I also learned how to give directions without a lot of needless information like when people tell me to go three miles past a school, a tall tree and a medium sized dog. Just say go three miles.
The second contribution was the suggestion to try the real estate business made by one of my passengers. Each month a couple of vets living in Smyrna would get their government check and invest the funds with ladies of questionable virtue residing in Midtown. Smyrna Taxi provided the transportation for the women to the homes of these former heroes.
One of the women suggested that I try real estate. She had several clients in the business that claimed they were making a lot of money selling land in the then outlying counties like Cherokee, Cobb and Forsyth. I was more interested in reviving my writing career but decided to file the suggestion in my memory bank.
Soon I met a fellow about my age who claimed to be making great money listing and selling land in north Georgia. He took me around with him one day in his new Citroen. He just talked to nice farmers, listed their land, advertised it and sold it. Sounded very simple and the being outside walking around farms talking to people similar to the ones I had grown up around was very appealing. I applied to take the State Exam.
I decided to interview with a few firms while I completed the 6-week course followed by the state examination. I called the firms whose signs seemed to be the most prominent around town. Adams Cates (now Grubb & Ellis) and Adair (don’t know what happened to them) were the first two I contacted. I figured that since they only pay by commissions when a sale closed getting hired would be a snap. Wrong. Most of the firms I talked to said 22 was too young to invest the time to train because the failure rate of new agents was about 90% of everybody who entered commercial real estate. Knowing that I had a short time to make something happen because of very limited funds made me apprehensive about the career move.
Someone suggested that I go talk to Roy Ludwig, owner of Barton & Ludwig. He tried to talk me out of it, suggesting I was not used to working as hard as it would take to be successful. He finally agreed to give me a shot but said that he did not have enough desk space to give me one of my own so I would have to use a desk and phone when one of the other sales people were out on appointment.
I accepted the opportunity.