Trickling back downtown Move: Prudential Preferred Financial Services is leaving suburbia for the city.

September 09, 1997|By Eleanor Yang | Eleanor Yang,SUN STAFF

Sure, the boost in business at Tim Mackie's financial services office this year had something to do with his expanded sales staff. But he thinks there's something else going on: a vibrant new location for the office that is motivating workers and boosting productivity.

"Before, it was very quiet around the office," said Mackie, managing director of Prudential Preferred Financial Services' Baltimore-area branch. "People weren't going out on as many sales calls. Now they're more energized. I don't see them as much." Prudential Preferred has moved to downtown Baltimore from Timonium, becoming part of of a recent ripple of companies reversing the usual course of business migration from city to suburb.

Since setting up in downtown's Signet Tower in February, Mackie said, he and his co-workers find that they get more done, book more appointments and enjoy the workday more.

"Being in Timonium, we were away from the type of environ- ment we need to be around," said Ralph E. Thomas Jr., director in the office. "We need to be around people on a day-to-day basis. We need to meet people walking."

Prudential Preferred and its 30 employees join Sylvan Learning Systems, a division of McDonald's Corp. and Treasure Chest Advertising, all of which recently relocated to downtown. Sylvan and McDonald's came from Baltimore suburbs; Treasure Chest arrived from California.

The case of Prudential Preferred shows why some employers find downtown attractive both economically and aesthetically. It also seems to belie the notion that, in an age of computers and cell phones, office location doesn't matter.

"There's no question that there's been more companies moving into downtown," said David Kornblatt, chairman of the Baltimore development firm, the Kornblatt Co. "In the last six to eight months, there's been a definitive upturn, maybe 15 to 20 percent, in the number of inquiries from companies large and small."

Vacancy rates for downtown Class A office space, in the highest quality and youngest buildings, have fallen from the 18 to 20 percent range last year to between 7 to 13 percent now, depending on which survey is consulted.

Prudential Preferred, a unit of the Prudential life insurance giant, markets financial products to upper-income individuals and small businesses. When its Baltimore-area office decided to relocate last year, downtown wasn't the obvious choice.

"My corporate office was confused [about his wanting to move to downtown], a lot of people were," said Mackie, 37. "I wouldn't say they were shocked, but they did not expect that this would be the location I would choose. But I thought downtown offered us more of an opportunity to grow."

Urban refugee

Prudential Preferred itself was an urban refugee, moving from a downtown location almost two decades ago. "At that time, there was a lot of flight out of the city," Mackie said.

But the more Mackie and his bosses thought about it, the more sense it made to return to downtown. For one thing, downtown's renaissance, only beginning when Prudential Preferred pulled up stakes, has bloomed. Business customers didn't flock to northern Baltimore County the way Prudential Preferred thought they would.

And the office found that it could actually save money in the downtown move, said Ralph Crews, vice president of sales and marketing for the mid-Atlantic territory for Prudential Preferred.

While suburban office space generally costs less than downtown space, "it made sense to move, from a financial standpoint," Crews said. "We did a combination of reorganization of office space, such as using more cubicle space rather than office space, and in that less square footage we would spend less."

Prudential Preferred's new space costs $114,000 a year; its Timonium office cost $121,000.

Rent savings

But Mackie says the unit has gained more than just $7,000 in rent savings. Sales and morale have leaped, he said.

"It's not that we're necessarily doing anything differently," he said. "But the easier access to the business community allows us to meet more people and provide more services."

Instead of taking a few two- or three-hour lunches a week with clients, he now doubles up two one-hour lunches several times a week. Plus, "I can walk to 20 restaurants in a four-block area," he said.

And, working in a 17-story building as opposed to the two-story office in Timonium, tends to allow his staff to interact with more clients.

"Whether you're an insurance company or stock brokerage, you're always looking for leads," Kornblatt said. "And downtown has made the effort to provide things like power breakfasts and social gatherings to help people pick up leads."

Jim Grieves, who works with the landlord services group at CB Commercial Real Estate, added that the quality and size of downtown spaces often aren't available in some suburbs.

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