Expanding interests - with a local focus

For 60 years, Manekin LLC has helped shape the region

June 25, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

One of the first things entrepreneurs are taught is that if their businesses are not growing, they are falling behind.

The second thing is that growth must be carefully managed.

These are more than adages. They are closer to biblical commandments, because the corporate graveyard is filled with skeletons of firms that failed to heed the advice.

Few companies have executed both strategies with greater focus or efficiency than Manekin LLC, the Columbia-based real estate conglomerate.

It is neither the company it was nor is it the company it will be. Still, its top custodians are almost fanatical about not permitting Manekin to become something it is not.

"They understand their niche in the overall real estate development community, and they work their market very well," says Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Department of Economic Development. "They won't overextend."

The reward for this assiduousness is six decades of continuous service, sustained growth, 165 employees, 150 buildings encompassing more than 12 million square feet, $125 million annually in revenue and a portfolio of businesses that span the real estate spectrum. And it has made the company's partners wealthy.

It is an extraordinary track record for a firm founded by two brothers six decades ago this year in a basement office, not as a diversified real estate company but as a modest brokerage operation, and in an industry in which cyclical pressures and unpredictability have proven devastating for so many others.

"A relatively low number of privately held businesses survive one generation to the next -- it's well less than half," says R. Colfax Schnorf Jr., senior vice president and director of development for Manekin. "We've survived the switch in generations and the whole ownership groups. I think that's remarkable."

Manekin's history can be broken into pre- and post-Richard M. Alter.

He has been with the company 35 years, the past 16 as president and chief executive officer, shepherding Manekin through much of its growth as well as through tumultuous periods.

Before Alter, though, there was a quite successful Manekin.

The company was founded in 1946 as a real estate brokerage by brothers Bernard and Harold Manekin. It was small and focused on brokering commercial office space.

It gained its reputation, though, by playing a pivotal role, first, in the redevelopment of Baltimore and, later, in the critically important transformation of Columbia from a distribution center to a high-scale employment hub.

"From the 33-acre Charles Center that was the genesis of Baltimore's renaissance in the early 1960s to the Lord Baltimore Hotel to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Manekins ... either developed, owned or influenced virtually every significant downtown building project of the past 50 years," Sun reporter Kevin L. McQuaid declared in a 1996 article.

The company remained strictly Baltimore until the early 1960s, when it acquired property in Anne Arundel County and helped develop Parkway Center, a 220-acre industrial park for General Motors Corp.

It was still basically a family affair and brokering office space remained the company's core business. But the Manekins made possibly their most important hire when they brought on Alter in 1971.

Alter was a fresh graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, having returned to school after his Air Force Reserve unit was activated and sent to Vietnam after the USS Pueblo, an intelligence ship, was attacked and captured by the North Koreans in 1968.

"I came here more because I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer," he says. "Once I got here, I enjoyed what I was doing. I've been enjoying it for 35 years now."

Alter was hired as a broker, but it was not long before he moved the company in new directions by doing Manekin's first project in Columbia.

It was a small deal -- a 38,000-square-foot miniwarehouse in 1974 -- but it proved important to the company and the fledging new town being created by Rouse Co., particularly its commercial component for what now is a sprawling office park, Columbia Gateway.

"I saw the business opportunity to grow with Columbia," he recalls. "Instead of living just off of brokerage, we'd have some development opportunities. To diversify, basically."

Since that initial project, the company has built dozens of office buildings in Columbia. For several years, it seemed that all commercial projects in Columbia carried the Manekin name.

Story says that Manekin's belief in Columbia Gateway was essential to the success of the office park.

"They were the first developers here," he says. "The tone they set was: This is not another distribution center. They set the tone for this to be an office environment and the market followed them."

Alter was promoted to partner in the early 1980s and named president and chief executive officer of the company in 1989. He has continued to expand Manekin's services and its geographical boundaries.

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