BBJ presents Visionary Award to real estate veteran and philanthropist Bill Cummings

Originally published May 23, 2014 in the Boston Business Journal.

Editor’s note: Bill Cummings of Cummings Properties was presented the Visionary Award at the Boston Business Journal’s2014 Best in Boston Real Estate Awards today. Before hundreds at the Sheraton hotel in the Back Bay, Cummings told the crowd he was accepting the honor on behalf of Cummings employees.

Bill Cummings bought his first company in 1964 for $10,000. He sold it nine years later for $1 million, he said, after building a new headquarters in Woburn. Using the capital from the first investment, he developed the lot next door, an 80,000-square-foot building in Woburn, and he hasn’t stopped since.

Today, Cummings Properties has 36 buildings in Woburn and nearly 50 more spread across 10 communities outside Boston, spanning nearly 10 million square feet of office, health care and retail space.

The company’s charitable organization, the Cummings Foundation, donated $26.5 million last year to more than 200 nonprofits, Cummings said, and founded the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Cummings Properties is perhaps best known for TradeCenter 128, the 700,000-square-foot office campus on Route 128 in Woburn. The flagship property became home to the Middlesex County Superior Court in 2008 after the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge was shuttered.

Cummings never imagined he’d become a real estate mogul, and perhaps as a consequence, he never operated like one. Shunning subcontractors, Cummings kept all of his employees in-house.

“We started doing everything ourselves early on instead of using general contractors,” Cummings said. “It was very cost-effective, and we still do design all of the buildings in-house.”

Initially, that meant doing mostly “plain vanilla construction” for warehouses and distribution centers, Cummings said, but eventually, his engineers were designing surgical centers and highly specialized medical facilities. Completing all the work in-house was not only cost-effective, he said, but it also meant investing more in his employees. Nearly 10 percent, or 35 of his roughly 370 employees, average 30 years or more of seniority, Cummings said.

“The fact that people come here and often stay a long time makes a huge difference for a company like this to be able to rely on that kind of talent,” Cummings said.

That expertise was useful, Cummings said, when it came to redeveloping the largest project Cummings Properties has ever undertaken: a sprawling 80-acre campus in Beverly with 2 million square feet of commercial space, known to locals as “The Shoe.” Completed in 1906, the concrete building housed the United Shoe Machinery Corp., one of the largest shoe machinery manufacturers in the country, according to Fortune Magazine.

No other developer would touch it.

“There were a couple thousand pigeons living in the building, and pigeon dung about six inches thick covering the floors,” Cummings said. “I didn’t want any part of it.”

But, the purchase price had been cut from $83 million to $10 million. Cummings’ partner offered Black and Decker Corp. $500,000 in 1995 to buy it, and they agreed, Cummings said.

Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill said the town has shared a special partnership with Cummings throughout the process.

Bill Cummings’ passion and dedication to redeveloping a historically significant part of Beverly’s downtown has been a resounding success,” Cahill said. “And, his philanthropy has helped countless people in our community and beyond. We look forward to continuing the relationship for years to come.”

Now 77 years old, Cummings said he spends most of his time on the Cummings Foundation, letting Cummings Properties CEO and President Dennis Clarke run the day-to-day operations of the company. Cummings said his success would not have been possible without the skin he put in the game to start.

“You need to put your own money into it,” Cummings said. “Investors are not going to trust a person’s dreams.”

Bill Cummings

Title: Founder, Cummings Properties

Age: 77

Education: Bachelor of Arts, economics, Tufts University, 1958

Residence: Winchester

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