THE BLOG

Claude M. Ballard, Jr. -- Rest in Peace

04/17/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Claude M. Ballard Jr. died on Friday, Feb. 11th . Why isn't important; he had to go, and we are here. Those who knew him, and valued his friendship, will miss him.

I will. Every journalist with an established beat has what they call in New York a rabbi -- somebody who vouches for them, steers them in the right direction, and warns them when they're heading for the rocks. When I was covering the big-time real estate business in the 1980s, Claude was mine. He opened doors for me, all over the world, that I might not have even have known of. I owe him.

To people outside real estate, Claude's name doesn't mean much. But in that world, Claude was a great man -- one of the handful of people who make things move. Attached to some project or idea, his name was all that was necessary to attract respectful attention.

He earned that position by being a walking real estate computer, data base, and Rolodex. But what really earned him his place was...being Claude. A big six-foot-three, Claude was overwhelming. Nothing, and no one, could buffalo him. And in a business filled with over-sized personalities, that is a valuable commodity. Even sitting at a table, saying nothing, everyone knew he was there.

That wasn't his best quality, though; his best quality was that he knew that every one -- and no one -- is important. So he treated everybody the same -- straight on, one to one. Claude never gave himself airs or acted like he was important -- though he certainly was. He had the gift of meeting everyone straight-on. Maybe that was because he was a self-made man, son of a Memphis railroad traffic controller.

Considering he'd survived at the pinnacle of the national and international commercial real estate industry for 50 years, I'm sure he'd had his share of knock-down meetings -- probably more than his share. And I know that if he'd wanted to, he could have had me for breakfast, and not even known I was on the spoon. But in the 30 years I knew him, I never saw him push anybody around.

The heights Claude reached, and lived in, never went to his head. It could have. He was a general partner of Goldman Sachs, back when it was a private partnership; chairman of Rockefeller Center Properties; in retirement, he owned interests in, among other things, 88 malls, plus other properties; served on many boards; and lectured at the nation's top schools. But he had no appetite for luxury, excess, or display. In his days at Goldman he kept no limo. Taking the subway to work was good enough for him.

If he said a deal was good, people didn't question it. Sometimes, a project he sponsored was subscribed in an afternoon. And he was so good at what he did that the same people who'd sat across the table from him in a deal would hire his services after it closed -- they knew nobody could possibly do a better job.

Until he left Goldman, Claude had only worked for two companies -- Prudential Insurance, and Goldman Sachs. After he retired, he served on the board of CBL& Associates, a major mall owner.

He started at Prudential as an analyst in 1948, and when he left in 1981 he was senior vice president in charge of commercial real estate. Along the way he and a friend, Meyer Melnikoff, laid the foundation of pension fund investing in real estate. Before this, pension funds only invested in stocks, bonds, and U.S. Treasuries: Today, they're the backbone of large-scale real estate investing and ownership.

And it was Claude and his friendships that made Goldman Sachs the dominant real estate investment banking house in the 1980s. Those were the sort of things that made him, in his time, one of the acknowledged leaders of his industry.

But that's all to one side. Real estate will go on, and so will the world. What will take a pause, however, is the world Claude informed -- the world of his wife, Mary, his daughters Karen, Melinda, and Robyn, his grandchildren, and his many friends.

As I said, he had to go, and we are here. Those of us who knew Claude will know he is no longer among us.