The origins of Tishman Construction Corporation are not unlike the humble beginnings of many small businesses started by European immigrants in the late 19th Century. And while it’s not unheard of to still see some of those businesses in existence today, you’d be hard-pressed to find one of them that has remained family-owned while making as big an impact on the New York region as Julius Tishman & Sons.
Started in 1898, three years after Julius Tishman moved his family from Poland to New York, the business was borne out of a desire he had to work for himself, rather than executing someone else’s vision. Having worked for three years as an employee at a Lower East Side mercantile, Julius scraped together enough money to buy the tenement building in which he lived with his family. He shortly began acquiring residential properties along the Hudson River and soon he had the ability to renovate and lease and finance them on his own.
“He believed the more you could control any process, the better you’d be,” says Dan Tishman, current chairman and CEO of Tishman Construction Company, and Julius’ great-grandson. “Maybe it was because he was superstitious. Maybe it was because he didn’t trust people. But it seemed to work.”
By 1928, Julius’ five sons – including Louis Tishman, who would eventually take over for his father running the company – had come aboard and the company was taken public, creating Tishman Realty & Construction. The plan, at that time, was to become a vertically integrated real estate and construction firm that was able to acquire larger properties and do its own development and construction.
“It was, essentially, a bigger version of what [Julius] had created,” says Tishman. “The concept was not to become a construction company to do third-party business, but to be a real estate company that did its own work. They really believed that to be successful, you wanted to remain vertically integrated. Most of the big development companies at the time didn’t have a construction company, didn’t have a leasing arm, didn’t have the internal technical expertise to get projects going. Those things, still today, are our franchise. There are roots.”
By the time Dan Tishman’s father, John, joined the firm in 1947, Tishman Realty & Construction was growing yet again. This time, geographically. That year, they completed 445 Park Avenue – a high-rise office building that was the company’s most ambitious project yet.
“You have to remember what Park Avenue looked like at this time,” Tishman says. The [train] tracks were still elevated and this was the ‘other side of the tracks.’ Everyone said this was the end of Tishman, it was going to put us out of business. Of course we know what eventually happened on Park Avenue.”
The following years saw the company expand even further – building residential and commercial projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and other major U.S. markets, while also dabbling, for the first time, in third-party construction projects. And soon after completing the landmark World Trade Center complex in 1972, the company – now led by Dan Tishman’s father, John – went private again, buying it back and splitting up into three separate companies: the original Tishman Realty & Construction, Tishman Speyer Properties and a new leasing and management company.
Dan Tishman joined the firm after originally seeking his fortune outside the family business. After majoring in ecology at Evergreen State College in Washington and receiving his masters in environmental studies from Lesley College in Massachusetts, he started his own general contracting firm building high-end homes and small commercial buildings in New England. In the late 1980s, he was approached by some Tishman executives who asked about his interest in joining the business.
“They alleged it was without my father’s knowledge, but I’m sure he put them up to it,” Tishman jokes. “But that’s what started getting me thinking about joining the family business.”
As for the company’s fifth generation of family ownership, Tishman – who has two teenaged sons – says he’ll put the same amount of pressure on his children as his family put on him: zero.
“My family has always encouraged us to look at the business as something that could be here if you wanted it, but it wasn’t guaranteed. It wasn’t an expectation,” he says. “It goes all the way back to my father’s generation and the one before it. We were taught not to assume we were going to come in here and take over the company."