BY LINDA BAKER
Jordan D. Schnitzer, president of Harsch Investment Properties
// Photo by Leah Nash
"For those of us in the real-estate business, this recession is like drinking humility from a fire hose.” Jordan D. Schnitzer, president of Harsch Investment Properties, a Portland-based real-estate investment firm, is sitting in his cluttered office under the watchful eyes of the Frank Stella print The Great Heidelburgh Tun and an untitled Michele Russo. The topic at hand is prerecession arrogance — “Or was it greed?” asks Schnitzer — in the real-estate industry and how the mighty have fallen since.
A family-owned firm, Harsch oversees 20 million square feet of office, industrial, multifamily and retail space in six West Coast markets. Prior to 2008, the company was doing about $100 million in acquisitions a year. When the market collapsed, that activity stopped cold. Instead, says Schnitzer, the last few years have been all about “surviving, blocking and tackling.”
As the economy shows signs of life, Harsch is starting to go on the offensive, raising rents by pennies per square foot, boosting occupancy in a few markets and even scouting a few acquisitions. Although he’s optimistic about the future — and proud of the company’s performance and reputation — this scion of Oregon’s prominent family of philanthropists and art collectors is not averse to a little self-flagellation. “We kept our business reputation intact, and we’ll get through this downturn a better, smarter, tougher company,” he says, “but looking back, there were a number of decisions I made that I wish I hadn’t. I’ve been very critical of myself.”
Founded by Harold Schnitzer in 1950, Harsch employs 220 people, manages 3,500 tenants and has offices in Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland and San Diego. Schnitzer’s own history with the company dates back to 1965, when he worked as a 14-year-old janitor in the King Tower apartments. Between 1990 and 2008, the company had “a great ride,” going from $230 million in real estate assets to more than $2 billion, says Schnitzer, who became president in 2002. Then came the crash.
“We knew this recession was coming,” muses Schnitzer, whose detailed, sometimes arcane digressions on the evolution of commercial real estate in the U.S. can make him sound more professor than investor.
“We had three corporate retreats where we laid out all these plans, how the recession was going to hit, how we would respond. And you can take all those sessions of paperwork and have a fabulous bonfire. Because it hit totally differently, and that’s the humility.”
Mea culpas notwithstanding, Schnitzer, 61, is quick to delineate company strengths as well as strategies that helped Harsch weather the downturn. In 60 years, Harsch hasn’t had a single default or late payment, he says with pride. To spread the risk, the company has made a point of signing a lot of tenants and pursuing diversity in property type and geographic location. Harsch also has a decentralized management structure comprised of regional managers who can respond quickly to individual market conditions.