By Liz Peek
Many Americans may wonder how they can give back to our soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Fisher family, owner of the well-established New York City real estate firm Fisher Brothers, provides the country with a sterling example.
Since 1990, the Fishers have been building houses on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers where the families of soldiers wounded in combat can stay free of charge while their loved ones receive treatment. To date, the program has helped out more than 110,000 families.
Kenneth Fisher heads the foundation and is also a third-generation executive in the family firm. Although he serves on numerous prestigious boards and is engaged in a wide variety of activities, it is fair to say that he is consumed by the Fisher House Program.
"It's added a dimension to my life that can't be described," he said. "It's one thing to give back; it's another when it becomes part of you."
Mr. Fisher looks out on Midtown Manhattan from his large corner office atop 299 Park Ave., one of the family's signature buildings. Up a few blocks is the Fisher Brothers' Park Avenue Plaza building, which towers over the venerable Racquet Club. His credenza is decorated with dozens of medallions he has collected from members of the Armed Forces around the world, as well as thank you notes from the children of wounded soldiers.
"We've just passed the $100 million mark," he says, referring to how much money has been saved by GI families taking advantage of the Fisher Houses. He is elated that the cause has caught fire with the public, allowing for the construction of one to two additional houses a year. To date, the foundation, working through a private-public partnership, has constructed 38 houses across the country.
"We've been flattered by the attention. The public has embraced the foundation; it makes me incredibly proud. In L.A. we raised so much money that we moved the construction schedule up. At the same time, we have to be careful not to drive ahead of the headlights."
Mr. Fisher's involvement in helping GIs led to his appointment last year to the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. The commission's work highlighted the challenges facing those caring for veterans.
"Our goal is to put a Fisher House wherever it is needed," he says. "We are building more for VA facilities. Primary care in this war is not the issue; secondary care is the focus. There are a lot of young people who will need care for the next 50 years."
Mr. Fisher does have a day job. As a third-generation top executive at Fisher Brothers, Mr. Fisher manages his family's 6 million square feet of New York commercial real estate. In keeping with the company's long-held preference for keeping it in the family, he is responsible for the leasing, security, maintenance, and refurbishing of the firm's buildings. The polishing of the family's properties is especially vital today, as a likely cyclical slowdown may heighten competition for more discerning tenants.
"Our core philosophy is that we are long-term holders," he says. "We develop and manage our properties from womb to tomb. We feel we can do it best. The assets of the family have been passed down through the generations. They must be treated as Class A assets."
He adds: "We have to constantly spend money on preventive maintenance and on aesthetics. We have to use money wisely."
Mr. Fisher joined his family's firm right after graduating from Ithaca College. "I was in a rush to get up here," he says. The route to the top included a requisite couple of years as a construction laborer, an experience that he feels gave him and his cousins an invaluable grounding.
The route also included some unexpected turns. In 2003, his cousin Anthony Fisher, who had been in charge of leasing and acquisitions, died in a plane crash. In 2006, Richard Fisher, a senior partner of the firm in charge of financial and asset management operations, died of cancer.
The past few years have consequently required considerable reorganization of the firm and have been somewhat difficult for the family. Richard and Anthony had taken the company into some new ventures, most notably a fund co-sponsored with an affiliate of Morgan Stanley called City Investment Fund, which was created to make opportunistic investments in New York City real estate. The $770 million venture with Morgan Stanley took Fisher Brothers out of the New York development business for about five years to avoid conflicts of interest. The firm had also ventured into private equity.
Current projects under way for Fisher Brothers include participation in a large development in Las Vegas with the Fertitta family, owners of Station Casinos, and involvement along with the Louis Dreyfus Property Group in the vast Station Place project in Washington, D.C.
Though such projects might give the family some helpful geographic diversification, Mr. Fisher appears more interested in returning to the company's roots. He doubts the firm will participate in another fund, but does not rule out opportunistic local investments if a prospective real estate slump transpires.
"I'm more comfortable working in our own backyard," he says.
He's also comfortable staying away from politics.
"Fisher House keeps me from getting political publicly," he says. "Politics should never come into it."
Mr. Fisher runs the foundation like a public company and treats donors like shareholders, earning the organization excellent ratings from Charity Navigator.
"Ninety-seven cents of every dollar raised goes to capital initiatives. We try to keep the infrastructure small," he says.
"Tammy and I have toured the hospitals," he says, referring to his wife. "In December we toured Iraq and visited the troops. These men and women are cut from a special cloth. They believe in the defense of our country and they believe in what they are doing."
And so, it would seem, does Mr. Fisher.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski