Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:08
Welcome back to Trade Wins. I’m Robin van Puyenbroeck, your host. Today, my guest is a special guest, John Drew, Chairman of the Drew Company and Chairman of the World Trade Centers Association. John, welcome to the show.
John Drew 0:21
Robin, thank you for having me.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:23
It’s good to have you here. John, rather than me giving a lengthy introduction of the guests of the show, I like to ask everyone to introduce themselves. What would you want people to know about John Drew? Who’s John Drew?
John Drew 0:38
Well, that’s a good question. What I’d like people to know to begin with is my association with you which is through the World Trade Centers Association where I’m the chairman of the board. I have the pleasure of working with you and others on the staff. Beyond that, I have been involved with the association for many years, going back to 1985 when we had the World Trade Center Boston officially join the World Trade Centers Association. Since then, in the ’90s, we also went out in ’96, I believe it was ’97 and took over the responsibility for the World Trade Center in Washington, D.C., which is also known as the Ronald Reagan International Building. In addition to that, we have a license in Dublin, Ireland where we run a trade service program. We’re very involved with three trade centers. They’re all different trade centers and I’ll speak to that in a few minutes. In addition to that, we have a real estate company, a management company and a company that’s also directly involved in the operation of parking garages, catering and food service. The Washington team has over 320 people right now, it was as high as 400 a couple of years ago before COVID, about 420. The Irish team is a smaller team of 7 people who have trade service. The Boston team is my Drew Company team plus the staff at the World Trade Center. The Drew Company team is about 12 people right now, again, because of COVID, we’re down a few. The group working at the trade center in the exhibition, conference business, sales business and leasing business – numbers are about 45-50 people. I’ve had a very fortunate and interesting career. I started off working in government many years ago. I became the Chief of Policy for the Governor of Massachusetts, a fellow named Frank Sargent and put together the first stage of the Massachusetts cabinet and was involved in the recruitment of that whole team, right about 10 cabinet members at the time. In addition to that, I was in the policy program for the state of Massachusetts. As a result of that, I became involved in real estate. The real estate that I became involved in at the time was base closings in Massachusetts. We had military bases that the government felt were surplus and they designated them for closing. I was given the responsibility to work with the city of Boston; the city of Springfield, Massachusetts; Chelsea, Massachusetts; and Warren, Massachusetts on the Cape to deal with military bases that were going to be surplus. As part of that program, I was able to put together a master plan for those facilities, working with the local government agencies and officials and a training program for the people who were going to lose their jobs working for the government. It was an interesting experience and an experience that brought me into real estate in a very significant way. I moved on from there to work for the US Congress for a couple of years down in Washington and then came back to Boston to run the redevelopment agency and program. We set up a program in Boston called The Boston Plan, which ultimately developed the Seaport, Charlestown Navy into a beautiful, beautiful living and office facility. In addition to that, we worked in a neighborhood and redid an entire square, which was very important to the people who lived around that neighborhood, revitalized the square and then put together a program to revamp 22,000 units of public housing into a private/public partnership that has done extremely well in revitalizing the area that is now called Harbor Point which was in Dorchester, which is part of Boston. As a result of all that, I went further and started my own company, left the city and went to Brandeis University, set up the center of public service and then set up my own company after Brandeis University. In doing so, the company has developed on our own 2 million square feet of property just in the Seaport. In addition to that, about another million square feet in and around Boston. As part of that, we have done an outdoor amphitheater which seats 20,000 people which is still very prosperous, office buildings, hotels and convention/exhibition space. In addition to that, we’ve got a very, very large building that we developed with Fidelity Investments in Boston. Moving on from there, we did other projects in Boston as well – office projects. Moving on from there we went down to Washington, which is part of a 3 million square foot complex that we manage on behalf of the US government. The only thing we don’t manage down there is the government space, its own space. We have private office space that’s tenanted by international companies because of the World Trade Center name and our preference. We specifically chose companies that wanted to be international and we brought them into the building. Before COVID, we were doing 1,600 meetings down there, if you can believe it, all kinds with a staff of over 400. As part of that process, we do the sales, we do the operations, we do the event planning, we do the food and beverage, so you can get a sense of how significant that is. It’s how the building has become known as the Reagan International Center with the Woodrow Wilson build project as part of it. We have international and congressional efforts that take place in the building. We don’t manage that, but we provide services to them — food, beverage and event services for them.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 6:45
That’s quite a career. I want to come back later in the show to talk a bit more about the Boston Plan, the Seaport development and your work in public/private partnerships. Just to start, I’d like to go back. You’re a true Bostonian and you’ve been part of the social fabric, the economic fabric of the city. What inspired you to be so actively involved in shaping and developing your community? Where did the drive come from?
John Drew 7:13
When I started, I was a product of the Kennedy era. It’s interesting, when I was in college at Stonehill and Boston University for graduate school, the attitude that was shared by many of us was that being part of the government and providing services to your neighborhood or your state was a great opportunity to contribute. I didn’t think twice about that. The attitude these days is quite different. There are still people who are extremely committed to public service, but there are many, many critics of the government who question the validity of your work. When I started, fortunately, we had very few critics, lots of supporters and people felt the government could improve services for them. It was very easy to become involved and committed. As part of that process, I was a great believer throughout my career and collaboration that one way to get things done effectively was to draw people who are shareholders into the discussion. We spent quite a bit of time developing relationships with interest groups that were involved in projects that I was involved in, whether by doing community groups or special interest groups of one sort or another. In doing that, that broadened my horizons so that I became very involved with the Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of directors, worked with the Port Authority, in particular, in developing in the area of the Seaport. Doing all of that meant that I dealt with community groups, neighborhood groups and business groups. It was an easy step forward. If you want to be effective and build and develop a community, you need to know who the shareholders are and you need to involve them. Otherwise, you were going to make mistakes.
John Drew 7:22
Interestingly, you mentioned the notion of public service and community building. I’d be very interested to hear, how have you seen this evolve in the past decade? You said you grew up in a generation where people felt public service was necessary, it was the right thing to do, there was a lot of support and you have said today that is very different. Where did that change happen? How do you think young people today look at the notion of public service?
John Drew 9:47
It’s interesting. One of the byproducts of our enthusiasm was that, in many cases, not necessarily the people I was working with, but overall governments tended to overpromise and underperform as time went on into the ’90s and 2000s. The other change that took place was that governments realized that despite their enthusiasm for growth, that growth required them to partner with businesses in an effective way. Businesses became essential partners — banks, insurance companies, equity investors, especially in public infrastructure and real estate development. It couldn’t be done without them. To borrow from a TV show, it curbed their enthusiasm a bit. At the same time, some people were affected by the overpromising in a bad way. A lot of poorer neighborhoods felt that they would have a complete change take place very rapidly and that they would see the results of that change when, in fact, some of the underlying problems in those neighborhoods with poverty and health take a much longer time to change and repair. I don’t think a number of the political leaders at the time were as forthcoming as they should have been. That hurt. The other part, as you get into the new millennium, 2000 and beyond, the role that private leadership has to play has gotten stronger and stronger. There’s been a bit of a pushback on the government taking on some of those roles. I think we’re at a crossroads again where you’re starting to see governments step up and take on not only the problems that the private sector doesn’t want to address, there are a number of those, but you’re also seeing, again, the government recognizing that they now need a stronger partnership with businesses. Maybe we’re at a crossroads where things will get a little bit better. It’s been difficult for people on the public side to take on new challenges in a lot of cases. Though I must say, I see differences. We’re doing a very significant hotel, high-end, 75 room hotel project down in Atlanta. We’re working with the Convention Authority down there, which is an extremely positive group. The government of Georgia, the state of Georgia, has been extremely positive about growth and how to develop all of Georgia but especially certain parts of Atlanta. There’s a much higher level of confidence there than I find in places like parts of Boston. It changes from place to place. It depends on the experiences that people have had. Also, it has to do with people’s attitude towards the future. If you’re in the state of Georgia, there’s an extremely positive attitude of what the future is going to bring, that whole area of the country, that state and the city of Atlanta. If you’re in other parts of the country, the Midwest and whatnot, there’s quite a jaded attitude about if the future will get any better. It’s regional; it’s site-specific. It also has to do with the personality of the public leadership as well as the private leadership, just how easy it is for both of them to work together. In cases like the one in Atlanta, there’s a very positive attitude between the city and state, between the state and the private leadership. It’s much easier to move things forward.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 13:53
Leadership is a key factor here. Also what you said, the hope or the belief that people have in certain parts of the country or the world that they can shape the future and create their future versus being passive. To go back to the notion of these public/private partnerships, I am a firm believer in the concept of the private sector working together with the government. It’s also a lot about managing the expectations of the recipients of the partnership, the beneficiaries. You say that there’s a more positive window on how these PPP’s can be achieved. If you look at how much money the government from a stimulus perspective is now making available, these are not small amounts. We’re talking about trillions of dollars that are going to be flushed over the country here. How on earth can the private sector be a partner in projects where the government comes with so much money to the table? How can this go right? How can this go well? How can the execution of these investments, these partnerships work? The amounts are so staggering. At the same time inflation is happening, prices are going up. What would the private sector need to do to be able to have the capacity to be a partner with the government given that the government comes to the table with so much liquidity right now?
John Drew 15:17
Again, it is case-specific. If you look at that amount of money that the government is going to spend, a good deal of it’s going to be contracted out. The cost of a bridge, the cost of highway repair and replacement is staggering. It is just multi-millions of dollars to accomplish these things. It takes a lot of time. In that case, it’s the government awarding contracts. It’s up to states and cities to be ready with their projects to move them forward. The private sector’s role is one of carrying out those projects. In other cases, the money spent in the hotel industry, for example, that’s about to be spent in the hotel industry, there it is the opposite. The government will be awarding money to the private side on the operation of these properties and venues. It has to have itself organized in a very, very good way so that there’s equity in the spending, there’s transparency in the spending of that money and so that the money is a real stimulus to the people to not only the property and the property company, the management company, but also to the employees. That means you have to have a plan in place to take advantage. It isn’t a question of taking the money and running as some people might think. It is taking the money and spending it effectively. That’s how this government money is going to be valued and judged — if it was spent effectively. It’s going to be, did it get to the people who needed it the most? Did it stimulate the economy? We have an interesting economy right now.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 17:00
To say the least, yes.
John Drew 17:01
It’s fascinating. If you think that 4.5% unemployment is full employment, we’re almost at full employment. No one’s talking about that. It is driving inflation in a good way. In 6-8 months, everyone who wants a job can have a job and will have a job.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 17:22
I find it very interesting that when the job figures are published, the markets look at that and we all like to see when those numbers come out. For the first time that I can remember, it’s not just about the job numbers meaning how many people got a job, it’s now being monitored and reported on how many people have quit their jobs.
John Drew 17:45
Robin van Puyenbroeck 17:45
Americans have record numbers quitting their jobs, which is unheard of. At the same time, wherever you go, there are “help wanted signs.” So at the same time, you do have unemployment. I agree with you that 4-5% is considered full employment. That’s a bizarre situation. At the same time, consumer prices are going up in very high single digits, wages are not necessarily catching up so that inflation number is right there. I want to go back briefly to what you mentioned earlier, the notion that public service has changed. You said that this is about the government overpromising and under delivering. Then fast forward to today where these types of funds are available. I was having a conversation earlier with some members of Congress and their take was that there’s no way we can monitor that these funds are being spent well because of the amounts involved. If you take a billion dollars in the bigger scheme of things, it’s almost a drip in the ocean. How can we make sure that we’re not going to end up in a situation again where there are a lot of expectations being built with these huge funds being available – from a macro perspective focusing on infrastructure, energy and what have you, that, again, this doesn’t end up in a scenario where there is a lot of overpromising and under delivering because from the government’s perspective there’s no capacity to oversee this type of spending in this variety of projects. Does the government have the bandwidth or the expertise to do this? What are your thoughts on that?
John Drew 17:59
I worry about that because I do think it could take a very bad turn in the sense that good projects could be looked upon as the money being misspent even doing very good things. The government’s ability to audit the spending of this money is essential. A lot of people spend their time putting into the media what’s wrong.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 20:00
Yes, of course.
John Drew 20:02
Who made the last mistake? The issue of working for the government and public service has built the bureaucracy into a bureaucracy that’s trying to avoid ever being seen as making a mistake, as opposed to having the ability to take calculated risks to accomplish good things. If you’re working with the government, you’re more worried about making sure you’re never called out for making a mistake and you’re less concerned about whether or not you’re moving the ball forward in making the world a better place. There’s that problem, that imbalance. With a lot of money, it only gets exacerbated. Yes, there is a problem. However, there are several obvious things that you could be doing besides infrastructure projects that are much more easily qualified, approved, audited and checked on. There are also needs that, this is now my own policy, are under-addressed. When you look at the job situation, inflation is being pushed by wages somewhat. Wages have not kept up over the years. People are leaving jobs and looking for new jobs that pay more and they feel fit their skill set better than the job they were in before. However, there is a certain element of truth about what’s missing here. The country has not spent anywhere near the amount of money it should be spending, in my estimation, on vocational education. The idea of putting everyone through a college program has a certain glamour to it, but the fact is that there are very, very good jobs that can be met by people who have a much stronger vocational background in education. The country is doing itself a disservice by not addressing that. That is someplace you could spend money, you could see results, you could involve the private sector in planning and designing those programs, much like they do in Germany and other parts of Europe. You could come up with a very effective program. That would be money very well spent. If you want to move people up the social ladder and give them a better future, that’s a very easy way of doing it.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 22:36
Yes. Very interesting points. If you look at the authority in the country in many places, where all jobs are leaving, manufacturing jobs are leaving, you just mentioned Germany. Germany has a long history of investing in this vocational training. It’s a good example of a country that kept very well-paying, high-end tech jobs, even manufacturing jobs in the country. It’s still a manufacturing powerhouse of very sophisticated engineering products. Why is this not possible here? Is it too far off how we look at education? If you just look at what student debt looks like and what people can do with their degrees, it’s mind-boggling. How can we change that?
John Drew 23:24
That is a business and public leadership issue that can be addressed if businesses can get together. Part of it has been that vocational education has not been as attractive to people as having a college education, defining that as two- or four-year schools. We’re involved with businesses moving into our buildings on the life science side. A large number of those jobs could be filled with people who have the equivalent of two years of college with vocational education being trained for that industry. They are very high-paying jobs. They don’t require a bachelor’s degree, they don’t require a master’s degree or a doctorate for many of those jobs. The companies that would be hiring you are companies that if you do want to go on and pursue further education, often will pay a portion of that while you’re working for them. It isn’t, do two years and do vocational ed and go to work with a life science company and that’s the end of it, it’s a question of that’s how I started. What has to happen is that the chambers of commerce and other economic development entities on the business side need to show how these opportunities are available, and work with the local governments to show what’s required. I also think some of the best business programs at the four-year universities and colleges in the country are being designed by committees made up of business leaders with academics. It’s happening, but it’s happening quietly and it’s not getting, I think, the visibility and, therefore, it’s not getting the traction that it needs. The full employment issue is going to be what’s going to drive this side of the discussion further and faster than anything else. Even with full employment, there will be that 4% who don’t have a job. They’re going to be angry about not having a job, thinking they should have the best job in the world in some cases. Someone’s going to have to reach out and say, “Here’s how we can help you with that.” That will spur that on. On the planning side, on the infrastructure project side and some of the other money that’s being spent on the planning and equity development and whatnot side of creating these other opportunities, the government and private infrastructure is already there. It’s a question of setting up a program where, from a government perspective, you can do audits. You don’t do audits of everyone; you do spot audits and things like that that allow you to get a sense of the trend of people using the money wisely and honestly. There are things like that that need to be brought along. It’s less glamorous to talk about how you’re going to spend money auditing people than it is how you spend money creating a bridge.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 26:25
You want that to be on the front page of the paper.
John Drew 26:28
Exactly. That’s it. There’s an underpinning that you’re pointing a finger to that I worry about which is just where we’re starting from, in some cases with federal agencies and whatnot. Whether or not the people are motivated to give it their all because they are not being recognized as being essential to the success of the country? In some cases, they haven’t achieved that yet. We have to give credit where credit is due, recognize some of the people who are in these jobs who are doing extremely good things in the service of their fellow citizens, in the service of the country. That program needs to be enhanced. I’ve been part of a program in Boston for a long time for a group that I used to chair, the Research Bureau of Boston. Every year we recognize five to seven city of Boston employees for their excellence. We’re the only organization in the state that does it. We call the people out, we have a very nice dinner, we invite their family, the mayor comes, the city council comes, business leaders come and people get recognition. We get support from the media when we do it. Programs like that can make a difference. We need to do more of those programs where people are recognized for commitment and service and what they do. Otherwise, everyone’s in the same flat-bottom train to keep moving right along here. We want to elevate people and give them credit and show that they are champions working on our behalf and doing a very, very good job.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 28:01
It goes back to where we started with this notion of public service where you started your career. What made you then start Drew Company and go into private enterprise? How did this come about that you started your own company?
John Drew 28:15
It was pretty natural, basically, step-by-step. One step led to another. It was part of the project that I did for the city of Boston when we redid some public housing. There was a very large mall adjacent to it. The mall had been vandalized by the poverty around it. Very few businesses were left operating in it. Together with a fellow who I had met on the development side, we developed that into an exposition center, into two office buildings, into an apparel office building, into another office building and then further on into a hotel project. It did very, very well and started to revitalize the area. For me, it was a continuation of what I had started on the government side. It was in the same area. I knew it well. I was aware of the monies that the public sector had to underwrite part of that project, which was to help with low-interest bonds that we used to finance the development. Private money, banking money at the time, thought it was too much of a reach, too much of a risk where the public bonds felt that the accomplishment of revitalizing the area was worth their money. We went before the city council, went before the economic planning agencies, both the state and city brought that forward. I did that as the Drew Company. I did it in partnership with two other companies, a construction company and another development company that I had worked with before I started the Drew Company. I stepped from the earlier company to go to Brandeis, stepped out of that company, but partnered with them on a couple of projects. The result of the partnership was very good for me. It got my company launched successfully and it was very good for my previous employer and friend because they reaped the benefits of three very significant projects that I did with them. It was a good place to start. It was a relatively safe place. It was a step out; I don’t know if I ever could have stepped back, but everything worked out. Once you step out, you step out, but I think the other side was that it worked and the result was good for everyone.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 30:35
Look at the Seaport area now in Boston. It’s an amazing development. That was the right call back then.
John Drew 30:44
Yes. It’s interesting now. When I was with the state setting up the base-closing commission that became the Economic Development Authority, one of the things we did is put money into the Port Authority and the Port Authority then put money into the sidewalks and streets. There was new conduit down there, the streets were repaired and replaced with better streets, the sewer projects were taken care of, the water projects were taken care of. It was all in the ground. That was the basis on which we could go forward. I was a big believer that Boston historically had a phenomenal opportunity because we lined our harbor front with railroad yards because of the shipping that was coming in. They’ll come in and the World Trade Center Boston that is part of a building called Commonwealth Pier, which was a terminal of both a passenger terminal and freight terminal, much as you have lining around New York down by Wall Street. It was just a beautiful waterfront, but it was cut off by railroad yards. No one would ever go over there. There were no neighborhoods; there was nothing. It was a working area. The railroads had pretty much left, except for one line. The area was sitting there empty. Public money was invested into the streets and the infrastructure. You get water, electricity, the best sewer system that Boston had for probably 100 years and you’re on the edge of the waterfront. I had a visionary in Ned Johnson as my partner, I went into partnership with him with Fidelity Investments. He saw the future the same way I was able to see the future which was around taking advantage of the water. People gravitate back to water in some sort of instinctive way. We are more comfortable there. As we built the World Trade Center, we started in the business that I had done over at Bayside, which was the exhibition business and became quite successful there. I twisted it a bit, so we went much more for business meetings and conferences than we did for flower shows and other things like that. That brought people back to the area. We had ample low-priced and free parking. People could afford to get over there. When the people came, the restaurants had to come. As part of the World Trade Center designation, we spent an awful lot of time working with a conference space with Boston International groups — the New England Canadian Council, New England Japan Council, New England Korean Council, you name it. We had them there for meetings. As a result of that, they brought with them their members and the members were businesses and they employed a lot of people. We showed them that the World Trade Center and internationalism were intoxicating. Again, that’s something that’s changed dramatically, too. At the time, companies in the East Coast, at least, prided themselves as successful locally, then successful statewide and successful regionwide. The last step was to become an international company.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 33:57
Interesting. That was 1985.
John Drew 34:01
1985 up to 2000, I would say. And then what started to happen is that with entrepreneurs and innovation picking up and people taking more of a risk, younger people taking much more of a risk, by 2005 or 2010, certainly by 2005 it was commonplace for people to talk about how they were going to start a company internationally as opposed to start a company locally.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 34:26
It was a very different time. How did the World Trade Center concept come about in the ’80s? Did they find you or did you find them? How did that work?
John Drew 34:40
I found them, but they were right next to me. I knew them, but I didn’t know about the World Trade Centers Association at the time. When we started what was called the Boscom Project, we took over Commonwealth Pier and it was going to be an office/exhibition/conference and a merchandise mart for high tech. In doing that, I spent a good deal of time trying to cultivate and lease to IBM, Dell and some of the other major companies. In doing so, there was an offshoot of what was part of the Chamber of Commerce, there was a group led by, at the time, Bank of Boston, which is now Bank of America, that was involved with trying to enhance international trade in Boston and the New England region. They had become an associate of the World Trade Centers Association. The Industrial Port Authority was part of that and they were my partner on this project. They asked if I would be interested in pursuing, taking that over and developing it further. I said definitely. From my perspective, the idea of this being a pioneering area, a different Boston, if we could stress international business as being located there with international meetings and trade missions taking place there, that we would push out to the rest of New England and the rest of our state, I thought that gave me a very good, competitive edge at successfully developing the project.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 36:20
That still counts true today. You’ve been involved in leadership and with the World Trade Centers Association for almost 30 years, since that time in ’85. The association has gone through quite a bit of change, but in those almost three decades, what has been a constant value proposition of the brand of the association and what has changed over that timeframe?
John Drew 36:49
The value proposition for the association has only gotten stronger. Some people may wonder why I feel that way. When we joined, I joined by taking over an affiliated group that belonged to the association in hopes that by belonging to the association, they would meet the World Trade Center team in Tokyo, for example, in Seoul, South Korea. In leading that group, what they were needing was their version of the US Department of Commerce, the Japanese version of commerce, the South Korean version of the department of commerce as a way of making an introduction. It started along those lines. It was an initiative that was very much connected to port authorities at the time, less to airports, more to shipping. There had been a decline in freight shipping and the harbor groups were concerned about how to strengthen that and enhance it. This is eons ago in so many ways. These weren’t containers and what is the world without a container ship today? Freight was being shipped in the body of the ship and lifted out by cranes and whatnot, but not containers. Manufacturing was still very local or national. There was trade, but it was still limited trade. We were doing much more in fish with Canadians than we were doing other products. That’s been the change. If you look at the association, the association has changed too with this. We have real estate developers who have a trade component in their buildings and put very, very significant projects, like what was stimulated by the World Trade Center in Boston. When we first joined, this was not the case. The other part is that trade has emerged and changed. The need for dialogue between people involved in trade has only gotten stronger. Now the need that you’re addressing, Robin, is the need for businesses working with World Trade Centers with members of the World Trade Center talking with one another if they have a common interest, a common product, whatever it might be that’s the next step forward. The value proposition has always been how to enhance trade, how to enhance prosperity in my area through trade. The wherewithal on how to do it has changed. It’s gone from something that port authorities were trying to do for their survival into something essential for businesses to do for their survival. Businesses are playing a much larger role in trade and will continue to play a much larger role in trade than ever before. The public sector has to have the infrastructure for the ports, the airports or the roads to carry freight and move things around back and forth. So much of what is traded today is in services and goods that are cash or investments that are traveling over the internet and don’t require a plane or a truck or boat. There is this constant change. Still, in the very center of it is trade and international trade. The world has shrunk and the world needs to use other parts of the world now to provide their countries and themselves with whatever they need. The old days of going it alone are long, long past us. The future is doing things in an honest, trustworthy, collaborative way. The World Trade Centers Association will, with its members and with its dedicated teams within the members, always be a major player.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 40:55
Again, the whole notion of what you just mentioned, dialogue is needed now more than ever before. Also, intercultural understanding and the ability to understand and apprehend other cultures is a key tool to be able to do business with other countries internationally. A lot of changes have happened that were internalities but also some extreme and important externalities. There was the tragedy of 9/11. What was the impact there and also your personal experience of what happened to the association, to the network, to this community?
John Drew 41:35
It was an indescribable shock to all of us. The terrorism attacking the buildings and the buildings demolishing was seen worldwide. It shocked and scared everyone by seeing the force of this destruction and how relatively simple it was to cause so much pain and terror. For the terrorists, they accomplished a great deal in a few hours. For the association, the buildings were our iconic symbol of the World Trade Centers Association and the headquarters and where the founding team was there and working. We did not have people on the staff injured or hurt, but we had people with daughters and the son of a fellow who was working there before us on another floor of the building, perished. We felt it and we felt it directly. I was supposed to be there with three other members that day. I was there with two at the time and a third was coming in by train from Baltimore but never arrived because trains were stopped. The other two were there with me and I was on the ground at the hotel, which was part of the World Trade Center building complex when the first plane hit. I was in the street after that and saw the horrible, horrible impacts directly. I managed to walk up the expressway there to First Avenue and get to a Hertz dealership by being on the phone with my office in Boston. I drove home to Massachusetts that day. Another one of my colleagues took the boat across to New Jersey and jumped on a motorboat and made it over to New Jersey. The other member was stuck in a hotel for days and made it back to Spain. The second fellow came up and I housed him up in Boston in my hotel and got him back to the Netherlands. It was horrible and it had an impact. Also, for the association, the name is now such a well-known name as a result of this horrible situation. People want to know more about us. It has led people to become new members because the power of the name has become so widely known. Some good came out of it in that regard. The other good that emerged from this whole thing is the power of the network, the power of the family, the power of the membership. It is why people join, hoping to use that network. It’s why people stay once they meet one another and have worldwide friends that they can work with. The social experience of knowing people from around the world is one of the greatest attributes that the association provides. It’s not tangible in money, but it is a significant change in how you look at the world, how you value other people and why you respect other people. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to take my children and grandchildren to meetings. They have a regard and respect for people from around the world that is phenomenally good, helpful and healthy for them. They’re beneficiaries of having their eyes opened by meeting different people and learning about those different people and in some cases, becoming friends with them. Many things flow from the association that I feel strongly about, but probably the one thing is having friends around the world who you know and who are available to you if needed or are simply your friend. This is a phenomenal gift of the association.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 46:15
Thank you, John, for sharing that, as we just commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The association has come out stronger and that’s because of that community. We’ve recently all experienced the global pandemic of COVID happening and shutting down the world. Here again, as I can personally witness, I see this incredible community coming together and supporting each other in an environment where nobody can physically get together. This is, again, a testimony where if a community is tied together and has shared values and shared vision of the world, that it can come together, support each other and come out stronger. We’re still not out of the woods with the pandemic, but the community that we’re all a part of has managed fairly well in getting through this and also reinventing itself. This in itself is a constant. The notion now is that planning is not so much an important gift here, it’s the ability to be flexible, agile and constantly reinvent yourself to the changing situation. As we’re closing the year, 2021 will be behind us in a few more weeks, how would you reflect on the past year with the association but also what has happened in the world from a trade perspective? There are a couple of issues out there. How would you see us venture into the next year? What are your thoughts on the past and the future?
John Drew 47:49
I’ll finish my New York story about 9/11. I’ve never felt comfortable going back to New York since 9/11. Walking up that highway covered with cement dust was not pleasant. The last year, and I said this at the member’s meeting, has been remarkable. No one was prepared for the pandemic. If people saw it coming, they kept it to themselves. Even with all of our risk analysis, no one saw a pandemic coming and affecting us the way that this has for the past couple of years with traveling, international business travel in particular. However, what you and your team have done for us is that we had 600 people participating in the meeting a month ago. That’s probably the largest number of participants that we’ve had in many, many years, coming to a WTCA meeting. Roughly 50/50 were business members of trade centers and the other 50 were direct operators of trade centers. The quality of time spent with one another, ideas exchanged, business opportunities explored were first-rate and an achievement, a big step forward. From my perspective, COVID has forced us to do those things. In forcing us to do those things, they’ve helped us move forward. We’ve changed the model of how we meet and greet one another and are with one another. We’re missing some time personally together, which, hopefully, we can bring back in another year or so. I do think that the way we’re going to work with one another is going to be a hybrid mix of virtual as well as direct. From an association perspective, that’s going to make us a stronger association. Many of our members find it difficult to find the time to travel and are faced with expensive travel which has only become more expensive in the past six months. Allowing them to participate and work with one another via the virtual program is a very strong enhancement to their ability to succeed. The hybrid model is going to work. The other part that I see emerging is that as a result of some of this turmoil, both from the pandemic and also tariffs and several things like that that have been introduced in the past four to five years, some of the staff that we have in our World Trade Centers are extremely knowledgeable about trade, about the involvement in how to work trade, how to deal with tariffs and how to deal with local taxation. If you are trying to move goods from Europe to the United States or move goods from the United States to the UK, there are lots of interesting rules around tariffs and special regulations and whatnot that are there that are embedded in that process. We have World Trade Centers that are knowledgeable about that and can help people. It’s a resource that we need to make more available to more businesses who become our members so they know how to take advantage of that knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t need to be duplicated in every trade center by any stretch, but what we need to do is identify the trade centers that know and make them available in a business way to companies that belong to other trade centers, so that they can use that knowledge effectively and at the same time, in a partnership of one trade center with another trade center. All of that needs to be explored. That has come out of the tariffs and some of the travel bans as a need that we can answer and answer very effectively. I can’t think of other organizations, private, not government organizations that can even do that. In many cases, government organizations are knowledgeable about bringing goods in, but they’re not knowledgeable about how to take goods out.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 52:11
Very interesting but true, yes.
John Drew 52:13
We can see it coming and going. We have something there to offer that needs to be more publicized. Some of the work that I know is underway right now on content development that many members are doing with your team at headquarters is going to produce information that’s going to be readily available to our members and their members that will address some of these issues and it’s going to make a difference. In that regard, COVID has forced us to change. I’m a big believer that if you don’t change and you stand still, then you’re slowly dying. Changing and constantly looking for ways to improve and become more efficient and adapt are signs of a healthy organization.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 53:00
That’s a great observation. I have here that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
John Drew 53:13
Robin van Puyenbroeck 53:15
Change is absolutely and always necessary and if done well, a good thing. John, thank you so much. It has been a great conversation. Before we wrap up, there’s one question I always have for our guests here. What can you share, it could be anecdotal, but something that you’ve never shared before? It could be something work-related or a personal anecdote, something that you haven’t shared before?
John Drew 53:42
About the association?
Robin van Puyenbroeck 53:46
It could be anything. I’m sure there are plenty of anecdotes related to the association. It could be something that happened with your work in Boston or association-related or something personal or something you think, this is something you’ve never shared with anyone before.
John Drew 54:03
You caught me off guard with that question. Let me think. What would I like to share that I haven’t shared? Let me deal with my thoughts about the association, I guess. I have spent the past 10 years with some of my staff trying to build a business-to-business platform and forgetting our specific platform. I am an absolute believer that we can become a trusted partner. In other words, I look at myself and say, I have a fairly unusual background. It started in government and moved into the private sector and then into real estate development. We’ve been very successful at real estate development. I suppose if I was a smarter guy, I would have stayed on the real estate development side and not worried about some of these other things and done even better financially. The other side of it is that I’ve always thought that the blend of putting time back in through the association or the chamber or the Research Bureau and whatnot was the responsibility that I have to myself, my family and my neighbors. I also look at this platform piece and think, if we could help businesses sell something to another business associated with us or vice versa in the other direction, we could be in a phenomenally good place where we could be modestly involved in those transactions, but be sought after by businesses as a way of expanding globally. Since everyone wants to be global, how to get there, what’s the path you follow? We have a path, but we need to execute. That means more work on our team’s part identifying real possibilities that can be executed against. It also means honesty and that is very hard for all of us. Some people are good at this and some people aren’t. Who wants to be the person who’s going to tell the guy who’s not particularly good at it that you’re not good. People avoid trying to do that sometimes. If we’re going to be able to move further and further ahead, we’re going to have to be able to make judgments about whether or not people are capable and if they’re not, how you help them become capable of succeeding in this world. We can’t dampen their enthusiasm, but we need to give them ways to get the credentials and the knowledge that they need. I see a world that still has a very physical component to it in trade, obviously with the World Trade Center buildings and various things like that as symbols and also as meeting locales and magnets to draw people together, but I feel the future is in this space of how we virtually help people do things. It means deepening our knowledge. One of the things that I support, as you know, is the freight forwarding warehousing piece becoming more active within the association. They have the wherewithal and knowledge that everyone needs if you are trading and moving goods. We need more of them at the table helping us. We have to get off of the surface and go deeper. That’s my point. That is the association side. On the business side, the thing that my teams know is that I love the business of doing business in building and developing projects. I’m spurred on by the challenge. I’m spurred on by the whole process that you have to go through, the permitting process. I find it always challenging and always new. At the end of the day, the company’s success has been in the fact that people trust us in Boston, Washington and Atlanta. They trust us in Ireland. Earning that trust is a key cornerstone to having success.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 58:45
A very good note to end with, John, this notion of the requirement of trust to be successful. I think it’s very true. A beautiful note to end on. John, thank you so much for being on the show.
John Drew 58:59
Robin van Puyenbroeck 58:59
Thank you for being with us today for a great conversation.
John Drew 59:01
Robin, thank you.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 59:04
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