The Dallas Morning News
Wheeling and dealing
Tenant rep for corporations made his mark with souped-up services
Cliff Fischer owns a fleet of ridiculously expensive muscle cars, lives in a mansion and has some of the biggest names in corporate America as clients. Yet the 58-yearold founder and CEO of Fischer & Co. flies under most people’s radars.
Unless you operate in the commercial real estate world, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ve never heard of him.
But in that circle, Fischer is a tenant representative who’s considered a force to be reckoned with.
Fischer’s longtime clients include FedEx, AT&T, IBM, Mary Kay and Dow Jones.
Not a single customer is a landlord.
“We don’t have the inherent conflict of representing both sides of the table,” says Fischer in his offices in Galleria North near the Dallas North Tollway. “As a result, we do business with some of the biggest companies in America. Being the midsized guy going up against the big guys in tenant rep is really fun.”
Using sophisticated technology, Fischer and his 33-year-old company help major corporations keep tabs on their far-flung properties, leasing conditions in markets where they have facilities and those they want to enter.
Scott Dobak, CEO of Dicom Transportation Group, a major logistics provider based in Montreal, hired Fischer two years ago via word of mouth.
“The recommendations came back extremely strong like: ‘This guy’s a best-in-class type of individual,’ ” says Dobak.
Fischer did a complete audit of each property. Now when a lease comes due, it provides information about rents for that region and what’s available.
The most recent company to come on board is Dollar General. The 14,000-store discount chain is in a torrid growth mode with plans to open 900 discount stores this year — an average of three a day, every day. It will use computerized intel from Fischer to help map out that growth.
Opportunity in implosion
All this started in 1985, when Fischer implemented a class project he turned in while getting his business degree in finance and real estate at Southern Methodist University four years earlier.
His strategy was to copy Roger Staubach, who pioneered tenant representation.
Fischer saw opportunity in the real estate carnage of the mid-1980s.
“It couldn’t have been a better time for what we were doing,” Fischer says. “We were able to help people restructure leases — sometimes at half the cost — because there was such an oversupply.”
The day after Fischer opened for business, Citicorp called, wanting him to work on a small lease. It didn’t bring in much money, but it gave Fischer instant street cred.
His girlfriend, Gail, now his wife of 31 years, stepped in as his secretary. But the couple quickly learned that she had skills far more valuable than typing.
“Gail loved to make calls. She could open doors left, right and sideways,” Fischer recalls. “That allowed me to come in and present, win and manage the business.”
She’s still active in the company as co-owner and executive vice chairman.
At first Fischer & Co. did tenant representation the typical way. But Fischer wanted a point of differentiation.
“We developed technology that took us from a Dallasbased company where the majority of our work was right here in our backyard to where people were hiring us to manage national portfolios,” he says.
Fischer taught himself how to program and code late at night.
“This was called a ‘luggable,’ ” he says, stopping at a display case of his business past and pointing to a 33-pound Compaq. “We built our first software on that.”
IBM was one of the first clients to take advantage of the company’s technology when the computer giant hired Fischer in 1990 to help it migrate its real estate portfolio from a userunfriendly mainframe system to a PC-based one.
“IBM remains one of our largest technology clients,” says Fischer. “So it’s been a 28-year relationship.”
FedEx came first
In 1989, Dave McComas gave Fischer a fighting chance.
McComas had taken over FedEx’s 90 corporate properties — the headquarters complex, corporate facilities, 20 call centers and four regional offices — and had inherited a long list of issues.
“The legal building had an expired lease,” says McComas, now retired from FedEx. “How would you like to have your corporate lawyers evicted?”
Fischer and his technology people sat down with McComas in Dallas and went over each property and color-coded them by urgency.
“We attacked it methodically and got it all straightened out,” says McComas.
In 1994, when he was promoted to handle all 1,400 of FedEx’s off-airport properties nationwide, McComas expanded the Dallas company’s duties to also handle the bulk of that.
“Cliff ’s got such a grasp on technology, and he has surrounded himself with people who can produce it,” says McComas. “He’s also hired some of the best brokers in the country. They know how to deal with these properties and find what you need.”
Last year, Cliff and Gail formed a board of directors with three outsiders joining the couple: Jim Carreker, former vice chairman of Trammell Crow Co.; Ivan Hofmann, retired chief operating officer of FedEx Ground; and Andrea Weiss, a retail consultant known for outside director work.
Revenue was approximately $65 million last year, and it was the company’s most profitable ever. As for 2018, Fischer is cautiously optimistic, especially with the advice he’s getting from his board members.
Carreker has been talking with Fischer over lunch for years about adding more international business and acquiring smaller competitors in a consolidation play.
“The good news is that all of his directors have been involved with companies that have grown, and they’ve grown in different ways,” says Carreker, founder of the private equity firm JDC Holdings. “Cliff and Gail are listening hard, considering what kind of investments to make so that they can go after it and redefine the business a little bit.”
Living a dream
Fischer’s father was in the Navy, and the family of four (Cliff has an older sister) lived in Ventura, Calif., Pakistan and Washington, D.C., before landing in Dallas in 1967.
The family moved to Plano when Cliff was in high school.
Today Cliff Fischer is a brawny, soft-spoken, affable man who enjoys life, family, friendship and politics (he’s a staunch Republican and friend of Donald Trump). He loves to lock horns in a civilized way.
Fischer has always loved cars. He played with model toys as a boy, dreaming about which ones he’d own one day. His first car was a “very mean, navy blue AMC Javelin with the big, fat tires. Loud, but not that fast.”
Fischer now owns a fleet of statement cars, although he won’t say how large, that includes a McLaren, a couple of Rolls-Royces and a slew of exotics and muscle cars — all kept securely in a garage.
“The Lamborghini is my favorite exotic,” he says. “The [Dodge Challenger] Hellcat is my favorite muscle car. It’s definitely unique with its paint job.”
He shares his guilty indulgence with his 23-year-old son, Chad, who works for his dad at the real estate company.
They’re both eagerly waiting for delivery of Dodge’s latest monster muscle car, a megapowered, ultralight Challenger SRT Demon that lists for $86,090.
Fischer is a giveback guy, orchestrating an annual poker night — the next one is next month — with former Dallas Cowboys stars, clients and high rollers that benefits the Cattle Baron’s Ball.
Dan Paterson, president of Swearingen Realty Group, says what you see is what you get.
He and Fischer have been fierce competitors for nearly 30 years. They’re also best buddies, having made a pact long ago to never let business wound their friendship.
“No matter what Cliff does, living life, chasing business or running a transaction, it’s not 100 percent, it’s 150,” says Paterson. “We compete as hard as we can. But once it’s over, the loser will say, ‘You kicked my butt this time. I’ll get you next time.’”
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is another close buddy.
They met more than 20 years ago, when Kirk was trying to entice Bank of America to move its Texas headquarters in Las Colinas to downtown Big D. Fischer represented Bank of America and negotiated the deal with Lincoln Plaza.
“It was a good win for both of us,” says Kirk. “We just hit it off. We found out that we both liked golf and poker.
“At that time, Cliff and Gail were doing their business with bailing wire. It’s been fun watching him grow. I just love his energy and his freshness. You hear about all these bootstrap stories, but he really is one. He’s a prince of a guy.”