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With fourth generation at helm, Houlihan family legacy stands test of time

The day before a lone terrorist cut a deadly swathe through the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, on Bastille Day, Jim Houlihan and his wife Mary Patricia had walked the seaside street where 84 men, women and children would later meet their tragic end.

The couple had turned a family wedding trip to Ireland into an extended European vacation. Basing themselves in Monte Carlo, they toured the Mediterranian coast, stopping in Nice on July 13.

“It was a beautiful bright, sunny day and there were lots of people sunbathing and swimming,” Houlihan recalled. “It’s a big wide street with a lot of foot traffic and, right behind it, a bazaar that sells local produce.

JIM HOULIHAN

“It’s a crazy world we live in. It touches everyone, especially in New York,” added the veteran real estate executive, whose sister Pat lived through both the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and whose brother, Bill, and colleague Fred Stahl both narrowly escaped the September 11 tragedy.

“That’s how random life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are on vacation, watching a movie, going to work … as much as you would like to, you can’t control your environment. But I don’t let it interfere with my business or professional life. The terrorists aim is not to just maim and kill, but to force you to do what they want you to do. That’s not something that’s going to happen with me.”

Indeed, Houlihan has charted a strong and steady course since joining the family firm when he was just 20 and still a student at Fordham University.

Today, he is the managing partner at Houlihan Parnes Realtors, a White Plains-based firm. The company is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year with a portfolio that now includes over five million square feet of commercial real estate and 30,000 multi-family units across the US, as well as a multi-platform enterprise that transacts millions of dollars in commercial real estate deals and brokers hundreds of thousands of square feet in office, retail and industrial leases every year.

Houlihan Parnes has also developed a successful consulting division, advising governments, hospitals and educational institutions on real estate strategy. The company employs 70 people in White Plains and thousands more at its properties across the country.

Jim Houlihan has done it, he says, by taking each day as it comes.

“There was never a five-year plan,” he said. “It was as simple as putting your shoes on and going to work every day, applying yourself, and recognizing and seizing opportunities to create value.

“Anyone in the real estate business who has taken a risk has had to know failure. You can’t control your environment, you can’t control the economy. It is something that you have to react to.

“When the stock market crashes, or we go into recession, or when banks want you to pay back all the money you have been borrowing – that causes serious repercussions. You have to learn how to deal with those difficult periods. When you are able to get through those, you learn from them and it makes you more adept at handling other bad cycles.

“If you are able to build strong liquidity and have a good reputation, people will want to do business with you. Hopefully, in those down cycles, you are well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that come out of those bad cycles .”

Houlihan Parnes has been celebrating its 125th year in business with a series of parties and events designed to celebrate the company, its employees and partners. Its 100th anniversary passed with no fanfare in the midst of a market downturn.

Houlihan Parnes threw a 125th anniversary party earlier this summer. Picture l-r: Jim Houlihan; Irish Consul general Barbara Jones; Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino; Mary Patricia Houlihan, Houlihan & O’Malley and; Andrew M. Greenspan, GHP Office Realty.
Houlihan Parnes threw a 125th anniversary party earlier this summer. Picture l-r: Jim Houlihan; Irish Consul general Barbara Jones; Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino; Mary Patricia Houlihan, Houlihan & O’Malley and; Andrew M. Greenspan, GHP Office Realty.

A rolling recession sparked by bank examiners changing lending rules caused an overnight lack of liquidity.

“We had never had a default on any line of credit – not even a late payment,” recalled Houlihan. “ But within 30 days, all the banks froze our lines of credit, which stopped us borrowing any more money. Then they made demands for immediate payment. It was a very stressful time, but we were able to survive that and come out stronger.”

Houlihan Parnes, then led by Jim’s father, James G. Houlihan, and Howard Parnes, saw opportunity in the distressed loan business and put together a team to bid on packages of foreclosed real estate, or defaulted loans.  It was the purchase on these large portfolios that brought the most dramatic change to the business since its earliest days, when Irish immigrant and company founder, Daniel Houlihan, was buying and selling building lots in Manhattan and the Bronx.

“We had to buy the entire portfolio. We couldn’t cherry pick only the properties in the tri-state area, so it took us from a local to a national platform. Adding management and leasing changed us from being a trader of real estate to more long-term owners and investors. Today we own hundred of properties across the US, although we still have a large concentration in the tri state.”

At an anniversary party earlier this summer in the Westchester Country Club, the company’s 125 years in business were presented to guests in a series of poster boards hung in the lobby.

Faded sepia –toned images showed Daniel Houlihan as a boy in County Kerry, Ireland, before he came to the US in 1874 on his own. He was 14-years-old and had $5 in his pocket.

danielJHoulihan
Company founder Daniel Houlihan came to the US at the age of 14 with just $5 in his pocket.

After working as a construction laborer and learning the carpentry trade, the young immigrant opened his own general contracting and construction company. In 1891, he began buying and selling building lots and moved his family to Bedford Park in the Bronx. There, he became renowned for building “Houlihan’s Flats”, the first multi-family apartment built on what was then farmland, north of Fordham Road.

They were the first high-rises in the city and became a training ground for firefighters employing new techniques for battling blazes in a city that was then reaching for the skies with every brick it laid.

A succession of Houlihans have run the businesses ever since . In 1973, Jim – one of six children – became the first member of the fourth generation to enter the business.

Back then, it was a couple of store fronts under the elevated train on 236th Street in the Bronx. Jim was in his third year at Fordham studying business and a star pitcher in Division One college baseball. He said he never saw himself making it to the big leagues.

“In competitive sports, as you ascend the ladder the competition gets tougher and, at each level, fewer people are able to make the step up to the next grade. But playing any sport is a great way to train for life. It teaches you discipline, dedication, how to lose and win, and how to be part of a team. It makes you stronger, better and more resilient.”

After a summer internship at Houlihan Parnes, though, he did see himself succeeding in the real estate business. “I found the work interesting. There was a sense of adventure to it,” he said.

Near the end of the summer, when his father and his partners went to the New York State Real Estate Convention, Houlihan found himself holding down the fort – and on hand when a buyer showed interest in an apartment complex they wanted to sell.

The companys investment portfolio includes its headquarters building at 4 White Oak Lane in White Plaines
The company’s investment portfolio includes its headquarters building at Four West Red Oak Lane, White Plains.

“At the time, the minimum wage was $3.50 an hour, which is what I was making as an intern. I thought I would be entitled to half the $10,000 fee on the deal, but because I wasn’t a sales person, they gave me a $200 bonus.”

It was still enough to convince him to give up his baseball scholarship and finish his degree by taking morning classes before going to work at the firm in the afternoons during his senior year.

“When I graduated, I started full time and they allowed me to get on full commission. As soon as I went on commission, I didn’t make any deals for months. My mother was really upset and thought dad was taking advantage of me. But finally I got a deal closed, and then lots of deals closed in quick succession and I never looked back.”

Each year, he did better than the year before. “Part of that was applying myself. I took continuing education courses at NYU Schack, read a lot, asked questions, took personal pride in wanting to become as well-rounded and knowledgeable as I could about the industry.”

He said there’s no doubt his family’s connections gave him “a good foundation from which I could get my foot in the door.” However, he said that if he didn’t have the knowledge and skills, that door would have closed very quickly.

“That separated me at an early age from the people I was competing with. A lot of times in my 20s I would go into the city for the day and knock on doors. I’d stop at Sol Goldman’s office, or Harry Macklowe’s and ask if they had time to see me. If you get in front of people like that, who are very busy, you have to get to the point right away.”

Macklowe remembers it well, but admitted, “I’m getting old just thinking about them.”

HARRY MACKLOWE
HARRY MACKLOWE

The real estate pioneer told Real Estate Weekly, “I have only the highest regard for the Houlihan Parnes firm. They represent the best of our real estate industry with a tremendous amount of family integrity, deep morals and strong religious values.

“I have known the extended family for over 50 years and they are loyal friends, wonderful colleagues and great partners.”

Real estate attorney Andy Albstein, of Goldberg Weprin Finkel Goldstein LLP, is another long-time colleague whose firm has represented Houlihan Parnes for the last 60 years.

“Working with the Houlihan and Parnes families, as well as their talented partners and associates in scores of deals, underscored how distinctive they really are, ” said Albstein.

“Through complex transactions in every economic climate, the steady hands of Howard, Jim Sr. and now Jim Jr. guided the company to profitability and universal respect. They are known as savvy but unquestionably honorable business men and women.

Jim Houlihan Snr.
Jim Houlihan Snr. retired from the business several years ago.

“And there is so much more to Houlihan Parnes’ legacy. They are leaders in many charitable causes; Houlihan Parnes has never forgotten its roots nor its familial nature. When they say you are often judged by the company you keep, I am  proud to call myself a friend and colleague of Jim Sr., Howard and Jim Jr. and their company.”

Howard Parnes died in April, 2016.
Howard Parnes died in April, 2016.

 

Family is still a very large part of the firm. Over the years brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews have all played different roles in helping build the company. All five of Houlihan’s children – Christie, Kelly, Bryan Houlihan, Meghan McEvoy and Michael McEvoy- have worked at the firm at some time. Fred Stahl’s brother Sheldon and mother Barbara Stahl, who are related to Howard Parnes, are longstanding members of the firm, along with Jerry Houlihan, Jim’s cousin. Houlihan has also recruited outsiders who could elevate the platform further, such as Andy Greenspan and Jim Coleman, Jim’s brother-in-law.

“What has evolved here is more like a team. It has never been that it is our destiny. It is something you can think about, something you can try as a young adult. If it is something you enjoy and want to work at, then that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too.

“It takes more than one person to be successful in this business, to have a vision and carry it out, make it successful and continue it.”

As for the future, “It’s about us continuing to look for opportunities to invest in unique deals to create upside. We typically don’t chase trophy assets, which usually come with a lower yield. What we have done in the last 25 years is we have transitioned from being a trader of real estate to a long term investor, and I see that continuing.

“You never know what the next opportunity may present itself. The secret is to be open and able to adapt to those opportunities. The one constant in business is change. Nothing stays exactly the same. History repeats itself, but not in exactly the same way.
“For the foreseeable future we plan to go to work each day as usual and not to make it over-complicated. Stay away from things we don’t know, like hospitality and specialized fields of real estate.”

Houlihan Parnes owns and operates five million s/f of office property and 30,000 apartments around the country
Houlihan Parnes owns and operates five million s/f of office property and 30,000 apartments around the country

Jim Houlihan will be 64 next week. As he reflected on his years carrying a legacy into its 125th year, he said, “Over the years, not everything worked out as planned, but we have been able to develop a nice network of people we do business with, who have been successful and who we have gone through rocky times with and we have remained friendly business associates who respect each other.

“I have enjoyed being able do what I’ve done. It has been a fun ride that has greatly enriched me financially, but also it has enabled me to do other things like travel, become involved in the arts, philanthropy. It has enabled my family – my children, my nieces and nephews – to be exposed to opportunity.

“We have been able to do it in the right way, in my opinion. We have never competed to be on the top of any list, but have worked to be successful in what we do and to do it in an ethical, professional manner and I think we have accomplished that.

“Nothing goes on for ever. It would be great for the business to have a healthy lifeline long after I am gone. If it didn’t and the company came to the end of the line, then so be it. We have tried to put as many good people in place here so that it’s not dependent on one person. There are other people here who could pick up the ball, but you never know how someone is going to do until they are tested.”

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