- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

Roger Staubach is the quarterback for the commercial real estate brokerage in the District that bears his name, but James M. Underhill plays an important position, too.

Like the offensive linemen on a football team protect the quarterback, Mr. Underhill's job is to make sure the the Staubach Co. does not drop the ball as one of the biggest brokerages in the D.C. area.

Mr. Underhill is president of the firm's northeastern region, which is comprised of the District, Philadelphia and their suburbs. The Dallas-based company also has offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and 22 other U.S. cities, as well as foreign locales like Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.

Mr. Underhill oversees Staubach's local offices in Vienna, Reston, the District and Bethesda, and helps his brokers find office, retail and industrial space for their clients.

"I'm fortunate, because I don't have to be too hands-on. I have a lot of good people who handle the day-to-day operations," Mr. Underhill says.

That gives him time to tackle a new project: starting eStaubach, an Internet-based division of the firm that will allow brokers and clients to conduct real estate deals on line.

On the second day of 2001, Mr. Underhill moved into a smaller office at Staubach's local home base, the 17-story Tycon Tower in Vienna.

The new digs are about half the size of his old office. He now sits among the cubicle farms manned by the other eStaubach workers, a mix of techies and real estate professionals.

Mr. Underhill says he is excited about eStaubach, but he jokes that he never expected he would have to "start over" with a smaller office at this point in his career.

"Now I feel like I have to prove myself all over again," he says with a chuckle.

The firm's chairman and chief executive, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger T. Staubach, says his friend is the right man for the job.

"I know Jim, and I know the things he's accomplished. I believe he is very comfortable taking on this kind of challenge," Mr. Staubach says.

Dallas to D.C.

Mr. Underhill says meeting Mr. Staubach in 1985 was the biggest turning point in his career. At the time, Mr. Underhill was working for Trammell Crow Co., another Dallas-based commercial brokerage.

Mr. Underhill says he went to Staubach's office to pitch some of his clients' properties, and struck up a rapport with Mr. Staubach. He was hired in 1987.

"When I was with Trammell Crow, Staubach was the enemy… It didn't take long for me to realize there was a reason they were known as the best in the business: It was because they were," he says.

Mr. Staubach says he believed "deep down" Mr. Underhill was itching to get back to the D.C. area, which he got to know when he worked for Trammell Crow's D.C. office during the early 1980s.

So, Mr. Staubach sent Mr. Underhill to the Tysons Corner area to open the firm's satellite office.

It was a tough job. At the time, the Staubach name was associated with professional football not real estate. "We were very successful in Dallas, but no one knew us here," Mr. Underhill says.

Things changed quickly. In 1989, telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. hired Mr. Underhill's team to find a new headquarters in the D.C. area.

"That was the deal that let the real estate industry know we were going to be a player," he says.

The firm also became known for changing the way commercial real estate is done in the District.

For example, Staubach was among the first firms to break its practice into a series of small groups devoted to finding space for certain kinds of businesses, such as lawyers or nonprofit organizations.

"A lot of brokers don't want to be pigeonholed. But for those who say, 'Yeah, I want to be the best broker in this niche,' we offer the best platform," Mr. Underhill says.

The firm is also unique because it represents tenants exclusively. Most firms represent both tenants and landlords.

"That focus allows us to get up in the morning and know what our job is … When we go into a meeting with a landlord, our client knows we're looking out for their best interests. We're not out to get the landlord's business, too," he says.

More recently, Staubach began helping clients furnish offices, part of the firm's goal to be a soup-to-nuts real estate service.

During his career at Staubach, Mr. Underhill has negotiated more than $500 million worth of real estate deals, and has helped clients find more than 4 million square feet of commercial space.

One client, Richard P. Granato, a vice president for Mitretek Systems Inc. in McLean, says Mr. Underhill is "very involved" in his work.

Mitretek, a nonprofit technology company, hired Staubach a few years ago to help it plan a new headquarters in the D.C. area. The complex is now under construction in Falls Church.

"[Mr. Underhill has] been there at every milestone in the development. He knows the business, and he always brings a lot of knowledge to the table," Mr. Granato says.

Another client, World Wildlife Fund Vice President Debbie Hechinger, says Mr. Underhill does a good job explaining the real estate business to clients who do not understand its intricacies.

"I get the impression that he tailors his style to meet the needs of his clients," she says.

Twelve-hour days

Mr. Underhill puts in a long day. He says he is usually at the office by 7 a.m., and often gets home about 12 hours later.

He spends about 25 percent of his time supporting local community groups.

He is vice chairman of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the group that runs the outdoor concert pavilion in Vienna. Other board members include opera star Denyce Graves, Commerce Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Kathryn A. Bushkin, a senior vice president for America Online Inc.

Mr. Underhill says he became involved with Wolf Trap because he was a fan. "I used to go there all the time, and I got to know the people involved," he says.

In addition, he sits on the board of governors of the Tower Club, the swanky restaurant atop the Tycon Tower. He is also involved with a Colin Powell-led effort to encourage junior achievement.

"You don't do these things because you want to get business from them. You do them because they're the right thing to do," he says.

Mr. Underhill says his biggest hobby is his wife and three children, who range in age from 5 years to 10 years.

He also enjoys golf, but says he only got to play three games last year, a new low. He was too busy with work to spend much time on the golf course, he says.

He says he also treasures his friendship with his boss. Mr. Underhill says Mr. Staubach visits the D.C. area about once a month, and often stays at the Underhill home in Bethesda.

"Jim is a good man… . What he brings to the company is leadership. He shares in the vision," Mr. Staubach says.

Self-portrait

James M. Underhill, president, northeastern region, Staubach Co.

Age: 44

Native of: Long Island, N.Y.

Education: Master's in Business Administration from Harvard; bachelor of science in business administration and accounting from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

Experience: With Staubach since 1987; at Trammel Crow Co. from 1981 to 1986.

Outside the office: Vice chairman, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts; member, board of governors, Tower Club.

At home: Married; three children, ages 5, 9 and 10 years. Family resides in Bethesda.

What he's reading: "Chesapeake" by James A. Michener.

What he's watching: The last movie he saw was "Cast Away." ("I liked it," he says.)

Where he vacations: Easton, a town on Maryland's Eastern Shore where he owns a summer home.

Pet peeve: Traffic in the D.C. area.


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