March 1, 2010
A student of the classics and ancient Greece, Tom Hynes delights in the story of Pheidippides, the Athenian herald who in 490 B.C. announced the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. As legend has it, Pheidippides ran a marathon 150 miles in two days, then raced 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens to proclaim victory. "We have won," he declared. He then collapsed, dead from exhaustion.
A marathon man of modern-day proportions, Hynes, at 70 chairman and CEO of Colliers Meredith & Grew, the distinguished full-service commercial real estate firm, is certainly not one to seize defeat from the lips of victory. An individual who made his mark brokering space in buildings that transformed the face and girth of Boston, Hynes—a competitive runner in his day who still works 100-hour weeks, a guy who boldly parachuted out of planes in the Army, who raced down the icy Cresta Run at St. Moritz on a wobbly sled at speeds up to 50 miles-an-hour, a man who has climbed the Matterhorn and just weeks ago braved the summit of Mt. Washington with its hurricane-force winds, an earnest hockey player (left wing) who still laces 'em up and who in recent years endured surgeries from collisions on ice that left him with scars that make the crusty Quint in the classic movie Jaws look like a wimp—apparently never read the memo on exhaustion.
"I'm a scrubber, a mucker," Hynes says of his athletic prowess.
Thomas J. Hynes, Jr., a nephew of the late Boston Mayor John B. Hynes, who defeated the legendary James Michael Curley three times, has been driven like a puck ever since his father died of cancer when he was eight. "You never get over it," he said from an 11th floor conference room at 160 Federal Street. "It stays with you." He pauses to collect his thoughts. The wound is still raw.
Loyalty and integrity are the cornerstones of Tom Hynes's life, a high-rise of achievement. A lifer at Meredith & Grew, Hynes joined the firm in1965 after a dangerous stint demolishing ramshackle buildings in the West End for the John J. Duane Company of Quincy, followed by a tour of duty as a Second Lieutenant in an Army airborne division that was set to parachute into Cuba had the Bay of Pigs invasion been a success, a flirtation with Boston University Law School on the heels of a BC High and Boston College education, and —ignoring the sage advice of "Uncle John," a surrogate father to him – a failed attempt in 1964 to represent his native West Roxbury in the state Legislature.
"Don't even think about it," the former mayor told Hynes bluntly, counseling him to ignore law school and politics. "First of all, you're not that smart." His uncle advised that Boston's top law firms only hired Yankees from Harvard at the time and that politics could be a black hole of trouble. "Go into the real estate business," he urged, then wrote the dubious Hynes a $200 campaign check. "Good luck," he barked.
Hynes placed a close third in a redistricting race that was reducing three seats to two, with both won by incumbents. Now with a strangling campaign debt and a shattered dream, he got religion—big time—and sought a career in commercial real estate. But the road to success for Irish lads like Hynes, even with lingering City Hall connections, was serpentine. It took him took him six months to find gainful employment, but it was love at first sight at Meredith & Grew on the lip of an inauspicious start at $130 a week.
"When I was hired," Hynes recalls, "I thought I'd be [CEO] Tom Horan's first assistant, but the day I started it was as if he almost forgot he had hired me. He gave me a desk between the water cooler and Xerox machine. 'Don't worry about making any deals for the first month or two,' he said in a way that spoke more between the lines. 'But if you haven't made any deals in a while, I'll be around to see you.' "
That was his training session.
A graduate of the School of Hard Knocks at the Duane demolition company where, at the end of work days in summers and briefly after college, he smelled like a "burnt cork, a filthy rotten smell" so horrific that no one would sit next to him on the T, also a seasoned campaigner who was not afraid to knock on doors, and a man fully ambidextrous above the shoulders, thinking with precision from the left side and the right, a poet as much as a corporate type, Hynes embraced the art of the close. "I figured that if I knew how to ask people for their votes, I could certainly ask for their business," he said. When the smoke cleared at Meredith & Grew, Hynes had worked his way up to president in 1988 and chairman in 2007.
The following year, the firm formally joined forces with Colliers International, a global partnership of independently owned commercial real estate firms with more than 10,000 employees operating from more than 293 offices in 61 countries. "Stability" is the mantra at Colliers Meredith & Grew, which in 134 years has survived 28 recessions, the Great Depression, 6 wars, and 26 American presidents.
So, street-smart Uncle John, a first-generation Irish American with close ties to Lochrea, Galway, knew what he was talking about. The son of Bernard John Hynes and the nephew of Thomas J. Hynes, who emigrated to Boston in their early teens in 1895 (Bernard was a railroad worker and Thomas was a groundskeeper at Harvard who later returned to Ireland), Uncle John had been schooled in humility and had a self-deprecating humor and a knack for keeping his feet on terra firma—lessons that he passed along.
When he was mayor of Boston, he traveled to Lochrea to meet his uncle Tom for the first time. "Hi, I'm Mayor John Hynes, your nephew from Boston," he told his uncle, according to family lore. After a long, uncomfortable pause, his uncle replied, "So?" To lift the awkward moment, a soft voice from the kitchen, the uncle's wife, coaxed the mayor in for tea. As he was leaving, his uncle wept and said to him, "Johnny, I never should have left America."
The story of misplaced opportunities is not lost on Thomas J. Hynes, Jr., who sports a family name in Boston as recognizable as Fenway, but he has never taken anything for granted. His cousin Barry is a former president of the Boston City Council and founder of Nativity Prep, his cousin Jack Hynes, now retired, was a longtime Boston news broadcaster and commentator of note, and Jack's son, John B. Hynes III, is a prominent developer with worldwide interests. Initially, it was a rapid rise to the top for the Hynes family in parochial Boston—from an Irish immigrant to the mayor of the city in one generation.
"In my business," Tom Hynes said, "you learn to respect people no matter how they look or how they are dressed. You just never know. You never take anything in life for granted." Particularly family. Ask Hynes about his priorities, and he responds without hesitation, "Family, family, family."
Hynes met his Belgium-born wife Nicole (Delava) when she was a receptionist for a Boston law firm. The couple, married 29 years and living in Brookline with a summer house in Woods Hole, have two children: Vanessa, a Middlebury College graduate and a hockey star as a youth who now teaches art at the Pike School in North Andover; and Todd, an Academic All-American at MIT who captained the football team and played hockey and lacrosse, then worked for Joe Kennedy developing wind turbine projects. He now teaches an MIT graduate course, and is fine tuning an alternative energy start-up company.
Tom grew up in West Roxbury, and when his father, Thomas, died in 1949, his mother Eleanor (Berry) "never missed a beat. We never new how tough it would be," Hynes recalled, noting that his mother kept life on an even keel, raising five siblings and a child from her husband's first marriage. Hynes's sister Eleanor is a retired school teacher living in Washington, D.C; his sister Ann is a retired chemist living in West Roxbury; his brother Kevin runs an industrial company in South Carolina; and his brother David, now retired, maintained the pristine grounds of the Boston Public Garden for 30 years, a recipient of the prized Shattuck Award as an outstanding City of Boston employee.
Hynes described his father as a patriarchal type, who graciously opened his home to friends and generations of kin. He was an office manager at the 108-year-old Milk Street law firm, O'Connell & O'Connell, where he met his wife. He also worked as a Suffolk County deputy sheriff. Both parents were deeply religious, and believed in a Jesuit education. Hynes went to BC High ("a formative part of my education") where he studied Latin for four years, Greek for three, and French for two. He still keeps at his bedside his Prose & Poetry book, first published in 1885, and his Greek Reader, although he concedes he can't decipher it now. Hynes also played football at the high school where he was a "scrub" halfback, he insisted, and later at Boston College as a day-hopper where he practiced Monday through Friday, but didn't play on Saturdays against the likes of West Point, Navy, and Clemson.
"I was determined to play football," he says, noting a primal drive that had more to do with motivation than athletic talent. Hynes has always been known as a gamer. For example, he took on the harsh job of knocking down buildings and clearing the mess with a pick axe and shovel just to get in shape. He later quit when a worker next to him was killed in a demolition accident.
Motivation is the coin of his life. Fling at Hynes a fitting challenge, and he jumps at it—like the time his daughter and son took up hockey. "Other than pond ice, I had never played," he says. But following the lead of his children and encouragement from young Boston Bruin players, including NHL star Joe Thornton (now with San Jose) who once lived at the Hynes household (Meredith & Grew did client work for the Bruins), Hynes years ago joined a local team of ex-hockey jocks, the Flying Squirrels. He still plays on the team, as well as another pickup team, the Former Legends of Hockey, and a "no-name" team at BU. On occasion, he plays in celebrity games with Thornton and rubs shoulders on the ice with Bobby Orr.
How's that for a self-proclaimed underachiever in sports? All of it sandwiched in between climbing mountains, flying down sled runs, and playing golf here and in Ireland with his buddies, a Who's Who of Boston. Friends mirror the man, and at full length the image is striking: the late Tom Flatley and the late Bill Connell, NSTAR CEO Tom May, newspaper publisher Pat Purcell, former Citizens Bank CEO Larry Fish, retired Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos CEO Jack Connors, former Fidelity Magellan Fund genius Peter Lynch, retired Boston Globe editor Marty Nolan, to name just a few. Most are Irish Catholic boys from Boston neighborhoods. In a 1986 cover story the Boston Business Journal dubbed them CWASPS—Irish from the neck up, "Yankified" from the shoulders down.
Hynes clearly was more interested in discussing the achievements of his friends. Instinctively self-deprecating, he is a storyteller who lifts the spirits of others. His office walls are filled with memorabilia and photos of family and colleagues. There are no citations or plaques, but there must be a basement full of them some place. He has served as a trustee and director of numerous companies and organizations, including New World Bank, the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the Sea Education Association, Prentiss Properties Trust, and as chairman of the Boston College Real Estate and Investment Council.
It is now late on a February day, and as a radiant winter sun sets on downtown Boston, Hynes again answers the call of the rink after fielding a score of business calls and juggling a spate of meetings. The Flying Squirrels are playing tonight, and Hynes is as energized as he was starting the day at 5 a.m. To say that he is a Renaissance man is to say that Leonardo DaVinci was a multi-tasker.
"I'm just trying to stay in shape," Hynes said when asked about his passion. "I'll guarantee you that I'm the worst hockey player on ice! But I have a goal. I have a vision."
And that's what makes him tick. Pheidippides would be duly impressed.
Greg O'Brien is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy company based in Brewster. He is the author/editor of several books and contributes to national and regional publications.