Executive Q+A: A-P Hurds Urban Expression
Touchstone president leads it through a delicate transition and toward national recognition.
By Interview by John Levesque October 21, 2016
Two years ago, when Urban Renaissance Group acquired Seattles Touchstone Corporation in a billion-dollar deal, Touchstones founders began transitioning out of the firm and installed A-P Hurd as president and chief development officer. Getting through the sale of Touchstone was a huge technical and emotional challenge for everyone on the team, says Hurd, who joined Touchstone in 2008. It worked out in the end for everyone involved. Founded by Douglas Howe in 1982, Touchstone was recently named national Developer of the Year by NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. In the past decade, Touchstone has embarked on 12 projects encompassing nearly 3 million square feet. All of its buildings are certified LEED Silver or better; most are LEED Gold.
EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, which was a safe, sleepy, government town. My dad was a civil servant, initially in the military and then a civilian. Hes an IT guy who later went into the private sector. My mom was a teacher, the kind you meet on the first day of school and you figure out in about five minutes that youre not going to get away with any nonsense. My mom died when I was 12 and by that time, she had become politically active. I suspect if she had lived longer, she would have run for office. She was the kind of person who had very definite views about how to fix things.
EDUCATION: I grew up speaking French first, and then learned English when I was 3. In Ottawa, most people speak two or three languages. Ottawa is a very multicultural place. The idea that you can be part of several identity groups at once is really normal there and that has shaped me a lot. I went to college in Kingston, Ontario, at Queens University, which is only two hours away but way more English than Ottawa. Thats when I went from being Annie-Pierre to being A-P. I loved college and managed to regain the self-confidence I had lost in middle school. I did student government and radio and newspapering. Strangely enough, it was my love for journalism that led me into finance after college. The pace of the newsroom is a lot like a trading floor: lots of buzz and external events that drive the level of activity.
INFLUENCES: For a few years, I traded derivatives in Toronto and New York. Its a very specialized field with not a lot of transferable skills. I was worried that if I didnt want to do it forever, Id better learn to do something else. So I worked for a software startup. When it went under, I went to Indonesia and wrote a novel, and then I went to grad school [at MIT].
SEATTLE: After grad school, I was out interviewing with Starbucks and Amazon and Boeing and I incidentally got hooked up with McKinstry. Dean Allen (see page 36) offered me a job as director of strategic development, working for him and starting up a couple of new business units. I wanted P&L responsibility, and I knew I could learn a lot from Dean.
REAL ESTATE: From McKinstry, it wasnt a far hop to real estate. When youre the mechanical contractor, theres a certain box youre allowed to operate in. We were trying to fix energy-inefficient buildings that had a bad solar orientation or a bad skin or some other problem using just the mechanical system. When I had a chance to be a developer at Touchstone and have more levers to build better buildings and cities, it was an exciting opportunity.
TOUCHSTONES MISSION: We build great buildings that make the city a better place. We are deeply committed to Seattle, not just for this set of buildings, but for the long term. If we can make delightful buildings, we can set an example of how to make a delightful city. If compact, transit-connected, energy-efficient cities are delightful places to live, then people will choose them. That is the only way were going to make a go of it on this planet.
REPUTATION: Most people dont like change, and development is really visible. So I can understand why people dont like developers. Because of how the zoning works in Seattle, all of our growth is being absorbed on about 15 percent of our land area. Its extra hard for the people who live in the neighborhoods that are allowed to absorb growth, because those neighborhoods are changing really fast. Its also hard to love something that doesnt exist yet. Often, five or 10 years after something gets built, people really love it. But when youre talking about replacing the familiar with the unknown, thats hard for people. All we can do is what Garrison Keillor admonishes on The Writers Almanac: Be well, do good work and keep in touch.
URBAN RENAISSANCE GROUP: Historically, Urban Renaissance has focused on property management and asset investment. It was always part of their plan to do development as well. Acquiring Touchstone was a good way to build that third leg of the development platform. Given the strength of the Touchstone brand and the skills on our team, there was no real need or desire to change how we were operating. We do, however, have a lot of informal collaboration with the Urban Renaissance team and have remarkably similar values, so its been a great fit. I think the deal has made both companies stronger.
GREATEST CHALLENGE: Finding land that we like at a price that makes sense.
LOCAL COMPETITION: Vulcan, Skanska, Schnitzer.
LESSON LEARNED: The trouble with development projects is that they last years and years. Inevitably, there are times when things look very bad indeed. Sometimes there is a temptation to cut ones losses, even though there is a lot to lose. The biggest thing Ive learned is that often there is no way out but through. You know, like the song you sing at camp: Cant go over it, cant go under it, cant go around it, well have to go through it. As long as the we is a team you trust, through is way more workable than it seems. You find a way.
TAKE 5: Get to Know A-P Hurd
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: Having a baby with an induced labor and no epidural. Pushing a baby out is a pretty amazing experience.
FUN STUFF: Open-water swimming in Green Lake. Being out there at dawn with the birds flying over and my face at water level is like heaven in the city.
BEST VACATION: A long one. Three months. I dream about that.
DINING SPOT: Le Pichet on First Avenue in Seattle. I got engaged there. Did my book launch there [for The Carbon Efficient City]. When she grows up, my daughter wants to open another one on Phinney Ridge.
BOOK LIST: I just finished Full Moon, Flood Tide about the history of the islands northeast of Vancouver Island.