March-April 2015 | Featured Article

Seeing Things Differently

Hometown: Not all real estate executives meditate. But Jeffrey Abramson has never been one to worry about what others are doing.

When Jeffrey Abramson was about 10 years old, he attended Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington. He could see, a few blocks away, looming over the trees, an apartment complex in Silver Spring called The Blairs that was built by his father, Albert “Sonny” Abramson. “That was my beginning of understanding real estate,” he recalls.

He’s learned a lot since then. Today, Jeffrey, 62, and his two older brothers, Ronald and Gary, run the Tower Companies, the business created by their father, who died three years ago. And they are renovating the project the young boy could see from his classroom window, a 27-acre “city-within-a-city” that will include apartments and town houses, parks and gardens, stores and restaurants.

Multi-Housing News calls The Blairs “the largest redevelopment effort in Montgomery County Downtown history.” But the significance of the project goes beyond size. It’s also about spirit. It’s about how people live, not just where they live.
Abramson is not a man of small ambitions. He believes that buildings designed “in accord with natural law” can profoundly improve the mood and mindset of their tenants. And he says he wants his firm to “become a catalyst to transform the entire real estate industry.”

The example he’s trying to set is clearly evident at company headquarters on Tower Oaks Boulevard in Rockville. The first thing you notice is the parking garage. It’s immaculate, the cleanest I’ve ever seen, with several charging stations for electric cars. Plugged into one is Abramson’s small white Chevy Volt.

On the top floor, sunshine pours in from every direction. “Light is free,” Abramson likes to say, and every office has a view of the surrounding landscape. “It’s like a tree house up here,” he says.

Yes, a very well-appointed tree house, with indoor gardens, recycled building materials and a kitchen where a chef cooks vegetarian lunches. The Tower offices have won countless environmental awards, but Abramson says his real goal is to “go beyond green” and enhance the well-being of his employees, the “human capital” that comprises 85 percent of any company’s costs.

Every worker—including the boss—wears a motion-sensing pedometer and as our conversation extends over several hours, his flashes a message. “It’s telling me ‘Let’s go,’ I’ve been sitting too much,” he says.

In one room, folks can privately record their weight and blood pressure and earn prizes for achieving personal goals. Another space is set aside for meditation—Abramson says many employees like to spend time there before plunging into the region’s hellish traffic. After meditation, “they’re not so tired,” he says, so they “come home richer” and readier to enjoy their families.

The Tower Companies get richer too. Wellness works as a business strategy, because healthier employees raise efficiency and lower insurance premiums. “If you do the right thing, you are rewarding the bottom line,” he says.

The Abramson family story starts in this area around 1920, when Abramson’s grandfather moved here from New York and opened a clothing store. His father, Sonny, earned a law degree, became a captain in the Army Air Force during World War II, and came home to a grim future.

“He’s a lawyer, he has one client, and the client is dead,” says Abramson.

Abramson’s mother, Ruth, had saved $3,000 from her salary as a government worker during the war, the sum total of the family’s assets. One day a friend told Sonny that he had just signed a contract for a new house and put down a $500 deposit.

This was postwar Washington and living space was extremely scarce. The elder Abramson offered to buy the contract on the spot and give the man a $500 profit.

He wrote out a check for $1,000 and wandered down the street “in a complete daze,” says his son. “What has he done? He’s spent a third of their money, without telling my mother, on something he never saw.”

But the young lawyer was learning fast. He re-sold the contract to another friend for $1,500, pocketing a $500 profit. As Jeffrey tells it, “My father would turn to me and say, ‘That’s when I decided I’m going into real estate.’ ”

Good choice. The elder Abramson started building houses. Then he partnered with the Giant grocery chain and constructed shopping centers. Another partnership with the Lerner family, which now owns the Washington Nationals, produced downtown office buildings and suburban shopping malls including White Flint.

Meanwhile young Jeffrey was bored with school. Often he’d skip class at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School and take a bus to Capitol Hill. “It was alive,” he says.

After graduation he decided to skip college and got a job at WETA, the public television station. He was 20 when a friend gave him a small booklet that changed his life.

It explained the benefits of transcendental meditation, or TM, a “natural mental technique,” as Abramson describes it, “that allows a person to gain access to the deepest, most quiet, most profound aspects of their life.”