Large and In Charge

Richard Friedman goes big with a tasteful new building in Boston's Back Bay.

Richard Friedman in his Boston office.

You’re making New England history with your new Four Seasons tower in Boston, which will be the tallest in the region when it’s completed. How did you pull that off?

The Back Bay of Boston, which is the historical high-end fashion shopping and residential area of the city, has had very little—if any—development over a long period of time. There’s huge pent-up demand. One of the major pieces of property in Back Bay is something called the Christian Science Plaza, which is the Christian Science Church’s Vatican, if you will. They’d been going through a four- or five-year planning process to sell this excess piece of land that sits between the Plaza and the Prudential Center. My company bid together with Penny Pritzker to build a 26-story apartment building. When the city of Boston found out that [architect] Harry Cobb, of Pei Cobb & Freed, would do the building, there was some suggestion that we modify the approvals they had obtained, and we went back to the city and got it approved for 60 floors.

Is this all very big for Boston?

From a skyline perspective, Boston has traditionally had what is called the “High Spine;” the Back Bay has several high-rise buildings, one of which is designed by Cobb, the John Hancock building, and the Prudential Towers. So the new Four Seasons will be a third addition to the High Spine, and when it opens, it will be one of the few cities in the world—along with London, Shanghai, Istanbul, Los Angeles—with two Four Seasons. Plus, there’s a level of finishing and design that’s quite unlike anything every built in Boston. Thierry Despont is doing the interiors. We financed it with almost a billion dollars of capital, mostly foreign.

A model of the new Four Seasons tower in Boston.

Obama appointed you to the President’s Export Council. How did that come about?

I’ve been active in government stuff for a number of years. President Obama asked me to come on the Export Council primarily to help with tourism issues. Foreign tourism is an export. We work on visa policy and try to give him recommendations on aspects of travel and tourism. I don’t get paid anything.

Do you have a decision-making philosophy?

Do it right, do it once. And associate with the best people. Don’t cut corners. Most developers cut every corner they can, and they regret it later.

What’s an example of a developer cutting a corner?

They cheapen the buildings, with lousy ceiling heights, or not-great environmental policies. We hire the topnotch designers. We’ve developed in the past some moderate-priced hotels and other things, and we inherently don’t do very well at it. We’re not good at a cookie-cutter product.

Is there a certain mindset or philosophy to which you attribute your success?

We do business with people we know and trust and like, and we don’t do things for money alone.

What was your first job?

In college, I was a ski racer, and then I was a ski coach. I was in the U.S. army after college, but I was not exactly a war hero. Then I became a ski coach at Harvard. I don’t think I got paid. My first job in real estate was a broker doing rental leasing—I did it in the off-season. One deal leads to the next and you just keep going. And I still ski like a madman.

What advice would you give someone starting his or her career?

Work hard. Try and see the big picture. Have good lawyers. Be well-informed about everything. Read incessantly. Understand the economy. Understand what other people need. If I don’t like somebody, I don’t work with him or her. To be successful—and I’m a nut case in this regard—there must be no difference between work and play.

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