Bill Cummings on Real Estate, Charity and Bill Gates
Bill Cummings' leasing firm, Cummings Properties, has served suburbs north and west of Boston since 1970. The company has grown from one small building to over 10M SF in over 96 office, retail, medical and research properties throughout the Bay State. The company’s most impressive recent property, TradeCenter 128 (below), is a 500k SF solar-powered, LEED Gold pre-certified office building in Woburn, MA, that houses the Middlesex County Superior Court and more than 120 companies.
But Bill is also known for his charitable ventures. Cummings Foundation, founded in 1986 by Bill and his wife, Joyce, is now one of the largest charitable foundations in all of New England and has given millions to his alma mater, Tufts, as well as countless other nonprofits throughout Massachusetts and even Rwanda. Bisnow recently chatted with Bill to get an inside look into the man, his school days and his donations.
Bill grew up in a small one-bedroom apartment above a laundromat with his parents and sister only a short distance from Tufts in Medford, MA. He laughs as he recounts how he once fell into a reservoir near the school after trespassing on school grounds when he was 5.
“I was lucky that they didn’t arrest me.”
At Tufts, Bill’s favorite classes were business law and journalism, the latter of which held more importance in his real estate career than one might think.
“The journalism class taught me how to properly put my ideas onto paper, how to communicate with others and even how to properly select people for positions,” Bill told Bisnow. In fact, to this day, those applying for a professional job at Cummings Properties take writing and editing exercises.
In 1991, Bill’s company set up Community Newspapers, which published small newspapers. Not only did current Cummings Properties CEO Dennis Clarke start at Community as a general manager, but the company’s first editor was Boston Globe writer Neil Swidey, who did very well on the editing exercise.
But how did Bill go from one of New England’s top real estate names to a charity giant? According to Bill, when Cummings Properties was killing it in the 1980s, he and Joyce realized they would have more than they would ever need and put their hard-earned cash to good use with ventures that could change the world. After a few years of putting 10% of his total income and revenue to philanthropy, the Foundation was established. The first huge donation was to the Woburn Boys & Girls Club five years later.
It was during this time that Bill was acting as a trustee for his alma mater, learning the needs of the community and the university. Now more on the philanthropic side, Bill has given much. In 1999, the Cummings gave $1.5M to Tufts to endow the Cummings Family Chair in Entrepreneurship and Business Economics. In 2002, a $50M donation from the Foundation led to the renaming of Tufts' veterinary school to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. It was Tufts’ largest gift ever and the first naming gift for a veterinary school in the US. In 2014, the Foundation granted $1M to the Cummings/Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education at Tufts.
Most recently, the Foundation announced in June that it will fund the design and construction of a 100k SF academic building for Tufts, which could be worth more than $20M.
Bill and Joyce were the first Massachusetts couple to join The Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill jokes that it’s always bizarre to be “the poorest guy in the room” at the group’s meetings.
But Bill’s “project of greatest satisfaction” is his partnership with Boston-based Partners In Health. Bill is helping build the University of Global Health Equity, a groundbreaking health sciences university in Butaro, Rwanda. Cummings Foundation pledged the first $15M toward the planning and creation of Phase 1 and was instrumental in securing matching funds from other American sources. Beginning this fall, the University will enroll its first students in the Master's in Global Health Delivery program.
To read about more charitable commercial real estate champions, you can see Bisnow’s list here.