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My New Normal: Mary Cook Associates President Mary Cook

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic runs its course, commercial interior space will need to be reinvented to apply some of the lessons of the crisis. Mary Cook says she wants to be on the cutting edge of that reinvention.

Mary Cook Associates President Mary Cook

Cook is the founder and president of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates, a national commercial interior design firm employing two dozen designers. The firm has produced designs for multifamily properties, senior housing, restaurants and clubhouses, offices buildings and single-family houses.

She is no stranger to reinventing space. After realizing that MCA had been hired frequently to "fix" unsuccessful interior spaces done by other design professionals, Cook wrote The Art of Space, a textbook now used in design schools nationwide. Cook says the book's seven principles inform all of the design work MCA produces.

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life. 

Cook: We're a family of five living in a single-family home in Chicago. As a business owner, I work from home all the time, and it has been no big deal doing it full time. Depending on my to-do [list], most of my work is on the phone or by email. The company’s production, business development and leadership meetings are all held using Microsoft Teams. 

My CFO, Mary McManus, lives four doors away so I have run over there sometimes and she has come down to me as well, but haven’t needed to go to the office. Mary is also my walking partner. We will take five- or six-mile walks several times a week and discuss business issues while we walk.

Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the home front?

Cook: We've transitioned pretty smoothly to working at home on projects in the drawing and specification stages. All of our design teams are fully set with AutoCad at home. We use GoTo meetings, Zoom and Microsoft Meetings to present digital versions of our schematic designs. We use regular phone calls to connect with each or our clients for specific project updates regarding on-site installations and any shipping or travel delays.

Mary Cook Associates President Mary Cook and CFO Mary McManus

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Cook: Divided. If approvals, financing and construction were underway prior to shutdowns, those projects are moving forward pretty typically. If financing or approvals of any kind were needed, those projects have had the pause button pushed. For projects ready for installation, we have been able to move forward with those local projects that had already received furniture and furnishings. For out-of-town projects, we have pushed installations into May.

Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?

Cook: My greatest concern is always the unknown. I hope the shutdowns won't go longer than anticipated and that we can begin regrouping sooner rather than later.

Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?

Cook: The lowest low was realizing this is for real and that we're not going to be back in the office in a couple weeks. Highest high has been cooking, dining, gaming and hanging with my three kids, who are 24, 21 and 17, and all of whom are either working or learning from home with my husband and me. My husband is a retired firefighter and he'd give anything to be back on the job in the thick of all this.

Mary Cook's children, who are living with her and her husband: Peter, Bridgie and Katie

Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?

Cook: We've been cooking up a storm. Great dinners, blueberry and cinnamon scones, triple layer carrot cake, ribs, steaks, curry, a Thanksgiving dinner rerun. Also lots of games: Scrabble, Yahtzee and more, and a bad boy 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?

Cook: Most of my clients remain positive and are just waiting for this to pass. I think our young staff has learned about the importance of having a strategy and plan in place as they witnessed the leadership team move quickly and decisively into action. 

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Cook: Everyone has taken big steps forward with technology. I believe we will continue to use virtual meetings to add efficiency, and reduce cost and time.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?

Cook: I've been through a couple big downturns before. There are always opportunities for growth in ways you never expected. Keep your eyes and ears open and if you deliver services or goods that people need and want, you will come through stronger and better than before.