Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With S9 Architecture Co-Founding Principal John Clifford
This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.
John Clifford has always liked to build and fix things. He started with blocks, then moved to Lincoln Logs and Legos, then erector sets, sand castles and an engineering degree from Georgia Tech.
“I like fixing other things, too,” he said. “I like fixing processes, building my business, establishing new programs and building departments.”
When he is not playing with new ideas, he plays tennis — though maybe not the four times a week he once played in Atlanta, now that he lives in New York.
“You can’t just walk across the street in New York to a tennis court — I gave that up,” he said.
Skiing, cooking and playing mixologist are among other things he enjoys when not at the office.
“I like to cook things that are fresh and seasonal,” he said. “I like comfort food that makes people feel good. In summer, I make the perfect lobster roll and homemade french fries at the beach. In the winter, I make heartier dishes.”
Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?
Clifford: Because I’m a co-owner of a business, my job is different every minute of every day. It’s a constant juggling of priorities, strategies, analyses, sales, design, finance, human resources and real estate — just to name a few! I love that every day I learn countless new things.
Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?
Clifford: If I were not co-running an architecture firm, I’ve always thought I’d be a good smaller-scale real estate developer. I also love teaching, so that might be another route.
Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?
Clifford: One summer in college, I worked on an assembly line in an aerosol packaging plant. It was so dehumanizing. The experience did have an upside, though; it instilled in me a special empathy for people who must work in such conditions because they weren’t given the opportunity or enjoyed the privilege to choose to do something else.
Bisnow: What was your first big deal?
Clifford: My first big break happened in the 1990s, when I landed a commission for a large project in New York City while I was living and working in Atlanta. In hindsight, I believe that event set the trajectory for where I am today.
Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?
Clifford: That’s a strong word. When you try your best but fall short of lofty goals, I don’t consider that to be a “failure.” I’m sure I’ve had some, but none big enough to be truly memorable. And I can’t think of many failures by other people, either.
Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the commercial real estate industry, what would it be?
Clifford: The impulse to repeat one’s last success or copy someone else’s success. In urban real estate, every site has its own issues and opportunities. I think pushing the design possibilities to the next level on each site would yield better development and better cities, as well as unique product.
Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?
Clifford: People who just point out problems instead of coming up with creative solutions.
Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?
Clifford: I’ve had many mentors — and still do, for various parts of my personal and professional life. One is a land-use attorney who I worked with on my first project in NYC. He’s one of the smartest and most insightful people I’ve met and we’ve become friends and I truly value his judgement. The other is my business partner, Navid Maqami. I couldn’t dream of a better partner and mentor.
Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?
Clifford: Best: Start your own company. Worst: Stay where I was.
Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?
Clifford: I am actually very frugal (thanks to my New England, blue-collar roots), but I recently bought a house on Fire Island. The beach is the place where I can truly decompress and relax.
Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?
Clifford: I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, but my favorite meal was about 15 years ago on a terrace at Villa d’Este gardens outside of Rome. It was a beautiful fall day, overlooking the Italian countryside. A lifetime memory.
Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?
Clifford: I like to think of myself as an empathetic humanist who speaks rationally and factually, so I don’t think anything I would say would be effectively heard by him.
Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Clifford: Starting my company with my business partner when I was almost 50 years old. It was like bungee cord jumping — with no cord.
Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit in your hometown?
Clifford: Most of my family is gone from my hometown in Rhode Island. I recently did go back there, to visit my grandparents’ farm where I grew up. It’s now in a farmland trust run by another farmer. Seeing it brought back wonderful memories.
Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?
Clifford: Donald Trump.
Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?
Clifford: Lately, I’ve become more impassioned about some smaller humanitarian charities. I’ve started working with them on fundraising and spreading their messages, to help them accomplish more good things.