So many businesses become successful when one ambitious play pushes them over the top.
Take Colonial Parking, the family-owned business that manages tens of thousands of parking spaces in 240 facilities across Washington and beyond. Nine out of every 10 commuters who work in the District are within a short stroll of a Colonial parking facility.
Colonial was a scrawny wannabe when co-founders Tad Lindner and Serge Gambal made a bold move in 1969.
The Bender family, which ran a local construction and real estate firm, was looking to outsource management of its parking lots.
All the big firms, including Doggett Parking and PMI, wanted the job. Lindner and Gambal offered the best price.
“A Bender guy called and said, ‘You can’t pay me this. You can’t make enough money,’ ” recalls Eric Lindner, 55, who is Tad’s son, a former Colonial manager and now a budding author. “Dad and Serge said yes they could. They were both numbers guys, and they had run the numbers and said they could do the deal.”
Colonial won the job pioneering a tactic that has since become standard practice in garages and lots.
The two “realized they could actually sell 130 percent of the capacity because at any given time, only 100 percent will show up. It’s overbooking, just like the airlines overbook,” Eric said.
The key was to hire smart and motivated attendants who could jockey the cars around, stacking them in the aisles and cramming them elsewhere.
The Bender deal put Colonial on the map, giving it entree to the big institutional and corporate employers who commanded thousands of spaces. By 1984, Colonial was the largest parking company in Washington.
The Lindners are an influential yet low-key Washington family whose business touches almost everyone. They have to constantly refresh their business just like any enterprise facing head winds. In the case of parking, the challenges include a growing interest among urban dwellers to give up their cars and walk, bike or take mass transit to get around. That means firms will have to work harder at filling their spaces.
In response, Colonial has gone high-tech, partnering with a company called ParkMe that developed an app to give commuters real-time recommendations on available spaces. Colonial also has created a rewards program that earns frequent users free meals. And it makes space for Zipcars and bike racks, as well as setting cheaper parking fees during off-peak hours.
“Responding to changing habits” is how Eric puts it.
Such nimbleness has kept Colonial near the head of the pack and the Lindners as one of the city’s preeminent business clans. They recently completed the peaceful end to their 50-year business partnership with the Gambals, although the families still partner on other projects.
I know the Lindners a little bit. (That doesn’t stop me from muttering when I pay their parking tribute.) They are successful, influential, reserved — and decent people.
Their business doesn’t stop at parking. They are a force in local real estate as well, partnering on numerous developments from Independence Square with Mort Zuckerman’s Boston Properties, to Plaza of the Patriots with Clark Enterprises, to projects on the Southwest Waterfront.
They lease millions of square feet to customers like the FBI, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Finance Corporation and the Comptroller of the Currency. They have even invested in Hollywood films with Ted and Jim Pedas, former owners of Circle Theaters. Thanks to the Pedas brothers, Tad Lindner has received royalty checks for his investment in “Raising Arizona” for 24 consecutive years.
Patriarch Tad was part of the local fraternity that built its fortunes in the Washington boom of the latter 20th century. He and Gambal leased a small, paved lot at 26th and E streets NW for $300 in the late 1940s. Tad quit law school because “I liked getting paid every day” from the parking lot. His wife, Mary Jean, served as Colonial’s first cashier.
They used their profits to reinvest in real estate, practicing a buy-and-hold strategy that they maintain to this day. Lindner and Gambal frequently partnered in real estate deals with the Pedases, Bernie Gewirz and with Jim Clark of Clark Enterprises.
The Lindners are so press shy that I considered it a minor accomplishment when I persuaded Eric, his brother Rusty, and Tad to sit down with me recently.
Rusty is deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, chairman of the Forge Company, the holding company for Colonial, and a member of the Federal City Council, an influential coalition of local business leaders. Forge is named for Serge Gambal’s home town of Valley Forge, Pa.
The Lindner empire is run from its main offices in Georgetown by Rusty, who consults in person or through e-mails with his three siblings, each of whom owns a significant chunk of the company. Meeting locations vary from the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton to sister Ann’s backyard barbecue in Northwest Washington.
The four siblings, all of whom live in the area, contribute a lot of brain power to the operations of the Forge Company. Rusty, 59, who lives in Georgetown, has a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins, a law degree from George Washington and a master’s in real estate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eric, 55, who has law and business degrees from the University of Chicago, splits his time between a Warrenton, Va., farm and a home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Their sister, Ann, 52, has an MBA from UCLA and a master’s in social work from the Catholic University of America. She helps with personnel decisions. Gary, 57, teaches high school in Northern Virginia and has degrees from Stanford University. Gary is an amateur robotics designer and helps the firm with technology issues.
Eric, who two years ago sold a parking business that he ran in Poland, is the public voice of the family. He also has written a book about his volunteer work at Northern Virginia hospices called “Hospice Voices: Lessons for Living at the End of Life.”
I asked Tad, who comes from the same part of town where I grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., whether he had any regrets about quitting GW law school to tackle the parking business, which began with a $300 investment in a paved lot at 26th and E streets NW.
Not a chance, he said.
“I like the idea of getting money every day.”
And that Bender deal that thrust them into the big time?
It continues to this day.