It was the moment of truth most developers dread, the instant when a thumbs down from government officials can dash a businessman's dreams of million-dollar profits. But developer Giuseppe Cecchi, his left hand shoved in the pocket of his gray pin-striped suit, looked anything but worried as words of praise washed over him.
"I'm very excited," gushed Arlington County Board chairman Stephen H. Detwiler who, during Cecchi's slick presentation, had praised the developer's "warm and attractive" housing projects. "I am looking forward to having you in Arlington."
And with good reason. Cecchi was unveiling a proposed luxury condominium, from which he expeects to reap $5 million to $10 million in profits. The county would get $640,000 in annual tax revenues.
Cecchi's Arlington reception, echoed by officials through Northern Virginia, helps explain the stunning success of a man who is Washington's undisputed "condo king." In the last decade, the 50-year-old Italian has developed or has contracts to build more than 12,000 condominiums, a number that far exceeds any other developer in the Washington area.
The story of how Cecchi created 14 percent of Washington's condominiums is a tale of the high-stakes, mega-buck development would where one bad gamble can spell financial ruin. It is also the story of a man who learned English in the flickering darkness of movie theaters watching hours of American westerns and now presides over a company whose developments represents $300 million in invested capital.
Although best known as the man who built Washington's Watergate complex, Cecchi's imprimatur is most visible in Northern Virginia. That is where his 6-year-old private company, International Developers Inc., is headquartered -- on the 19th floor of the Rosslyn Center office tower, which he built astride a Metro station.
In addition to Rosslyn Center -- the area's tallest office building -- Cecchi has developed properties in every local jurisdiction except Prince George's County, an omission attributed solely to his ability to clinch the deal he wants there. Among Cecchi's projects built or planned: Burke Center and Franklin Farms, two sprawling new towns in Fairfax County, the conversion of Alexandria's massive red-brick Parkfairfax Apartments to condominiums, the high-rise Rotunda condominium project in McLean, a luxury hotel to be located on Washington's Thomas Circle and another planned for a block across from the District's convention center.
"Along with Ollie [Oliver T.] Carr and the Charles E. Smith Co., Cecchi is the biggest name in the development community in terms of scale, breadth, diversity and reputation," says Bruce Steele, chief of housing programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But unlike his peers, whose names are plastered on billboards rising above their construction sites, Cecchi's is not.
Some observers attribute this low profile to the mystery that shrouds the identity of the financial backers of his International Developers Inc. The company is a subsidiary of a Swiss-based international investment and holding company and last year, Cecchi says, his company alone grossed more than $50 million.
But whose money that is and how much is his, Cecchi won't say. He does say that his backers are Italian, Dutch and Swiss financiers and that the Rothchild Bank is a principal stockholder of Incores, Ltd., the Zurich-based holding company that controls International Developers.
"I like to participate in some projects," says Cecchi, who came to America in 1960 as the Washington representative of Europe's largest real estate development firm. His European lineage is still evident in his thickly accented English, formal bearing, preference for starched white shirts with French cuffs and the Italian names (among them Montebello and Porto Vecchio) he gives many of his projects.
Cecchi, who combs his thinning, strawberry blond hair straight back in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, won't reveal his net worth. But several close associates estimate that his personal assets range between $5 million and $20 million. He lives in McLean with his wife and four pre-teen sons in a starkly new, treeless subdivision of ersatz brick colonial houses (his has a pool and tennis court) which sell for about $350,000.
Yet money alone does not account for Cecchi's success. Acquaintances describe him as a marketing genius blessed with an uncanny ability to acquire cheaply and develop properties others have ignored. He is also a man shrewd enough to forge a network of business partnerships and personal friendships with some of Virginia's most powerful political figures.
They include Fairfax zoning attorney John T. (Til) Hazel, reputed to be one of the best in Virginia; Samuel Finz, a former deputy county executive in Fairfax whom Cecchi hired as a vice president two years ago; and William G. Thomas, an Alexandria lawyer generally as the most influential lobbyist in the Virginia General Assembly.
Thomas, who meets with Cecchi every day, is a director of International Developers and of Washington-Lee Savings and Loan, an institution that provided permanent financing for a wide variety of Cecchi's projects.
The former chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party, Thomas is also the man who drafted Virginia's 1973 condominium statute.
It is a law critics say is tailor-made for developers and grant tenants none of the rights possessed by their counterparts in the District or Montgomery County.
Cecchi's high-powered connections bother some local officials. "The political tentacles that Mr. Cecchi puts out worry me," says Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore. "He's a guy who knows how to move in, and I'd prefer to deal with someone who isn't so politically involved. He's clearly a major force with a lot of money behind him who's involved with some big political wheeler-dealers."
But others point to Cecchi's apparently unblemished record of humane dealings with tenants in his condominium conversions and his reputation for building quality projects at competitive prices. Because Cecchi's developments generate few complaints and hundreds of thousands of tax dollars for revenue-hungry local governments, many officials welcome Cecchi the way a drought-striken farmer welcomes rain.
"He's a great guy and I don't say that about all developers," says Alexandria Mayor Charles W. Beatley. "But I always thought he was the personal representative of the Vatican."
In a sense he was. For years, Cecchi was the Washington representative of the Societa Generale Immobiliare (SGI), which until recently was controlled by the Vatican and later briefly by financier Michele Sindona. It was as an official of the SGI that Cecchi built Watergate and later Alexandria's 2,000-unit Watergate at Landmark. In 1975, at the request of a group of international financiers, Cecchi left SGI, where his father had been executive vice president, to form International Developers.
"I never made a mistake like having an unsuccessful project," says Cecchi, whose units continue to sell well at a time when the area's housing market is experiencing one of its worst slumps, the victim of tight mortgage money and soaring interest rates. "Success is based on consistency. I like projects I can repeat and improve on."
Cecchi's involvement is so detailed tht he routinely works 80-hour weeks, makes daily inspections of each project site and personally chooses the potted plants for the lobbies of his buildings.
Cecchi's "very keen insight, sound judgment and ability to display and merchandise his projects" had led Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, the third largest insurance company in America with assets of more than $27 billion, to give Cecchi more than $160 million in construction loans, according to Equitable assistant vice president Robert Blakeman.
In the condominium business, developers make money by completing projects on time, thereby minimizing costs overruns and construction costs. Developers who sell units quickly are able to pay off construction loans fast.
In the case of a conversion, developers who relocate tenants within the complex or, as Cecchi did at Parkfairfax, allow them to remain in their units during renovation have a dual advantage: Tenants are more likely to buy units, meaning a fast sell-out, and a cash-poor developer can generate income through rentals.
"There have been a lot of disasters where developers kicked their tenants out, had no cash flow and then had marketing problems. Cecchi hasn't done that. He's a good marketer and the difference is a lot of people aren't," says COG's Steele.
"Cecchi is willing to go into areas where others were reluctant and to take risks, but of course he has the financial backing to do that," says Engin Artemel, Alexandria's planning director.
But Cecchi takes only carefully calculated risks that so far have paid off handsomely.
One such risk was the 1,020-unit high-rise condominium project called Montebello, now under construction just south of the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County. Montebello is located off Rte. 1, a seedy jumble of trailer parks, motels and fast food outlets. But the complex is situated atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River just a few blocks from the site of the Huntington Metro station.
"My own advisers told me Rte. 1, no, don't do it, because they saw the negative address," Cecchi recalls. "I saw the river and the view of Washington and Metro. Of course, when we started Watergate 20 years ago no developer would touch Foggy Bottom. But as a European I didn't see the warehouses and gas works and I didn't think in those terms. I saw the river and the distance to the White House."
Cecchi paid $3.1 million for the 35-acre Montebello site, or about $3,100 per unit. He is selling the condos at prices ranging from $60,000 to $130,000. The first building was sold out recently off a waiting list, without a single advertisement.
"We are a very conservative firm and if we cannot reach the right price for an acquisition we don't make it," says Cecchi. "In the best of times one can do anything but one must be prepared for the worst. If there were a crisis in leasing office space, this building," he says, referring to Rosslyn Center, "would still rent."
"I don't squeeze the last drop of profit out of the units," he continues. "I make a little less profit now but I build up my reputation."
That good will is worth a great deal and helps explain why Cecchi faces so little opposition by tenants and local officials.
"We've always enjoyed extremely good relations with Cecchi," says Edward Moses, president of the Parkfairfax Unit Owners Association, where tenants bought more than 70 percent of the units. "He's accessible and he's done more than you could reasonably expect a developer to do. People here are very happy with the results."
I'm not a charitable guy, this is not a social crusade, I do it to make money," says Cecchi. "But I also wouldn't like to be involved in a project where I created unnecesary suffering. There are a lot of opportunities to do business without doing that."