From humble beginnings come great ventures. This is never more evident than in the history of System Property Development.
In 1920, at the beginning of the economic boom known as the Roaring ’20s, the company’s founder, Jack Hazard, opened his small gas station on the corner of Sixth and Figueroa. Unfulfilled by simply pumping gas and looking for ways to make more money, Hazard began to charge truckers to stay overnight on his parking lot.
“This was back when there was no parking industry,” said System’s CEO, David Damus. “He was a pioneer in developing not only the local parking industry but one of the first national parking companies.”
Through its 100-year history, System grew to become a company estimated at $250 million, representing clients such as Delta Airlines, Wells Fargo and the U.S. Postal Service and properties spanning the entire country, from Los Angeles to New York.
As a privately held company, not beholden to outside money, it realized that no matter what, in good times or bad, its community comes before profits.
“I think the culture of our company has been about our people,” Damus said.
After graduating from Vanderbilt Law School and working at a law firm in New York, Damus returned to his hometown of Los Angeles as the general counsel of System. Accustomed to the straight-to-business attitude from his old New York job, Damus was pleasantly surprised by System’s approach to its employees.
Rather than getting straight to business and hounding him for reports on his projects on his first day, then-President Tom Phillips sat Damus down and asked about his family.
“I remember the first day I started in 1993,” he said. “I’d come from a big New York-based law firm and I was so shocked because this guy, the president of the company, came in and sat down in the office and the first thing he asked me was, ‘How are you and your family doing?’ I wasn’t used to that. I was waiting for, ‘Where are you on all your projects?’ and ‘What’s going on?’ and all this other stuff. That’s kind of the cultural difference at System. It’s a real community of people trying to help each other through good times and bad.”
Through all of the economic downturns in its 100 years, including the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the company never filed for bankruptcy.
Even now as the COVID-19 pandemic brings businesses across the nation on the brink of bankruptcy, System Property has endured without layoffs.
“We have not terminated anybody due to the pandemic,” Damus said. “We made a commitment to our men and women out in the field.”
According to Damus, instead of layoffs, everyone on the executive team who was making over six figures voluntarily took a pay cut.
“We wanted to support employees who didn’t make that cut over six figures and make sure that we didn’t have any pay cuts for them,” Damus said. “In a lot it’s brought a lot of our team closer together.”
In addition to the pay cuts, the company has bought boxed lunches for its employees and more importantly promised to pay for any COVID-19-related medical expenses not covered under insurance.
“If our team members have a deductible and they have to go to the hospital we pay that deductible,” Damus said. “If our team members need to get rapid tests, we pay 100% of the test.”
For their clients renting buildings and spaces from them, with the drastic reduction of business, Damus and System offered rent reduction and, in some cases, rent forgiveness.
“We’ve given them free rent through the pandemic to January and we’re forgiving the rest,” said Damus about retail businesses in the San Marino/Pasadena area. “We’re not going to try to collect it because it’s more important to us that they stay open for the long-term health of that facility in that community. They’re never going to be able to make up what they lost.”
Even with their big-business clients, like Delta Airlines, they have given rent abatement.
The airline industry has taken one of the biggest hits during the pandemic, with tens of thousands of lost jobs and billions of lost revenue. When Delta asked System for a three-month rent abatement, Damus and his staff gave them six months.
“I just think it’s also good karma that people are going to remember how they were treated in this pandemic,” Damus said. “People who are greedy probably aren’t going to make it well on the other side versus people who understand that we have to be a part of (the) communities that we serve.”
System and their employees understand the need for humanity and compassion, especially in times like these. Instead of chasing profits, Damus and his company decided to care for those less fortunate than them.
“We put our people ahead of profits this year,” he said. “Our philosophy is we want to double down in crisis, find opportunities, but keep our team together.”