When John Vazquez was eight years old, he would tag along like an apprentice to his father’s garage. Rather than colorful cardboard cutouts, his puzzles were the engine parts his father disassembled and laid out on the floor, and he imagined one day that he’d be able to complete the picture under the hood. But, Vazquez did not become a mechanic.
Indeed, his childhood ambitions, a mechanical engineering degree, and an MBA in finance might at first seem like a wholly inapplicable foundation for his current position as the senior vice president and global head of real estate for Verizon. But, it only takes a little bit of vision to find their utility. After all, making the most efficient use of 110 million square feet of real estate, like building an engine, still requires one to overcome a level of functional fixedness. So even though Vazquez isn’t swapping out sparkplugs or drafting ductwork on blueprints, his early disciplines still make him a distinctive force in real estate management, one humble enough to listen to and break a sweat with his fellow employees—even in the boiler room, if need be.
The first internship he landed, actually, was in a boiler room—at IBM, an experience Vazquez describes as a “fluke.” He got the opportunity when the original intern backed out. Vazquez was available, so he spent his summer doing humble yet educational “regular blue-shirt work,” as he calls it. “I had a love of all things mechanical, like my dad. IBM is where I learned about building operations and real estate management.”
Though he was often working in the depths of the IBM facility, that internship opened doors to new heights for Vazquez. He was asked back as a part-time employee during his senior year of college, and on the day he thought he would turn in his badge, the head of the real estate division asked him if he was planning to stay full-time.
“For me it was natural to go from engineering to project management to architectural design and eventually leasing,” Vazquez says. “The experience I gained in corporate culture, solving issues for the business, and putting people first all built upon each other.”
For 11 years Vazquez worked his way through the ranks of the real estate department at IBM, gaining management, architectural, and design experience along the way. He caught the attention of J. P. Morgan, whose international real estate department he went on to lead, and of MetLife 10 years later, where he led corporate services as the head of real estate and chief procurement officer. With each company, Vazquez built his reputation.
“My calling card has been transforming real estate operations for the betterment of business,” he says. “As opposed to keeping the lights on, my job has been strategically turning them on and off and finding new lights.” In corporate real estate, “finding new lights” can mean expanding your footprint, but it can also involve finding new uses for the property you already have.
When Verizon approached Vazquez, he was drawn to the CEO and CAO’s endorsement of transformation and a portfolio that could benefit from some visionary planning. “If you were to look at [Verizon’s] legacy portfolio, you’d see the need for change and progress,” Vazquez says. “Going forward, our portfolio will be leading-edge. It will showcase our technology, the connectivity of our network, and it will be a fun and even more innovative place to work. It’s about creating a workplace as a destination for employees. The real estate is the enabler to do that.”
At 140 West Street in Lower Manhattan in New York City, Vazquez is looking at a property that typifies Verizon’s legacy infrastructure of old, sometimes-beautiful and sometimes-drab telecommunications centers. The building’s historical status (recognized by The New York Landmarks Conservancy) makes it unique, but its function—call switching—positions it as one among many such Verizon locations in the city. As part of a national revitalization effort, Vazquez has identified 10 US cities in which Verizon has redundant, underutilized properties, and he has set to work consolidating and updating those properties. Currently, projects of similar scope are underway in Lowell, Massachusetts; Irving, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Oxnard, California; Temple Terrace, Florida; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Orlando, Verizon is building a new financial hub from scratch.
To manage these and 1,000 other projects simultaneously, Vazquez enlists the help of colleagues from real estate firms Jones Lang LaSalle and Cushman & Wakefield. John O’Connor, Vazquez’s portfolio manager from Cushman & Wakefield, began collaborating with Vazquez when he was working for J.P Morgan. At 140 West, the two have teamed up to take on unchartered territory for many in the Northeast: hurricane preparation. After Hurricane Sandy took its toll in 2012, Vazquez enlisted O’Connor’s help to fortify the building should another disaster bring nine feet of water to the streets of Manhattan.
Vazquez also partners with a large group of professionals from Structure Tone, Tishman Construction, Gensler, Nelson Architects, Edwards & Zuck, and WB Engineering, among others, to leverage the best workplace thought leaders to keep Verizon at the forefront of office design.
About a mile from the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Verizon has another property at 395 Flatbush Avenue Extension that’s under renovation and is big enough to support a future “megacenter,” as Vazquez calls it. The facility—which will be outfitted with furnishings, food, and fitness amenities to create an atmosphere as full of vitality as the company aims to have—will house more than 1,500 employees in similar business functions.
Vazquez calls the Brooklyn project a wholesale renovation. From the outside in, he and his team are restoring the façade, installing a new roof, upgrading the mechanical systems, installing new furniture and fixtures to meet Energy Star specifications, and pursuing LEED certification. “We’ve developed a new set of workplace standards that really rival those you would see at other high-tech companies,” Vazquez says. “This investment allows us to leapfrog to the forefront of workplace design and efficiency.”
Verizon’s workplace standards, which Vazquez finalized alongside Joe Brancato of Gensler, apply to employee experience as well, and Brancato says the success of the design of Verizon’s megacenters is a result of Vazquez’s open and inclusive management style. “John gets the best out of the team,” Brancato explains. “We are well integrated and moving toward the strategic goals set at the outset. Any place we’ve worked with John, he’s been the same sophisticated client leader.”
Tony Carvette, president of Structure Tone, 140 West’s construction-management firm, echoes Brancato’s sentiment, saying, “One thing John does that we appreciate is he brings us into a project early. He’s very direct and has always been forward-looking. Everything we’re doing with Verizon, I’m trying to emulate with our other clients.”
Vazquez incorporated funds allotted to operations costs at 140 West into the 395 Flatbush overhaul, and he’s converting the now mostly vacant space in Manhattan for leasing. The desirable location, near One World Trade Center, and the building’s lower ceilings—which are not as conducive to commercial operations—are a good fit for residential spaces, which about half the building will be converted into. Verizon will continue to use the other half as its New York office.
Vazquez’s “workplace as a destination” approach is strategically significant for Verizon’s future, but it has also been a standard operating principle for the real estate executive for a long time, and his 10-city plan isn’t his first foray into influencing company culture through real estate. As his partner Ray Quartararo of Jones Lang LaSalle attests, Vazquez instituted similar changes at MetLife, where his vision to design the workplace for three generations of employees was unlike many Quartararo had encountered before. “All of us in the design and construction community were struggling with this issue, but John explained we had to design a space that was flexible over time,” Quartararo says. “That was a transformational moment way ahead of most of our clients. Many people were saying they would transform to accommodate young kids but didn’t talk about the impact on employees who had been there for 30 years. That was an indication of John’s style—but also that he had the pulse of the business. John’s bringing that same insight to Verizon today.”
“John explained we had to design a space that was flexible over time. That was a transformational moment way ahead of most of our clients.”
Ray Quartararo, Jones Lang Lasalle
Vazquez likes Verizon because of the perspective he shares with his executive vice president and chief administrative officer: Verizon’s people come first. It’s an ethic one might expect from the human resources function but not always from real estate. Vazquez says he welcomes the crossover because it gives his work and the company’s brick-and-mortar initiatives a greater purpose: to drive the culture of a new Verizon.
“Real estate is pretty sexy stuff,” he says. “It’s a career I love to do every day, but it’s hard to tell people in this industry that it’s about the people and not the real estate. Buildings don’t exist for buildings’ sake. They exist to house innovative people.”