City Paper is not for tourists
Tony Cord’s epiphany struck in June 2006, after a Joe Jackson concert at the 9:30 Club. It was late at night, and Cord remembers stepping out on U Street a little warily, expecting a forlorn walk to his car and a grim drive home to Maryland through abandoned streets. Instead, the sidewalks teemed with people enjoying the nightlife. “I concluded there was an economic miracle going on,” he says. “I saw how alive U Street was, and I can remember when it was dead.”
Cord was a D.C. native, but he’d spent his midlife in the ’burbs. He was a successful executive with four kids, all of them moved out or soon would be, and a newly minted ex-wife. While he’d grown restless, his hometown had cranked back into action.
Already searching for a place to reinvent himself, Cord had thought about New York and Miami. But that night, charmed by U Street, he decided Washington worked well for the project he had in mind.
“I realized that D.C. is probably the most relevant, high-energy, high-potential world city on the planet right now,” says Cord. He wanted to be a part of the inevitable renaissance. He decided, he says, “to get more involved…to try to position myself to be a bona fide leader.”
That night, Cord decided to embark on a campaign to conquer Washington.
A year and a half later, regardless of whether he’s achieved his goal, he has perfected the affect of a powerful man. He has a signature drink, Canadian Club on the rocks with a splash of water, and a favorite cigar, the Carlos Torano Exodus 1959. He kisses hello the French way, on each cheek, and has the looks of a Cold War spy, with a crest of slate-gray hair, sculptural features, and a wide grin that reveals a set of very large, very white teeth. He says he’s 46 but looks a bit older. This fall, he bought a black Maserati sedan.
Cord’s ascendancy would not require a total metamorphosis. He was an executive in the Bethesda office of the international accounting firm BDO Seidman. And with two decades in the business world, he already knew his share of Washington bigwigs. But transforming from suburban suit to downtown player—that was no mean task. It would demand a deft navigation of D.C.’s social and cultural fortresses. Cord was deliberate in his attack.
“I’m a planful person,” he says. “I believe there’s room for one to reinvent oneself several times along the way.”
For starters, Cord had to find a new home in the city. For the last 20 years, he had lived, with wife and kids, in Montgomery County—he hadn’t been a District resident since grammar school. He wanted to move near U Street, the epicenter, to him at least, of D.C.’s rebirth.
In late 2006, he bought a loft in the Alta, a new “green” tower of condos at Thomas Circle. He hired a decorator to furnish the modest space. In the kitchenette, where he usually keeps a chilled bottle of prosecco, there is a high table with stools and place settings that never seem to move. Steps away is a small seating area overlooking 14th Street. A snapshot of a leopard from a safari sits on an end table, and new paintings lean against the walls. A king-size bed is cordoned off by free-standing walls. Cord keeps his suits, shirts, and his two tuxedoes in a meticulously ordered open-air closet by the bathroom.
Cord says he chose the Alta because he admired the developer, PN Hoffman, and he “negotiated a strong deal.” Cord says, “I think they were motivated to have someone like me live there.”
Make a Splash
Like any expert networker, Cord knew that people were the key to his plan.
“D.C. is a relationship-driven town,” he says, “and that’s another strength of mine.”
Cord focused his efforts on Washington the City—bars and clubs, neighborhoods and businesses—rather than Washington the Capital. He volunteered on the mayoral campaign of Marie Johns, a former Verizon executive who ran on an education platform. He signed up with local economic boosters like the DC Technology Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and Leadership Greater Washington. He increased his participation in groups he already belonged to, like the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
He doesn’t belong to any of D.C.’s most elite societies, like the University Club or the City Club. “No old-school stuff,” he says.
Cord also increased his visibility on the charity circuit, long the center of D.C. social life. He attended fundraisers for scholarship funds and humanitarian relief programs. He recently served on the host committee for a Georgetown party and auction benefiting the Transformer Gallery.
With a home base and a growing network of old and new contacts, Cord decided to make his mark with a foray into nightlife. He found two collaborators: attorney Richard Johns, Marie’s son, and Nicole Bock, a DJ/IT tech who lives in the Alta. The three conceived a series of parties that mixed business, pleasure, and a little bit of altruistic social engineering.
From June to October, they put on four rooftop soirees, one in each quadrant of the city. (Of course, the event in SE took place on Capitol Hill, not in Anacostia.) The idea was to force neighborhood-bound urbanites to step out of their comfort zones. Cord, Johns, and Bock compiled the guest lists by sorting through their diverse contacts, making a point to mix bankers with arts patrons and government wonks. The gatherings were also racially diverse, a quality Cord and his partners saw missing from the social life of elite D.C.
I first met Cord at the third party, on the rooftop of Zanzibar in Southwest. The 300 guests included a wild-haired Champagne promoter, a dowdy banker, art collectors, and grey-haired men in dark blue suits. No one arrived in giant groups, so everyone was forced to mingle.
The setting was upscale—a club overlooking the marina on the Southwest Waterfront—and a few of the artsy women I’d come with giggled at the ostentatious digs. But Tony’s matchmaking soon became too fascinating for anyone to care.
Cord spent the evening pulling strangers into conversations with one another, sometimes introducing old friends. Always on the move, he would slip from one cluster to the next, pulling one person in to replace himself. “You need to meet so-and-so,” he’d say, chatting briefly, then excusing himself.
The evening had an air of exclusivity, in part because Cord willed it so. He referred to himself as a “center of influence,” a title that’s become his catch phrase. Philippa Hughes, a local art collector and promoter, met Cord in late spring and found his confidence impressive. “I see this man carrying himself in a certain way, and people believe what they see,” Hughes says. “I’m impressed by it. If you want to make a difference in the world, you have to convince people you’re important and that your opinion matters, and you do that partly by exuding supreme confidence.” Hughes says the thing that sets Cord aside is that he has a mission. “That’s why I like him,” she says, “because he actually cares.”
Cord’s business-world networking zeal has the potential to come off as social climbing. But he doesn’t get ridiculed the way some young socialites do. Instead, he gets chuckles. It’s as if he’s so over-the-top that his motives become less interesting than his dedication and unending positivism.
Cord has another motto: “I’m big because I say I am.” To him it’s not pomposity but self-willed confidence. But he realizes how it sounds, and pokes fun at himself. “I’m a little self-important at times,” he says. “But I realize it’s ridiculous.”
“I think because he’s so optimistic, it could come off as naiveté,” says Ellen Tani, an arts consultant who met Cord this summer. But she says Cord “knows what he’s doing” and makes things happen.
“He seems to be in the Venn diagram of several social circles,” she says. So long as you bring something to the table—whether it’s a deal or an interesting connection to culture, she says—Cord will make you part of his community.
At each event, Cord took pains to throw a real party, not just a happy hour meet-and-greet. Guests were treated to open bars with fancy food and drinks—sushi, Champagne—all from “sponsors,” like Teatro Goldoni and Level vodka, which got free advertising in exchange for footing the bill for the fare. The list was strictly enforced, one guest per person, with a mandatory RSVP.
Washington Life magazine mentioned the parties in its September issue, describing Cord, Johns, and Bock as a “dream team.”
The three hope to “monetize” the concept, or at least throw four new parties next year. They christened the project D’AIRE (somehow short for D.C. open-air lounge), and have begun exploring possibilities for opening “pop-up lounges” in D.C. parks. So far, they’ve met only frustration. The National Park Service promised to deny their application before they handed it in, and Cord hasn’t found a loophole…yet.
Have a Story
“People think they know me,” Cord says, “but they don’t.”
Perhaps. But Cord makes it easy for people he meets to develop a very specific idea of who he is. Spend any time with him, and you’ll leave with a tidy collection of stories that sum up his public image. You will know he’s a D.C. native from the wrong side of Rock Creek Park. That he grew up in Northeast with working-class parents who sacrificed to send him to DeMatha High School, a “poor Catholic boys school” he credits with his success. He was an All-American football player, earned good grades, and got a football scholarship to Davidson College in North Carolina.
In addition to emphasizing his native pride, Cord makes sure new acquaintances know that he is a businessman at heart. He began his career at Pepco in the late 1980s, then struck out on his own doing consulting. He worked at American Express during its “historic expansion” from 1995 to 2000 and five years ago went to work for BDO Seidman.
Cord describes his new position as a hybrid of sales, customer service, and inspiration.
He writes in an e-mail: “Most see me as BDO’s rainmaker, a label I am proud to embrace, directly and indirectly fueling our record-setting growth the past four years.”
When I asked Cord for examples of what he does in a typical day, he sent this outline over e-mail:
• Return calls and e-mails while en route to breakfast meeting.
• Breakfast meeting with a referral source, like a commercial banker, like Sean Stone from Silicon Valley Bank.
• Then, working from Blackberry while in car, touching base with my Proposal Coordinator and answering e-mail and returning calls.
• Meeting with a prospective client group for their audit, tax and consulting needs as they continue their high growth—recent example: The Motley Fool, Inc. in Alexandria, meeting with their Chief Financial Officer, Controller and head of accounting to discuss their needs and wants.
• Comment on a draft Engagement Proposal for a prospective new client by phone.
• More Blackberry e-mail/phone action.
• Lunch in DC as guest of Laura Lee, CEO of Laura Lee Designs with Kristina Bouweiri, CEO of Reston Limousine, and Mayor Fenty to discuss how Laura’s handbag manufacturing firm can create jobs for women in DC. I am helping Laura with DC connections as she is a former Nike exec and new to the area and I am encouraging her to become an active member of the DC Chamber of Commerce.
• Return calls and e-mails.
• Teleconference with my Philadelphia office regarding a campaign for developng new corporate tax consulting clients.
• Meeting in my Bethesda office with Washington SmartCEO Magazine to finalize a 2008 BDO/Smart CEO Business Awards program.
• Send e-mails to several targeted prospective new clients in the DC region, Washington Gas, Kennedy Center, Choice Hotels.
• Discuss details of our BDO Counts! community volunteer efforts with several colleagues.
• Attend B2B evening reception for the Greater Washington Board of Trade to reinforce contacts, be the BDO brand and meet new business contacts.
• Send resume of someone privately seeking a new CFO position to a couple key contacts who may want to interview her.
• Return/initiate calls and initiate/return e-mail. —TC
Cord says his skill lies in being able to tell the difference between what people need and want they want. It’s what he calls the “Hyundai-Maserati” comparison.
“Part of it is, I’m a former athlete. The competitive spirit, the drive, it’s all there,” Cord says. “I learned how to negotiate not a win-lose but a win-win. That’s the kind of person I am.”
At least a few key players in D.C. are convinced Cord lives up to his own description. Last fall, prominent local attorney Creighton “Chip” Magid tapped Cord for a seat on the Federal City Council, a secretive group of 200 business leaders who routinely throw their weight around on matters affecting the city’s business class.
The nomination meant a great deal to Cord. “It solidified for me my commitment to make a difference in D.C.,” he says.
But there are parts of the story that Cord usually leaves out. His father, who worked in sales at the phone company, used his savings to buy a liquor store in Prince George’s County. The family moved to the suburbs when Cord, born Joseph Anthony, was 6. As for college, Cord left Davidson after just two semesters. He returned to Prince George’s County, he says, working a variety of jobs, as a rigger, as a detailer in a luxury car dealership and “some entrepreneurial stuff.”
I rib him a little. What does that mean, selling drugs? He says no but still won’t elaborate. “I didn’t go to jail or anything for it,” he says. “I was trying to find what I was going to do.” When I pester him again days later, he says, “I was being cagey!” and still doesn’t come completely clean. He says he left Davidson for “family reasons” and that he worked three jobs to pay his rent and put himself through school back at home.
Cord enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he graduated with a business degree. In 1986, he earned an MBA from Southern Illinois University. This fact I learn from the school’s alumni Web page; Cord is being stingy with the details. He wouldn’t divulge the dates he graduated from high school or college and refuses to talk about his family. “I like to keep some mystery,” he says.
Sometimes the mystery is more like illusion. Although Cord told me he lived in Bethesda before coming to D.C., he admits later it was actually Gaithersburg. I start to wonder about his age. Two public databases place his date of birth in January 1956. He says they’re wrong, he was born in ’61. Then I check with the alumni office at DeMatha High School. They say he graduated in 1974. Cord may have willed himself into prominence, but he can’t change the fact that he’s 51, not 46.
Arrive in Style
In the past, Cord often hired a driver for his double- and triple-booked nights on the town. Leaving his Bethesda office at 4 p.m., he’d hurry home, change from his suit into slicker street clothes—maybe jeans and a leather blazer—motor off to a happy hour meet-and-greet, move onto an evening fundraiser and finish the night at a bar or club with drinks and friends.
Jim Franco, another gray fox executive, says hitting the town with Cord is an unparalleled experience. After a recent NFL-sponsored event, Franco, who owns a local advertising company, went along for a nightcap at Cafe Milano, a Georgetown restaurant known for its age-imbalanced pickup scene.
“We took the limo to Milano and arrived. We arrived,” he says. The details, he says, are “off the record” but the reception made Franco feel a little like Cinderella.
In October, Cord bought his brand-new Maserati Quatroporte sedan. Now he can arrive in $120,000 worth of Italian design. He drives around playing the Tony Cord mix, which includes the Thievery Corporation and Steely Dan.
I accompanied Cord on an evening out in the Maserati last month. We began with a small gathering in McLean for a friend’s hedge fund. (Cord isn’t an investor but does business with several of the men who are.) Then he invited me to join him at Fight Night, a boxing-themed, mostly-men, $1,000-a-seat fundraiser for disadvantaged children. It’s one of the top events of the fall gala season, with a guest list that includes Randy Falco, CEO of AOL, and Mayor Adrian Fenty. .
On the way, navigating like a cab driver through the inept crush of D.C. traffic, Cord turns and says, “Watch this.” Holding the wheel with his left hand, he begins to loop the ends of a blue and gold bow tie with the right. He finishes the knot using just one hand at a time. “How many men do you know who can do that?”
Cord pulls into the circular Hilton driveway, but there’s no valet service tonight. He circles the blocks for a bit, looking for a spot, then accidentally comes upon the Hilton garage. He lowers his window and calls out to a female attendant. “Hey baby,” he coos. She looks confused but smiles back. Cord yells again, this time to a male attendant. “How’s Bud?” he asks. Again, confusion. Then a third employee comes over to chat. Bud is fine, fine. We pull into the garage, and Cord explains that Bud—parking magnate Bud Doggett—was one of his first mentors and taught him how to do customer service.
I start to worry that I won’t get into the event; I’m not on the list, and I’m definitely not dressed for a black tie affair. But Cord brims with confidence. “No one’s going to stop me,” he says.
Work the Room
Inside the hotel, Cord makes quick business of getting me a last-minute press pass. He shakes a few hands, gets his table assignment, and descends the crowded escalator. He’s excited. “Get ready for this,” he says. Crossing a carpeted hallway, we enter a ballroom filled with hundreds of men in tuxedos, puffing cigars and drinking cocktails delivered by pretty girls wearing gowns. Cord makes his way to the bar through a blur of smoke and shoulders.
He orders a drink, lights a cigar, and in-structs me to watch how he works the room.
He walks fast, sliding between chairs, avoiding elbows. He greets each man he knows by name, shaking his hand, introducing me. Before the chitchat has a chance to falter, Cord nods, releases his stare, and moves on.
One man in a tuxedo grabs his hand and proclaims to me, “Tony Cord is the most popular man in D.C.” Cord grins and keeps walking.
“Watch this,” he says, approaching a beautiful blonde (one of the few women here as a guest) who squeals with delight and moves in for Cord’s kisses.
Richard Johns, 36, who often plays the understated foil to Cord’s in-your-face hosting, is in awe of his friend’s networking acumen. “His ability to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time is remarkable,” Johns says. The difficulty of working a room, especially a ballroom full of powerful men, he says, can’t be understated. “You can’t spend a lot of time with one person,” Johns says. At the same time, he says, you need to avoid making the “person you’re talking to feel like you’re blowing them off. He’s good at that. Plus, he has the ability of remembering names.”
Cord doesn’t reserve his skills for men in seats of power.
The shimmering cocktail waitresses stand in lines at little bars situated around the perimeter of the room. They look bored. Cord makes a beeline for a petite brunette. “Tony!” she cries in a Russian accent, leaning in for the treatment.
Hunting for his table, Cord winds his way around the low-numbered placards near the boxing ring. His circle grows wider and wider until he reaches the stairs and begins pacing the second tier. Instead of being despondent, he perks up and says, “I guess we’re in the VIP section.” It’s not clear if he’s joking or just doesn’t realize the best seats would be at the center.
Hours later, after giant steaks, a boxing match, and a violently patriotic rendition of the National Anthem performed by none other than Ted Nugent, Cord hustles me and another friend into the Maserati. I’m pretty sure we broke the speed limit and blew a few stop signs…but we were in a hurry.
The traditional post-Fight Night activity is crashing Knock Out Abuse, a women’s gala at the Ritz benefiting a charity that raises money for battered women. Cord tells me it’s a sight not to be missed.
He has a hookup with the parking attendant, and we arrive just in time to witness several hundred socialites surge to the front of the ballroom as the men descend. “The afterparty’s off-the record,” Cord instructs me. I do my best to tail him anyway, but he keeps eluding me. He makes his way to the dance floor when Lenny Kravitz takes the stage for a surprise concert. Later he’s bending the ear of several women by the bar. He finds me again at the end of the night and starts dancing with his hands up. It’s 2 a.m., and he has an 8 a.m. meeting.
“Luckily I’m not the kind of person who needs a lot of sleep,” he says.
Cord may think of himself as a center of influence, but in practice, he displays a singular focus on everyone else. At events where he’s a guest, he makes a point of inquiring about the deals other people have in the works rather than rambling about his own investments.
When Cord is the host, he runs around trying to unite people with matching needs and services. At his last rooftop gathering, at Jordan’s 8 on Capitol Hill, I met Matt Landsberg, who owns a small custom clothier. He met Cord about a year ago at an event at a restaurant (now defunct) owned by former Redskins wide receiver Gary Clark.
At first, Cord’s zeal took Landsberg by surprise.
“He did sort of catch me off-guard,” he says. “I was like who is this guy? What is he about?” After that first meeting, Landsberg started seeing Cord everywhere he went, at fusty charity events and late-night parties at clubs. He even ran into Cord dancing at a club on South Beach on the Fourth of July.
“He likes to go out and have fun. He’s not stiff,” Landsberg says. “He doesn’t necessarily fit your typical profile of somebody like that.”
This June, Cord invited Landsberg to his first soiree, on the roof of the Alta. Landsberg left with two new clients, both of whom placed orders for suits.
Cord makes a monumental effort to bring others into the spotlight. He’s particularly persistent about including his D’AIRE partners in any attention he receives. He pestered me about interviewing them and told me he didn’t want the story to be just about him. He has become something of a booster for Bock’s career as a DJ, bringing business clients to her gigs and helping her find new places to spin.
Bock, 29, met Cord about a year ago, when he’d gotten locked out of his apartment and knocked on her friend’s door. They ended up playing board games late into the night. Soon, Cord was asking her to make him mix CDs and showing up at her DJ nights.
Cord is “always working it,” she says. “He’s all about the business. He’s pushing networks, getting people together.”
Cord calls himself a “deal man.” Part of that is knowing what makes a deal. But mostly, it’s persistence.
After my first interview with Cord and his D’AIRE partners in October, he wrote to thank me for my “time, focus and energy…. We look forward to your follow-up.” The next week he wrote again. “Hey Angela… Just a quick note to circle-back to see if Nikki, Richard and I can provide you with some dates/times for another round with you for your article.” Later that same day he wrote to see that he’d seen me on the street and tried to say hi but I didn’t notice. The next day a one line e-mail: “call you today?”
Just when I was about to get annoyed, Cord would apologize, letting me know he understood I was busy. Then he’d forward accolades from guests of the rooftop parties and an invite to something called “Powerful Growth Strategies for Women Business Owners.” One afternoon, he asked me to be his guest at an Economic Club luncheon with financier Henry Kravis.
He repeatedly urged me to keep the focus off him. “I want it to be less about me,” he says. “I’m not that interesting.”