Thomas Flatley, Hub real estate icon, dies at 76

Irish immigrant built empire on South Shore

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Thomas C. Palmer Jr. and Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

Thomas J. Flatley, a frugal immigrant who arrived from Ireland with $32 in his pocket and built a commercial real estate empire in Greater Boston and beyond that was estimated at $1.3 billion, died early yesterday morning.

Mr. Flatley, who was 76 and lived in Milton, had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, his family confirmed.

Speaking with the Irish brogue of his youth, Mr. Flatley made deals throughout the region as he built office and apartment complexes, industrial parks, hotels, shopping centers, and healthcare facilities. His primary turf, though, was Boston's southern suburbs. Near the South Shore Plaza in Braintree he built the Sheraton Tara Hotel, one of several he developed with a motif that evoked the castles of his Irish homeland.

"He mastered them all, and he had great instincts for all," real estate developer Joe Corcoran said of his longtime friend and tennis partner's deft touch with so many types of development. "In real estate he was a phenomenon, really. He busted into the world of real estate and was able to do huge projects as a very young man and was doing it all his life."

On his desk in his Braintree office, Mr. Flatley kept a photo of his mother. "She was my greatest educator," he told the Globe in 1990. His mother, he said, always told him not to spend what he didn't have.

Taking her advice to heart, Mr. Flatley built an expansive portfolio, often saying he did so without borrowing more than 40 percent of each property's value. The strategy landed him on Forbes magazine's list of the wealthiest entrepreneurs, but he remained unpretentious, attending Mass each morning, living in a modest home, and boasting for many years that he usually flew coach.

"Tom Flatley was absolutely an original, and he was a self-made man," said Jack Connors, a founder of the advertising firm Hill Holliday. "He came the way most of us did, which was not from a whole lot, and he dedicated himself to being a very successful human being and developer."

A philanthropist who gave away millions to places as varied as St. Anselm College and the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, Mr. Flatley created his own foundation, which he said last year stood at about $200 million. He gave regularly to Boston College, which he had served as a trustee, and counted charities that helped the poor and his native Ireland among his favorites.

"I learned a lot of what I know about urban issues from Tom Flatley," said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "He was a very caring guy. He cared about his Irish heritage, and he cared about people who needed housing. He just made a difference. Our world has suffered a great loss today with the passing of Tom Flatley."

At Menino's suggestion, after the mayor visited Ireland and became interested in the years when so many immigrants fled to Boston, Mr. Flatley became the force behind the city's Irish Famine Memorial. It opened downtown in 1998 to commemorate the famine's 150th anniversary.

"I asked him why we didn't have a memorial," Menino said, "and Tom Flatley said to me, 'You've got it done.' He went out and raised the money. He's the one who made that happen."

Renowned for working 80-hour weeks in his early years, Mr. Flatley made so many business decisions at The Flatley Co. that one employee once said "everything from staples on down" had to be approved by the boss.

"He just was the hardest-working guy there was," said Rob Griffin, president of Cushman & Wakefield of Massachusetts Inc., a commercial brokerage. "Morning, noon, and night, that was his passion, that was his everything. He was always thinking about adding to his portfolio. It wasn't for adding to his wealth; he never wanted to be idle. In his mind if he wasn't moving forward he was moving backward."

And yet, Mr. Flatley's deep Catholic faith left him with no illusions about the fleeting nature of wealth and power. In 1990, with the economy brittle, he reflected on a series of difficult decisions, including paring his payroll from 6,000 employees to 5,400.

"When I leave this world I don't take anything with me," he told the Globe that August. "I wind up with 36 square feet."

For many years Mr. Flatley also advised Cardinal Bernard F. Law on business matters concerning the Archdiocese of Boston, and He also was a national director of Morality in Media, an organization in New York City that battles what it views as obscenity and indecency.

A humble upbringing didn't hint at what was to come in Mr. Flatley's life. He grew up on his family's 25-acre farm in County Mayo. Moving to New York City in his late teens, he enlisted in the Army for two years, and when he mustered out in Fort Devens, he decided to go to Boston, rather than return to New York.

"I came to Boston because it was small and manageable," he told the Boston Irish Reporter in 2000. "You could have your own identity here."

And so he did. After working in the plumbing and air conditioning business for a few years he entered the real estate market and developed two apartment buildings in Quincy and Randolph in 1958, with 33 apartments in all.

Though commercial development made him rich, those first apartment buildings set the successful model for Mr. Flatley's lifelong approach to the business. Eschewing the hassles and expense of urban projects, he built short, flat buildings in the suburbs, rather than monumental skyscrapers.

While work defined much of his life, Mr. Flatley also went to Mass each morning at St. Agatha Church in Milton, and he liked to play fast-paced handball games with the likes of Francis X. Bellotti, a former state attorney general, and tennis with Corcoran.

"He was also an extraordinarily friendly guy - he just had this instinct to be friendly to people," Corcoran said. "We'd be in the locker room, and there would be a guy next door that neither of us knew and, before you knew it, Tom had his life's history."

Still, Mr. Flatley could be intensely private, and he did not publicly disclose the nature of his illness during the past year.

Mr. Flatley rarely granted interviews and when he did, a charity often was the reason.

"He is, as Forbes once called him, 'the anti-Trump,' a man who hates the spotlight," former Globe business columnist Steve Bailey wrote last year, delineating the difference between Mr. Flatley and Donald Trump, the flamboyant New York City developer.

In keeping with Mr. Flatley's preference for privacy, one of his children requested that the names of the Flatley children not be published in their father's obituary.

Mr. Flatley leaves his wife, Charlotte, five children, and 18 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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