By VINCE MEEHAN | Downtown News
Tom Brooks is the founder and CEO of Cornerstone Managing Partners, a construction management firm whose expertise is taking on projects that leave most other companies spinning their wheels. Brooks has made high-rise residential projects his specialty, especially when it comes to the HOAs that come with the luxury units. This makes him a popular figure in Downtown San Diego given its surge in high-rise units in the last 20 years.
If something goes wrong in these towers, it can be a monumental task to fix it. And the affluent tenants do not take kindly to being displaced. This is where Brooks earns his reputation as a “fixer” of sorts to these high-value HOAs. His company has earned tens of millions of dollars as well as a stellar reputation of not only fixing problems, but also getting the key permits and approvals to do so. This is something that Brooks excels at and its origin is in his grassroots construction upbringing.
Brooks started out working with his uncle and his cousin doing entry-level house framing in Los Angeles during the ’80s. “I started out as a stick framer, I was working up in LA, I lived in Monrovia, and my uncle and my cousin, that’s what we did, we were stick framers,” Brooks said from the library of the Harbor Club in Downtown San Diego. “And we followed the 210 freeway out east as it was being built, and it was just all tract homes, and we were rough-framing the houses one a day; sometimes one and a half with the larger homes.”
Brooks continued to gain more construction expertise until he hurt himself due to the nature of the trade. The injury lead to a series of events resulting in his success here in San Diego. “I hurt my back so I got out of that for a while and soon found myself in San Diego. I spent a day in the La Jolla Cove and I came out of the water going, ‘Why doesn’t everybody want to live here?’ Back then, there weren’t the seals, you could swim out around, you could jump off the rocks, this was the late ’80s and oh man, I was in love! I came out of the water and was dating a girl at the time – who became my first wife – and I told her, I don’t care what we have to do but I’m moving here.”
Within a year, he found a way to move to San Diego for good. He migrated back into construction by installing cabinetry in kitchens, baths and remodels. At his church, he met a lot of contractors divided into two groups: residential contractors and commercial contractors. He said the residential contractors always looked at the commercial guys as having it made. They were making more money in less time than he was in doing remodels. “I started begging for a job at one of the commercial contractors in town and for three years I banged on their door and asked for a job. And they finally hired me!”
“In those early years, I did mostly sales and marketing where I raised the amount of money being made for the company from $15 million a year to $50 million. But when the market crash came, it was no longer about sales and marketing, it was about relationships. You could drag in plans all day long, but if you couldn’t hit the numbers, you were in trouble. I pretty much got my notice. They said, ‘You’re not producing.’ So, I went OK, take me off payroll, take me off of overhead, put me on the jobs and I’ll figure it out. That’s when I started bidding my own jobs.”
This led to his now successful DIY model of just getting things done on his own and eventually inspired him to create his own company. “When I was a residential guy doing kitchen and baths and homes and remodeling, I drew my own plans, I pulled my own permits. I wasn’t an architect, but back then you could do that as an owner, builder, and designer. I’m used to drawing my own plans, I had my light table, I had my little blueprint machines and I absolutely loved it. But I couldn’t make any money drawing plans, so I had to build. And so that’s what I did! I rebirthed my skill set and went back to my roots and started that process. I left that company after nine years and started Cornerstone. I really didn’t want to actually be a contractor, I really wanted to be a developer. But a couple of clients called up and said, ‘You know, we got a building we want you to build’ [and] the rest is history. In 2007, we turned more to construction management and we specialize in HOA high-rise luxury now.”
Cornerstone now serves as a construction management firm as well as commercial construction and litigation consulting. They specialize in “outside of the box” projects including decommissioning a heliport atop the Harbor Club residential tower Downtown and designing a rocket-testing facility for SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada Corporation near Lakeside that came with its own unique permitting and logistical issues. He also oversaw a project at The Grand North, where an entire tower needed to be repiped without displacing the residents, and another at Diamond Terrace that suffered major flooding damage.
Through it all, Brooks has relied on his instinctual skills to solve problems that others cannot. He never earned a degree; instead he tapped into a gift for problem solving that comes naturally. “I’m a builder! I mean, I can frame it, I can hang it. When I close my eyes, when I look at a building, I can close my eyes and I can see the systems.”
Brooks said his most interesting project to date was his work for SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada Corporation. The company needed a rocket-testing site to develop a unique engine for Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. This engine needed to be able to fire, then shut off, then fire and shut off again. This is not how normal rocket engines work, usually you fire them off and that’s it. Brooks found a plot of land in Slaughterhouse Canyon off Highway 67 near Lakeside. The owners had created a box canyon from past mining that served as a perfect test bed for the rocket.
Brooks’ plan was to bore a tunnel into one of the canyon walls and back the rocket engine up to it. Then they would fire the rocket engine into the tunnel during testing. The tunnel curved upward and opened above the canyon so the exhaust plume would exit skyward. This proved successful and SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada Corporation won the contract, but the part that amazed Brooks the most was how he got all the city, county and state agencies to sign off on the concept in one meeting. That is the forte of Tom Brooks and indicative of why he has so much respect as the go-to guy in the construction business here in San Diego. “That… was insane!’” added Brooks with a grin.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.