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Company in the Spotlight: Gustine builds on the family name

Sunday, January 07, 2001

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Real estate developer Frank Gustine Jr. did not like to pay attention in school. “I was the typical jock,” he said. “I didn’t go to class much, I guess.”

There was no time.

As a University of Pittsburgh athlete in the late 1960s, Gustine played football, basketball and baseball. By his sophomore year, Gustine started at quarterback, had the No. 1 pitching spot on Pitt’s baseball team and played backup guard for the basketball team. He ended college as Pitt’s first three-sport letterman since Mike Ditka.

Despite his academic shortcomings, Gustine made the transition to commercial real estate look as easy as catching a lazy pop fly. After a few years selling rings and yearbooks for a former Pitt coach, Gustine ran into Ron Puntil, vice president of a Pittsburgh-based real estate firm called Oliver Realty.

Based on that one meeting, Puntil offered Gustine a job.

“He had a great personality, and I felt he was a hard-working kind of guy,” Puntil said. “I just had a good feeling about him, that’s all.”

More than 25 years later, Gustine is the chief executive officer of a company that owns 24 properties totaling 3.9 million square feet. His firm, The Gustine Co., also manages an additional 13 properties owned by other companies and has a long-standing arrangement with The Armstrong Group of Companies that allows Gustine to pursue new development projects with Armstrong’s money.

Among Gustine’s recent projects are a new Marshall headquarters for Fore Systems, a new Washington County headquarters for AEG and the renovation of a Downtown building for General Nutrition Companies’ headquarters.

Throughout the 1990s, Gustine was notoriously quiet about its work, reflecting the wishes of the Armstrong Group.

“Some people don’t know who we are,” said Gregg Baldwin, president of The Gustine Co.

But people certainly knew Gustine’s father.

A well-known Pirates player in the 1940s, Frank Gustine Sr. played all four infield positions and made the All-Star team three times. He retired at 30, following a double hernia operation. “I never was a great baseball player,” his father once said. “I always was a plugger with enough ability to get by.”

After his playing days, Gustine opened a restaurant in Oakland that became a gathering place for athletes, writers and broadcasters. He also dabbled in real estate, owning stakes in a Green Tree Holiday Inn and the Sheraton Station Square. He and riverboat executive John Connelly were partners in the Sheraton when Gustine died in 1991.

It was Gustine’s father who loaned his oldest son $10,000 to start The Gustine Co. in 1984.

“Obviously, Dad had a good reputation and was well liked here,” Gustine said. “I think that has helped open a lot of doors.”

But Puntil said the father’s name “only gets you inside the door. Eventually, you have to perform on your own and stand on your own.”

Gustine started his firm after eight years with Oliver Realty and two years with a mortgage banking firm. One of his first assignments was to lease One Mellon Center, the towering Grant Street office building. Another early job was to be the general manager of the bankrupt corporations that built and owned most of the 515-acre Borough of Seven Fields in Butler County.

His business began to grow in 1988, when he merged with Baldwin’s company, adding 500,000 square feet and 11 properties to his portfolio. That same year, he also reached the agreement with Armstrong and its multimillionaire owner, Jud Sedwick, that allowed Gustine to get more aggressive at a time the rest of the real estate industry was turning sour.

Having Armstrong as its backer allowed Gustine to buy and develop office buildings, shopping complexes and distribution centers, purchase a portion of Station Square and renovate an old Gimbels warehouse on the South Side, where Gustine now keeps its headquarters.

The Armstrong relationship also allowed Gustine to reach an agreement with the CVS pharmacy chain that has resulted in 15 new stores in Western Pennsylvania in the last 21/2 years.

But the CVS relationship also caused Gustine some problems.

A decision to build CVS a 10,000-square-foot pharmacy in Homestead, along Eighth Avenue, opened wounds that have yet to heal. Gustine first proposed the deal in 1998. Homestead council took at least seven votes on the project, reversing itself several times. It approved the plan in September 1999, but then denied its borough manager authorization to sign off on the plan.

Preservationists opposed the store, arguing that the buildings on Homestead’s Main Street be saved.

Three years of arguments and four lawsuits followed, capped by a $7 million suit filed by CVS and Gustine this year in U.S. District Court. The suit claimed 17 project opponents conspired to deprive CVS and Gustine of their civil rights to build the pharmacy.

The $7 million suit “is an act that astonishes me in its unfairness,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks, one of the defendants in the suit and a former partner of Gustine’s at Station Square.

When asked if he had any regrets about the Homestead situation, Gustine said, ” I would love to answer that, but I really can’t. It is a very sensitive issue. There are a lot of misconceptions about the whole thing.”

Gustine officials think they can survive this, though.

“I really don’t think it has had that much affect on our name or our ability to proceed,” Baldwin said. “We haven’t felt a backlash because of it.”

The Profile
The Gustine Co.

Business: Commercial real estate development. Helps clients with land acquisition, entitlements, zoning, office and retail development, construction management, finance, leasing, property management and brokerage.

Headquarters: South Side

History: Founded in 1984 by Frank Gustine Jr. Currently owns 24 properties totaling 3.9 million square feet. It manages 13 properties owned by other companies. It has a subsidiary called WJG Contracting Inc. that operates as an independent construction firm. Projects include Fore Systems headquarters, GNC’s Downtown headquarters, AEG’s Southpointe headquarters and 15 new stores for CVS Corp. It soon plans to open retail centers in Baltimore and Tampa.

Employees: 42

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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