Cousins names new lead director in tough economy

Cousins Properties named Erskine Bowles as its new lead director today, succeeding Billy Payne, who had served a six-year term.

Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina for more than three years, has served on Cousins’ board since 2003. Bowles also served as White House Chief of Staff from 1996 to 1998 in the Clinton administration.

Cousins CEO Tom Bell made the announcement at Cousins Properties Inc. annual meeting today at the One Ninety One Peachtree building.

Bell said that in today’s environment it’s good to “churn it up.,” and that Payne had served two terms as lead director.

“I think Billy felt he had served enough time in that role,” Bell said of Payne, who is credited for bringing the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta. Payne currently is a partner of Gleacher Partners and serves as chairman of Augusta National Golf Course, site of the Masters.

Bowles said he was happy to take on the role as lead outside director.

“We have a great management team here and a terrific board,” Bowles said. “I don’t expect this to be heavy lifting. I’m very comfortable with it.”

In his talk to shareholders, Bell repeatedly said it’s been a tough real estate environment, the most difficult that the industry has faced at least since the mid 1970s, if not before.

“At some point this cycle almost certainly will turn, and your company will emerge a stronger company with fewer competitors and with more opportunities,” Bell said.

He did express disappointment that Wall Street hasn’t given Cousins credit for what it did to prepare for the downturn.

Between 2003 and 2006, the company sold about $3 billion of real estate. If those properties were to be sold today, assuming there were buyers, the company would have received between $800 million and $1 billion less. But Bell said the company’s stock continues to suffer.

Cousins’ shares (NYSE: CUZ) were trading today at about $8.50 a share. Two years ago the shares were in the $30s.

Looking back, Bell said that “2008 turned out to be a fairly decent year for Cousins” in terms of leases and asset management.

“While we didn’t move forward with any new development opportunities or acquisitions, that was a good decision because prices continued to fall,” Bell said. He said it was unlikely the company would see any new development starts in 2009.

Shareholders asked a few rather friendly questions. One woman said she had thought Bell’s connections on Wall Street would have helped Cousins’ stock price.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you with Wall Street,” Bell said with a smile. But then he turned serious. “I’m very disappointed that the equity markets, once the downturn started, ignored the fact that Cousins had done things that no other REITs (real estate investment trusts) had done.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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