Standard Parking Corp. has grown up with America’s car culture. Founded as a family business in Chicago in 1929, the company provides parking management services in a big way. Having secured U.S. Department of Justice approval in late 2012 for its merger with Nashville, Tenn., rival Central Parking Corp., Standard controls approximately 2.2 million parking spaces at surface and multilevel facilities at airports, hospitals, government buildings, hotels, office centers, arenas and universities. It runs shuttle-bus operations at major airports including Chicago O’Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth. The company went public in 2004 and has been moving beyond traditional urban and suburban parking structure management into mass-transit hubs for rail and coach travel into central cities. Standard reported 2011 revenues of nearly $730 million.
General counsel Robert Sacks described his nine-attorney, four-paralegal department as almost entirely focused on transactions. “We are a property-management company,” he said. “Depending on the property, a contract might be a five-pager or a 100-pager, because every owner has the way they want their parking function to operate.”
Sacks looks for in-house attorneys who are natural deal makers with a strategic interest in the business. “The legal department here is fully integrated into finance and internal controls,” he said. “Think of the millions of dollars we’re handling — until we’ve drafted and approved a contract, nobody gets any money and no payrolls are funded.”
Sacks hires attorneys, not firms. For example, he sends significant litigation to Manatt, Phelps & Phillips San Francisco partner Stephen Mayne. “I’ve been with Steve for 25 years, and he’s been at two or three firms during that time,” he said. Chicago- and New York-based Katten Muchin Rosenman partner Mark Grossmann advises on corporate matters and was a key player in the company’s takeover of Central Parking. Steven Gistenson of Dykema Gossett’s Chicago office handles litigation and real estate. Attorneys at Chicago-based Vedder Price advise on intellectual property.
Sacks’ main preoccupation at the moment is the integration of Central Parking. “We were working on that deal 24/7, starting in June 2011; we’re meshing another 12,000 employees in 400 cities into our company, and it’s an enormous undertaking,” he said. “It’s daunting in terms of complexity, but it’s a tremendous learning experience.”
Intellectual property and technology are of growing importance as the industry moves toward “on-demand” parking. “You’re going to see a day where [parking] rates will be changed automatically based on demand,” he said. Deputy general counsel Jerry Pate and Katheryn Millwee handle the day-to-day business while Sacks works mainly with senior officers on strategic and governance matters.
His department lacks a pro bono program, but Sacks sits on the board of the USO of Illinois.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Sacks has a simple answer when asked at social gatherings about his profession: “I park cars for a living.” He has spent nearly 25 years at the company.
He describes himself as “a deal junkie” who helped modernize the parking business. “When I started, parking was a cash business,” he said. “Nobody used a credit card, and we created the first garages where you could.”
The top legal officer for a parking company has to know about real estate, government relations and a range of risk-management issues, Sacks said. The industry’s importance can’t be understated, he added. “How does an airport fund itself? Parking and rental car revenues are the major funding components. For a large airport, a parking operation can generate $100 million in annual revenue and employ 200 to 300 people. And we’re responsible for everything in that parking operation — revenue control, maintenance, security. Each parking operation is a business unto itself.”
The Boston native holds a 1976 Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University in history, with a specialty in 20th century German history.
“I was a young Jewish kid who wanted to understand the Holocaust,” he said.
He earned his J.D. from Suffolk University Law School in 1979 and joined Snyder, Tepper & Berlin, now Hinckley, Allen & Snyder.
He worked in construction litigation — not a job he loved. “It was the wrong job for me, but I had the opportunity to move [from Boston] to Ohio a year after graduation to work as an attorney for a real estate developer and it was the best education I could get,” he said. The work encompassed the legal mechanics of building and — with the onset of a recession during the early 1980s — bankruptcy. The developer he worked for went under in 1982, and Sacks joined Cleveland-based Kohrman Jackson & Weiss (now Kohrman Jackson & Krantz).
“I look back at it as one of my favorite places to work,” he said. “It was a small boutique firm with 11 attorneys total and I don’t recall a lot of time sheets. We represented some of the biggest national developers at the time, and I became a Red Book-certified bond counsel by 1984.”
Sacks was recruited by Ulmer & Berne, where he continued in real estate law but with a focus on commercial deals. “I got an unbelievable exposure there to M&A, securities, banking and finance work,” he said. “It gave me the foundation for being a GC.”
He came to Standard Parking through one of its predecessor companies, the Cleveland-based airport parking concern APCOA Inc., which would merge with Standard Parking in 1998. Sacks had no ambitions to leave Ulmer, but got a call from a legal recruiter and attorney named Larry Elder — the same Larry Elder who now works as a libertarian radio talk show host in Southern California. “He was an engaging guy and we hit it off,” Sacks said.
One of Sacks’ hiring conditions was suggested by his son — “That if the Boston Bruins made it into the Stanley Cup, we’d get tickets. And we did.”
Sacks likes to shoot and hunt — he shoots sporting clays and skeet and heads north during elk and deer season. He also goes horseback riding with his wife, Janet. They have three children: John, 32, is a talent agent with Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles; Claudia, 29, is an attorney in Chicago; and Jill, 27, is working on her doctorate in equine nutrition at the University of Florida.
LAST MOVIE AND BOOK
Pi and Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845, by Robert Remini. “I like to collect first-edition history books, particularly Churchill first editions,” Sacks said. He especially likes tackling epic, multiple-volume histories. “My staff says that ‘Robert will never read one volume when he has a chance to read three or four.’ ”