Transamerica workers begin move to downtown skyscraper
Former Legg Mason building is now Transamerica Tower
Transamerica Life Insurance Co. has begun putting up its namesake sign at 100 Light St., the former Legg Mason building. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / October 6, 2011)
After months of preparation by the insurance and financial services company, 340 workers arrived Monday for their first day at 100 Light St. following a whirlwind move of their computers, telephones and other office necessities from Mount Vernon over the weekend.
More workers will follow in two weeks, bringing the total to about 800.
For Transamerica, the mostly short-distance move is an opportunity to bring all its Baltimore workers under one roof in its headquarters town — and to put its name on the top of one of the city's tallest buildings. The relocation also fills part of the hole left by Legg Mason. The money manager had its name on the tower for years but left in 2009 for a new skyscraper in Baltimore's Harbor East.
"The timing was ideal," said Mark Mullin, Transamerica's chief executive, who moved to Baltimore from the company's Iowa offices over the summer. "This certainly is a reinforcement of our commitment to the city and the state."
Most of the workers moving to 100 Light were already based in Baltimore, in buildings in and near Mount Vernon. But others recently moved or are moving from out of state, largely from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Louisville, Ky.
The new people are bringing new functions to Baltimore, including Transamerica's trading and derivatives desks. And Mullin said he's optimistic about the company's growth prospects. Transamerica offers insurance products, retirement and savings options for individuals, and retirement products through employers, all of which strike him as good niches in a country rattled by the 2008 financial crisis.
The company is leasing 10 floors, plus space on one of the basement levels, for a total of about 170,000 square feet. It's one of several firms that gobbled up substantial space at 100 Light St. after Legg Mason's move left the skyscraper three-quarters vacant.
Now the building is 95 percent leased, according to Lexington Realty Trust, which owns it through a subsidiary. Law firm Ober Kaler left another downtown building last year for 100 Light, and law firm Miles & Stockbridge plans to move there in 2013 from its building about two blocks north.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said Lexington Realty's decision to renovate the building, its parking garage and its exterior plaza helps explain the turnaround.
"A few years ago, people were looking at the former Legg Mason Tower and expressing doubts that we'd ever fill that up," Fowler said.
But the lease-up — like a game of musical chairs — has left other downtown offices with vacancies. Fowler said those buildings' owners need to think of kicking off renovations of their own, or possibly getting out of the office business altogether. The Downtown Partnership is trying to persuade the owners of older office buildings to convert them into apartments and tap into a market that's doing well.
Downtown's office vacancy rate is 17.5 percent, said T. Courtenay Jenkins, a senior director with real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield in Baltimore. That's up from 10 percent to 12 percent before the last recession. The problem is too little demand as a result of the difficult economy, he said, adding that the vacancy rate has been stable for the last year and that he's seeing fewer office buildings with "big blocks" of empty space.
Transamerica spent about a year readying for its move to 100 Light St., deconstructing the floors so they could be rebuilt the way the company wanted: Lots of open cubicles rather than closed-door offices. "Huddle rooms" for impromptu meetings. And a snazzy videoconferencing room that lets Baltimore executives chat with officials in Cedar Rapids and the Netherlands — where Transamerica's parent, Aegon, is based — using technology aimed at creating the illusion that they're all sitting around the same table.
"I felt like we were entering the bridge of the Starship Enterprise," said Mullin.
On Friday, Transamerica's remodeled digs smelled like a new car and were empty save for workers planning the move. Craig Gallagher, a senior architect with Aegon, huddled with colleagues — though not in a huddle room — as they prepped for the "controlled chaos" of filling 340 workspaces with office equipment still sitting in Transamerica's leased building on Park Avenue.
Next would come the move from several nearby buildings, including 1111 N. Charles St., which Aegon sold for $6.7 million to Chase Brexton Health Services in June.
Outside, meanwhile, a contractor was hoisting giant letters to spell out "TRANSAMERICA" along the top level of each side of the Light Street skyscraper. On the pavement lay letters that had yet to go up, like pieces in a gargantuan game of Scrabble.
The 100 Light St. structure isn't the highest building in Baltimore if you're measuring from sea level, but it has more stories than any other in town — 35. That gives Mullin and the other executives who are moving into the top floor a daily perspective on the city that few others can match.
From his desk, Mullin has a particularly good view of Legg Mason's new building.
"I know [Legg Mason CEO] Mark [Fetting] over there, so we can wave now and again on a clear day," Mullin joked.