At 94, Malin Burnham is giving up his post as vice chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, the commercial real estate firm that he joined in 2008 when he sold Burnham Real Estate to Cushman & Wakefield.
But don’t say he’s retiring.
It’s not in his makeup, say friends and present and former colleagues.
“I’m spending my time, 90% of my waking time, thinking about tomorrow and 10 years from tomorrow,” Burnham said.
Burnham is moving on to be chairman of the board of the Burnham Center for Community Advancement, which he describes as a “think-and-do” tank to take on regional issues such as housing, workforce development and refurbishing Balboa Park.
“We’re not going to run anything. We’re only going to help collect ideas, build a plan,” Burnham said.
The Future Beckons
When Burnham and his friends and colleagues gathered in mid-March to mark his move, they called it a commencement — both because Burnham is starting something new and to make up for the commencement he said he missed when he graduated from Stanford University in 1949. He was short on credits and had to finish his studies over the summer for a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering.
Burnham is razor-focused on the projects he takes on and the organizations he supports as a philanthropist.
“I was born here. I lived here all my life, so I have a deeper interest in the community than 90% of the people. It doesn’t make me better. It just makes me want to keep doing more and keep my brain active,” Burnham said.
He doesn’t watch television except for “60 Minutes,” the weekly CBS television news magazine.
“If I sat around watching TV or going to the movies, I would get fat and lazy,” Burnham said.
He doesn’t own a cell phone and he’s not much for computers.
“I know these things are available but I don’t want to waste my time with them,” Burnham said. “The books I read are about the future, all about the future, what are these smart people thinking about and how can I get with it.”
A Passion for Sailing
True to his background as an avid sailor, Burnham celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife and 11 members of his family on a nine-day cruise around the Caribbean aboard a motor yacht.
“My folks were not sailors. My dad was a golfer. He played golf in the afternoons and Saturday mornings, which I would describe as a business sport,” Burnham said.
Sailing is Burnham’s sport of choice – a passion he picked up as teen when he joined a summer sailing class put on by the San Diego Yacht Club. He became the youngest skipper to win a world championship in the International Star Class when he was 17 years old and helped lead the drive to bring the America’s Cup to San Diego in 1987.
He also was a key player in establishing and supporting the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum.
“When anybody gets into a small sailboat with one sail, without a paddle or that engine, the moment you push off the dock, you have to get self-confidence,” Burnham said. “The second thing I learned from sailing, as you can learn from other sports and other activities, is it’s all about teamwork.”
Community Before Self
An early success for the Burnham Center for Community Advancement came when San Diego in partnership with Tijuana was named a 2024 World Design Capital – a designation that will draw international attention to the region. The center partnered with The Design Forward Alliance in competing for the honor.
Tad Parzen, CEO of the Burnham Center for Community Advancement, said it’s “an exciting moment to watch Malin at 94 pivot again to a new, exciting venture.”
“Malin has a wonderful catch phrase that has become kind of our motto,” Parzen said. “We’re here to help make the San Diego region a better place to live, work and play for everyone. It’s really a thrilling moment. You think about Malin’s motto of community before self and how he talks about everything has to be done together and that nothing great is accomplished on our own, much gets accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. He really lives that way and has taught me and others.”
Parzen said that he’s known Burnham for 30 years, and that working with him at the Burnham Center for Community Advancement “is certainly the highlight of my professional career and certainly one of the highlights of my life.”
Dennis Cruzan, president and CEO of Cruzan, a commercial real estate development and investment firm, said that the values that Burnham instilled in those who worked for him and around him “is kind of what struck me the most.”
Cruzan started working with Burnham as a commercial real estate broker with John Burnham Real Estate in the 1970’s and was president and CEO of Burnham Real Estate in the 1990s.
“The best thing that I learned and all of us learned at the Burnham Company was how important values were, not only to the company but to you as a person,” Cruzan said. “As a role model, he was so big about giving back to the community and that probably was his biggest impact on all of us who worked at the company. It was an expectation and the company allowed you the opportunity to give back to the community, whether that was coaching the Little League or the serving on the planning commission.”
Stath Karras, executive director of the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego, said that Burnham is “a guy that has won more awards and had more accolades than anyone I know but you never hear about him because that’s not what’s important to him.”
“He never looks back, he’s always looking ahead,” said Karras, a former executive managing director at Cushman & Wakefield and former CEO of Burnham Real Estate Services.
“His big joke is, he says he’s going to celebrate his 105th birthday on the moon,” Karras said. “If you look at anything that he is advocating for, there is no personal interest in it. It’s really his belief that it’s the right thing for the community.”
As head of his own company, Burnham was “pretty hands off,” Karras said. “His philosophy was you go get the right people, you give them a vision, and you let them run the company. He would allow us to do that.”
Steve Rosetta, CEO of IQHQ and former managing director of Cushman & Wakefield, said that Burnham “likes to empower people. He’s done that his entire career.”
“Just being around him has been so valuable for me and seeing the impact he’s had, not just on our community, but the individuals within it.”
Burnham’s drive for San Diego and Tijuana to work together on common issues “is an example of his vision.”
“It’s common sense when you think about it. It’s complicated but if you figure it out, it is a common region, an economic engine,” Rosetta said. “That’s him with every project. The projects are going to outlive all of us but make the region better.”
Dan Broderick, Cushman & Wakefield president of the West Region, said that Burnham has left an indelible mark on San Diego.
“Malin is an iconic figure, and I know I speak for many in the community when I say that it’s been a true privilege to have worked with him and see firsthand how hard he works, how big he thinks, how creative he is, and his talents of bringing people together and solving complex problems,” Broderick said.
Norm Miller, a professor and Ernest Hahn Chair in Real Estate at the University of San Diego, said that Burnham inspires students who are a third his age when he speaks to them in class.
“We treasure the guy,” Miller said. “He comes in and he encourages our students to get involved in civic engagement early in their careers, not late in their careers.
“He’s a role model for that.”
Malin Burnham is leaving his downtown office at Cushman & Wakefield for new challenges at the Burnham Center for Community Advancement. Photo courtesy of Malin Burnham.
In a 2018 view, Malin Burnham stands with Woodruff Scholarship recipients and Mark Riedy, Ph.D., executive director emeritus of the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego. Photo courtesy of Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate, University of San Diego.