I thought it was only appropriate that I produce our first Massimo Show episode with our guest Bob Knakal, Chairman of NY Investments for JLL. Bob is one of the top producers in the world! And I’ve known him for several years. When I first met Bob, he was struggling with getting more margin in his life. His goal was simple: Make the same amount of money but in less time. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and daughter. Here’s the story behind Bob Knakal, one of the top producers in the world, and how he found that margin, had more time for his family and made more money along the way. So, welcome to this first episode of The Massimo Show.
Bob Knakal: …Don’t lose sight of that tremendous power that we all have to have free will and to control what we do. And when you think about it from that perspective, it really makes you feel powerful and makes you feel like you can make positive changes in your life. And a great, great thing that we all possess and that we often take for granted.
Rod: That was Bob Knakal, Chairman of New York investments for JLL, one of the world’s largest commercial real estate firms. I thought it was only appropriate that I do our first Massimo Show with our guest Bob Knakal because I’ve known Bob for seven years, and when I first met him, he was one of the top producers in the world. But one thing he was struggling with was to get more margin in his life. His goal, when I met him was simple: All I want to do is make the same amount of money, but find more time, more margin, in my life to spend with my wife and my daughter. So during today’s Masimo Show, we share the story behind Bob Knakal – how one of the top producers in the world found that margin and not only find more time with his family but at the same time, make more money along the way. So welcome to this first episode of the Massimo Show.
Rod: Hi, this is Rod Santomassimo and welcome to the Masimo Show. The objective of the Massimo Show is to share how you can maximize your personal professional margin. That’s right. Let’s make more money in less time, let’s turn chaos into clarity, confusion into confidence and income into real wealth. Along with sharing my insight and how I grew a multimillion dollar professional business, we’re going to bring you the expert advice from a variety of authors, consultants, and thought leaders who provide the tools you need to maximize your own personal and professional margin. Welcome to the Massimo Show.
Rod: Growing up in New Jersey, Bob was an avid baseball player and he admired his older brother Jeff, who was playing for the University of Pennsylvania. Bob also had a knack for numbers and he was attracted to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And in fact, ended up playing baseball for UPenn. Now Bob also wanted to become the next Gordon Gecko, but in a much more ethical sense than the infamous fictional character from the movie Wall Street. So the obvious next step was during his years at Pennsylvania, it was to find an internship at a bank. This turned out to be the first step, an accident by chance, of becoming one of the world’s greatest commercial real estate brokers.
Bob Knakal: Yeah, well, Rod, it’s very interesting. I had absolutely zero intention of getting into the commercial real estate industry. I’ll take you back to 1981. I’m a freshman and I, like almost every other Wharton kid at the time, wants to be the next Gordon Gecko and the next Wall Street guy. So I wanted to get a summer job that would look good on my resume. I grew up in northern New Jersey and drove around over spring break, dropping my resume off at every commercial bank and investment bank that I saw trying to get a summer job. So I was in Hackensack, continental plaza was the name of the office development, and I came out of a Payne Webber office and across the hall I see Coldwell Banker. I go in there and drop my resume off thinking the place is a bank. Later that day they called me to set up an interview for the following day.
Bob Knakal: So again, it’s 1981, so there’s no internet. I go to the library before the interview to look up this bank to find out a little bit about it. And when I discovered that it was a real estate company, I almost didn’t go on the interview. But I did go on the interview and it turns out they were the only ones who were hiring college kids for the summer. I loved the job. Went back my next two summers and then started with CB here in Manhattan when I got out of school in 1984.
Rod: Bob’s commercial real estate career had an audacious start. In fact, within the first two weeks he realized there’s only one person in the office around his age, a kid named Paul Massey. Within the first two weeks, Bob and Paul decided it may be best if they would team up. As it turns out, this is one of the greatest decisions in the history of New York commercial real estate brokerage.
Bob Knakal: Well, again, I didn’t really know what to expect or what to do in the big city. But at the time CB had about 60 brokers that were leasing office space and retail space, and there were only four people in the building sales department. I wanted to sell buildings. So at the time there were three guys that had about 20 years of experience each, and then there was Paul Massey who had just been in a one year training program and had just gotten into sales a couple of weeks before I arrived. I remember the boss saying to me, hey, just follow Massey around, he’ll show you where the coffee machine is, and that kind of thing. It didn’t take Paul and I too long to figure out that the guys with 20 years of experience weren’t going to spend a lot of time with us. So, literally my second day on the job, we were having lunch together and said, hey, why don’t we just work together? We’ll split everything 50/50, and see how it goes. That was the not-so-well-planned-out start to a 33-year partnership that Paul and I had and it was very lucky that it worked out the way it did.
Rod: Once Bob and Paul decided they wanted to start their own company, they figured out that they needed some capital. So they went down to a local bank and asked for a loan or they were quickly informed that they need some experience. They needed some runway before the capital would be provided to them, and this is similar to what Michael Gerber, author of the famous book The E-Myth, would consider an entrepreneurial spasm. What that means is that there are so many folks who because they do something well figure they can do it better than their current employer or, in this case, current broker. So they’re truly technicians and Bob was a technician and Paul was a technician and doing their craft very well. But being a technician doesn’t in fact translate all the time to being a great business owner/business operator. To make things a little more challenging, Bob and Paul decided to start their company shortly after the stock market collapse of October 1987. Coincidentally, around this same time period, I, myself, was in New York City and was working for a consulting company and our client was a European-based stock trader. In fact, I was on their floor in October ’87 when the market crashed. Just to think about anyone considering starting a company during this time was unbelievable. Yet Bob and Paul took the time to save money over two years once the bank told them they needed some runway before they went off on their own.
Bob Knakal: We actually did go off on our own in November of 1988 but in late 1986, we had about two and a half years into the business. We wanted to start Massey-Knakal at that time. I remember in our second year, we were both in our very early twenties. We made $176,000, and I felt like I was the richest guy in New York, so we went down to the bank, which was Chemical Bank at the time, and said to our banker, okay, we want to start a business. We need $500,000. Where do we sign? And of course, the banker chuckled and said, no boys, that’s not the way it works. Go start your business and when you have a three year track record, come back and see us and maybe we’ll give you a credit line or a few dollars. So we were very dejected after that meeting, but then for the next two years, took money off the top of every deal that we did and started saving and by the end of ’88 we were ready to make the move and opened up Massey-Knakal on November 15th of 1988. We had blind optimism at that point in time and, actually, things moved a lot more slowly back then. The stock market crashed in October of 87. 1988 was still a very good year from a real estate perspective, and actually so was 1989. It really wasn’t until 1990 that the effect of the stock market crash started to be felt in the commercial real estate market. And I think that probably, in today’s times with social media and all the technology that exists today, everything moves a lot more quickly. But back then it just didn’t happen as fast. So, the first year and a few months wasn’t so bad. But then in 1990, things got really bad. And I’d say to the folks that have been around through the great recession from 2007 to 2010. that in my opinion, that was really child’s play compared to what transpired in the early nineties during the S&L crisis.
Rod: During the almost three decades of Massey Knakal, the company grew from two people, Bob and Paul, to over 200 before its eventual sale to Cushman and Wakefield. You can just imagine during this time, everything that was going in the markets: 1990, the major recession, the great recession of 2008, and yes, even the tragedy of 9/11. So what did they do? How did they respond, how did they move forward through these cycles and yes, how did they grow their company even in the worst of times?
Bob Knakal: Well, we did start out just the two of us. A few days later our boss’ secretary from CB came over to be our secretary/typist/accounts receivable/accounts payable person, answering the phones and doing everything for us. So it was just the three of us for a while. And then we grew very, very slowly adding maybe one or two people a year. I remember that during 9/11, we had about 21 people. And 9/11 was obviously a devastating time for New York City that was September 11th of 2001. What we saw was that there were a number of companies that were laying off people in anticipation of a slow-down in business. They were highly qualified people that were on the street looking for work. These were brokers and accountants and lawyers and all types of folks, and we decided that we were going to be counter intuitive.
Bob Knakal: That we would hire someone to be our director of HR and go out and hire as many of these people as we could, feeling that the city was up, that it would recover and rebound stronger than ever. And, as I said, we had 21 employees on 9/11 and two years later we had over a hundred. That really was something that gave us a tremendous boost. In fact, 2001 was the first year in which we sold more buildings in New York City than any other firm. So that took us 12 or 13 years to achieve that ranking. But that was really something that we were very proud of, and actually it was very surprising to us when Co-Star came out with their building sales rankings in 2001, we were shocked that we were at the top of the list. But, of course, we were selling a lot of very small buildings, so our dollar volume wasn’t what the big companies had. But you know, we were very proud of that, nonetheless, and we were growing steadily, opening offices in the outer boroughs. We did that before a lot of other folks did. And when we sold the company 26 years and 46 days later, we had about 250 employees and four offices. We were selling about three times the number of properties as the number two firm in the city was. So, it was a great run and we had a lot of fun. We made a tremendous amount of mistakes but didn’t make a lot of those mistakes more than once. But it was a great run.
Rod: Despite all the obstacles, tragedies to hit New York and the commercial real estate market over the tenure of Massey-Knakal, they turned out to be the top selling brokerage firm in the biggest market in the world. That’s right. They were selling more buildings and CBRE and JLL. In fact, at the end of Massey-Knakal, they were selling three times as many buildings as the next three competitors combined. I ask you: what is your approach when the market starts to turn, when tragedy hits? Are you like that bear that collects as much as they can and goes out and hibernates until things get better? Or are you head on? Face it. Move forward. Your ability to move forward in any challenge that happens or market cycle, tragedy, wherever it might be will differentiate you from the average producer. When the markets are down, its a great time to market, differentiate yourself, tell folks you are still there and you can provide solutions. When the market’s up, absolutely you need to out-market the rest of your competition. Outwork the rest of your competition. This high work ethic is what separated Bob Knakal and Massey-Knakal from the rest. Their push forward, their continual marketing to continue growing, their hiring of talent when everyone else was firing. Think about this approach to your approach in your practice. What is your plan to continue to grow? What is your plan to continue to become more valuable to your clients even when the market turns? When we come back from break, Bob will share with us key traits he looked for when growing his team, some big mistakes he made and lessons along the way. And yes, why after all these years and the sale of over a hundred million dollars of his company to Cushman Wakefield. What keeps him moving forward? What keeps them passionate alive, and what’s next for Bob Knakal?
Rod: Hi, this is Rod Santomassimo, president and founder of the Massimo Group. And did you know that for over the past 11 plus years, we’ve worked with thousands of independent contractors, solopreneurs and small business owners just like you and repositioning their and/or their team’s efforts so they can build the personal professional practice they’ve always dreamed of? We provide coaching programs for all levels of experience, earnings and yes, success. So if you’re finally ready to get off that transaction treadmill and chasing deals that are growing nowhere and start building the personal professional business and life consisting of greater wealth and more time, check us out at massimo.coach.
Rod: Bob admits they made many mistakes along the way, but their ability to understand those mistakes, learn from those mistakes and not repeat those mistakes is what allowed them to grow along the way. One key thing Bob does share was that he recognized he wasn’t very good at delegating. So with that, in fact, he had to find key people to help him do what he does best. In his case, those two key people where Erin Mitchell, his personal assistant, and Jon Hageman, or “Hags,” his right-hand man and the COO of his company.
Bob Knakal: Oh gosh, Rod, there were so many. I think among them were not calling on older people or more experienced people in the business who we were friendly with to ask for advice. I think we could have avoided making hundreds of the mistakes that we made had we simply asked people who had been there and done that, and probably would have been willing to help. In the later years of the company, we formed an advisory board with some of the most prominent people in New York real estate that were extraordinarily helpful to us in guiding the company. We also didn’t delegate responsibility to others soon enough. Paul and I used to do everything and when we started delegating, we were really able to leverage our time a lot more. So many things that we could have done differently had we known what best practices were.
Rod: So let’s talk about delegation a little bit. Tell me about the role of Erin, what role she plays and what traits does she possess that makes her ideal for that position?
Bob Knakal: Yeah. Well, Erin Mitchell is one of my personal assistants. She basically does everything for me from answering the phones, doing administrative work around the office to making dinner reservations, travel plans, picking up my shirts, going to the drug store. Essentially, the reason that she does what she does is that we figured out that everybody on our team should be spending as much time as possible doing the tasks that they do the best. And so the things that I tried to spend most of my time working on are developing client relationships, making phone calls to find people who want to sell, pitching business and then working on the final negotiations of the execution of that business. And so there are dozens of other things that need to get done every day. I don’t need to be the one doing those things. So what Erin does for me is she allows me the ability to leverage my time as much as possible so that I’m doing the things that are most valuable to my clients and to the production of the team.
Rod: Now how about Hags? How did he become part of your team and did he evolve into the role he is today? And what role is that? Tell us a little about Hags.
Bob Knakal: Yeah. Well Hags is my right-hand, man. He’s been my partner for 15 years. We now have a team of 14 people that work directly on my transactions. When Hags started, we were a smaller team – we were only five people and Hags started out as a transactional associate helping me with day-to-day tasks on the different listings that we were working on. As the team grew, it became apparent that I needed somebody to manage all those folks because again, I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the phone or meeting with clients or negotiating sales, and I needed somebody to administrate this growing team. And so Hags has done a wonderful job making sure that the team is operating efficiently and he also has turned into a great business originator. I’ve been doing this for a long time and have 35 years under my belt so I have relationships with a lot of the dads who are our clients and Hags is doing a great job developing relationships with the next generation of those families. So it’s worked out really well. And I couldn’t imagine having the success that we’ve been able to have without him. He really has become invaluable member of the team.
Rod: So you retain a position like Bob has and you’re now a top producer in the biggest market in the world, what keeps you going? What are the key factors that allowed you to retain that position? So I asked Bob to give me no more than three attributes that allow him to be him.
Bob Knakal: Oh Gosh. If I had to narrow it down to three things, I would say that I think my competitive nature has served me well. As I mentioned, I played team sports growing up and that’s a characteristic that we always look for in people that we brought on either playing team sports or doing something that was very competitive but required teamwork. I think that competitive nature is something that is a good characteristic to have to succeed in this business. Secondly, I think you have to work really hard and I’ve always been driven to want to work hard. I grew up relatively modestly and for some reason I always wanted financial success. So that really trained me to work hard and we used to joke around at Massey-Knakal all the time that if you wanted to succeed at our company, you only have to work half a day. And we didn’t care whether it was the first 12 hours of the day or the last 12 hours of the day or any 12 hours of the day, but you had to work 12 hours a day and that’s been my work ethic for most of my career. And thirdly, I’ll say this not because I’m on your podcast, Rod, but coaching has really helped bring me to the next level. It’s very easy in our industry and in our business, particularly for a broker to not be as disciplined as we could be and not take the time to work on your business as well as working in your business. We get so caught up in working in our business all the time that it’s easy to not take a step back and figure out what you have to do to work on your business, to be proactive about where you want to get to – to get where you’re going intentionally instead of accidentally. Coaching really gives me the discipline to make sure I work on the business as much as I need to and keeps me focused on doing the things I need to do to get where I want to end up.
Rod: Well, you mentioned coaching but more specifically, when you invested in coaching, it was really a personal decision to have more margin in your life. And margin is a key term here because margin means two things. It means, firstly, financial margin but also personal margin and I know that’s what you were trying to achieve. When you sold Massey-Knakal, all the papers reported that you sold the company, you and your partners, for roughly $100 million. Now it’s still one would believe that it would tell us that you have plenty of margin financially and enough to afford personal margin. So do you have more margin now? And even if you do, then why do you continue to work as hard as you do?
Bob Knakal: A couple of comments on that. Firstly, when we started working together was prior to us selling the company. So when we started in 2012, before I sold the company, the main objective in initially wanting to work with the Massimo Group was that I wanted to work less but make the same money. And what ended up happening was that working with you and focusing on the fundamentals and the bread and butter things that need to be done in our business actually rekindled my passion for the business. Not that I lacked the passion, but in some ways you become complacent, but working with you and going over all those blocking and tackling techniques and the things they should be focused on absolutely rekindled my passion for the business. It put me in a position where I proactively made more time to spend with my family, which was important to me, but actually more time working also. It’s just been a very transformative thing for me. I think to a large degree, I was very curious after we sold the business to see how I would react and what my habits would be like.
Bob Knakal: My day to day approach is almost identical to what it was before the sale. I think that people are who they are. I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t really know anything else. If I couldn’t sell buildings, I don’t know what I would do with my life because it’s all I’ve ever done. But I think that human nature is that you do what you feel very comfortable with and you get into that comfort zone and it just becomes habitual. And that’s what it has been for me. So I don’t think that other than proactively making an effort to definitively spend more time with my family, which is my number one priority, my wife and my daughter, my work habits haven’t changed. And in fact, I, I’m more pumped up about what I do every day more than ever. And, I think that’s just because people are who they are and don’t really change. And I think that if you look at people who hit the lottery and then they quit the next day, they probably never liked their job to begin with. I love this job and couldn’t think of doing anything else.
Rod: One of the very first things Bob told me when I met him some seven plus years ago was, “We’re not in the commercial real estate business, Rod. We’re in the information business.” I really didn’t understand what he meant when he first told me, but now I get it. In fact, over the last seven years, I’ve seen how Bob leverages information, bends information not only to secure more listings, but also to put himself apart from his competition, and really show everyone else why he’s a market thought leader. So I asked Bob to expand upon the idea that we’re in the information business and not the commercial real estate business.
Bob Knakal: I think that so many people in the real estate industry think that real estate is our business, but it’s really not. The bricks and mortar are simply the things that the information we deal with on a daily basis revolves around, but really what we’re selling is our knowledge and our understanding of information. Information, I know, has a negative connotation. A better word is intelligence, like market intelligence and understanding what’s what. Being able to, in a very comprehensive way, articulate to someone why a 300,000 square foot building on the north side of the street that looks exactly like the 100,000 square foot on the south side of the street has a very different value, is part of what separates one professional from another. And I think understanding the numbers, understanding how to articulate what’s happening in the market place with statistics as opposed to adjectives is very important. And an understanding of those numbers puts you in a position to be a better advocate for your clients, to do a better job for your client. And ultimately, that’s what we’re in the business of doing is helping our clients achieve their goals.
Rod: Although Bob Knakal may be one of the more talented brokers I’ve ever met and had the pleasure to work with, he’s also probably the best known. So I asked Bob, how do you build your personal brand? How do you get known? What are you doing to leverage Bob Knakal a personal brand so when the name is mentioned in New York or in California, people recognize you as the thought leader and advisor in commercial real estate?
Bob Knakal: Well, I think that a lot of it revolves around the way you want to position yourself in the market. I’ve always been a student of the business and I think a lot of it gets back to my affinity for numbers and statistics and while we’re getting back to baseball again, as a kid growing up, my brother always kept stats for me, for my little league games of innings pitched and balls and strikes and walks and strike outs and hits given up, and ERA and all that stuff, and I studied those numbers maniacally when I was a kid even through high school and college – I just love numbers. So, part of what I wanted my brand to be was to demonstrate the people that I really understood the market, and the magnitude of shifts in the market, trying to be predictive about when those shifts were coming. Being a thought leader I think is something that puts you in a position where people may look at you a little differently then they look at a typical broker or service provider. I think everyone wants to be a social media star, and have a big following but in order to do that, you need to create content. And content is probably the number one thing, content creation and being a thought leader, and so, I tried to write a lot of articles, I do a video series. I write letters and white paper pieces for my clients just trying to share with them the insights that I have regarding the marketplace and with respect to that type of content creation, if you’re doing it consistently, then it develops a rhythm and people will start to perceive you a certain way. What a brand is, it’s really just the embodiment of how people perceive you in the marketplace. How do you perceive Kleenex and how have you perceived Tide and these different products? All of the advertising and commercials and everything that these companies do to build their brand, it all revolves around creating the perception that the company wants you to have about their product. And in our business, we as individuals are the product so you want to not only have an individual brand, it’s nice if you have a company brand that’s recognizable.
Bob Knakal: I’ve seen brokers that are at relatively weak company brands that still have been able to create very strong brands for themselves and differentiate themselves from the pack. And that’s really what the branding mechanism is all about is that you want to differentiate yourself from the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people who are trying to do exactly what you’re doing and that differentiation helps you create a competitive advantage.
Rod: So I was curious, what would Bob Knakal tell a young Bob Knakal? Think about that. Go back 30 plus years and ask yourself or tell yourself what would you do differently? Knowing what you know today, knowing the challenges you face, the market cycles and yes, even the traumatic events of New York City with 9/11, what would you tell that young Bob Knakal to make sure he was prepared as best he could be to be successful, in fact maybe to achieve the level of success that you have as of today?
Bob Knakal: Oh Gosh. I would say make sure that what you’re going to choose as a career is something you really love, because one of the key ingredients – we talked about different things, working hard and being competitive and having the discipline to be coached, etc., are important, but all of the people that I know that I’ve met and work with in this business, over the decades I’ve been doing this, the one constant thing that they all have when they’re at the top of the game – is they are extraordinarily passionate about what they do. They absolutely love it. And you need that because this business is not easy. To succeed you have to be able to have intestinal fortitude and get through the tough time. And if you think about it, you mentioned that the New York City marketplace is so competitive and robust but even here in an average year, only 2.6% of the total stock of buildings turns over.
Bob Knakal: And if you make the assumption that half the properties that go on the market actually trade, that means that only one out of 20 buildings, are on the market at any one time. So if you’re making cold calls, 19 out of 20 people that you speak to are not going to have anything for you. To make it through just the probability of success in this business, you have to really love it. So I would go back and tell young Bob and any other young person that’s trying to find their way in the world, expose yourself to as many things as you can. Find something that you’re truly passionate about. And even if you are really passionate about real estate, there are so many different things that you can do in real estate. Even if somebody says they want to just be a real estate broker, okay, well what does that mean?
Bob Knakal: Do you want to sell buildings? Do you want lease stores? Do you want to lease office space? Do you want to be a mortgage broker? Do you want to be a residential broker, an apartment broker? There are so many different aspects of the business. Taking the time to figure out what you are really, really passionate about will increase the probability of great success for you. If you can find a job that you love, you won’t feel like you’re working and it will allow you to get through the tough times that, inevitably, we all go through.
Rod: I gave Bob an open question. Anything else you wanted to share with the audience in regards to how to move forward, how to grow your business or whatever you have in mind. Bob really knows it’s all about personal improvement and personal development and yes, investing in yourself because let’s face it, you are your greatest asset.
Bob Knakal: Well, I think one of the things that I think is very important, too, is to be a voracious reader, to read a lot, read as much as you can. If you have a commute, read on your commute. If you don’t have much of a commute, and six times of the week where you can get some reading done, but read about what’s happening in the industry, in your market, read all the trade publications and everything else. But in addition to that, I love to read books on selling, on psychology, on persuasion, on why people do what they do. And there are so many great books that you can learn so much from in right in terms of how to go about your day to day business. And if you think about it, the difference between folks who succeed and folks who don’t succeed, or are mediocre, is really your ability to flip the switch inside your client’s head, to get a yes when you want a yes or a no when you want to know. And being able to flip that switch is dependent upon so many different factors. So I think the more you understand about human behavior, about relationships, about psychology, about selling, about persuasion, all of those things will help make you more effective. And there’s always room for self-improvement. Everybody can get better regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, whether you just started last week or you’ve been around for 50 years, there are things that you can do better and work on to improve yourself and get better.
Bob Knakal: And another quality that I see very common in folks who are constantly outperforming the market is they’re always working on making themselves better in one way or another. And that’s one of the great things that human beings have that animals don’t. And that’s freewill. So you can make a decision right now at this very moment to change anything you want in your life. And you could decide you want to be a better husband, a better wife, a better father, a better son, a better friend. You could decide you’re going to go to the gym more regularly or lose weight or eat healthier or go to church more or read more – anything. You have the ability at this very moment to can change anything about your life. And if he want it badly enough and you understand the benefits of making the change that you want to and don’t lose sight of that tremendous power that we all have to have free will and control what we do. When you think about it from that perspective, it really makes you feel powerful and makes you feel like you can make positive changes in your life. And it’s a great, great thing that we all possess and that we often take for granted.
Rod: I want to thank you for listening to this version of the Massimo Show and please, please go out and share this with your friends, your colleagues, share with your dog, just share it. And more importantly, just give me some feedback – good, bad or indifferent. We all grow from understanding what our audience wants to hear. So until next time, this is Rod Santomassimo with the Massimo Show.
Rod: Hi, this is Rod Santomassimo. And for those of you out there who are in the commercial real estate space, please be sure to check out our next live event, which is focused on you getting ready for next year and building your own personal playbook, putting you in the best position to make the most in your commissions. That information can be found at www.creready2020.com. See you there.
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