Commercial real estate is widely known as a “people” business; but what exactly does that mean? And what are SIOR leaders doing to ensure they put people first? “I believe a genuine desire to help people will lead to so much success in the CRE industry,” says Landon Williams, SIOR, senior vice president capital markets, Cushman & Wakefield, in Memphis, Tenn. “CRE is no different than life—it’s truly about the people, and how we interact with others.” What goes around comes around, Williams believes, urging that we apply the “Good old-fashioned Golden Rule.”
Bjarne Bauer, SIOR, managing partner, commercial real estate transactions, with NAI Sofia Group Shanghai, totally agrees. “Putting people first is absolutely vital,” he asserts. “As a service provider we don’t have a physical product, we don’t have patented processes, etc., and it is rightly understood that our people are both our sales force and our product.” There is an intense competition for talent in the CRE market, he adds, “And in order to win, we need to attract and retain the best people. I believe they stay where they feel heard, feel valued, and sense that they can grow and develop.”
“One of the biggest takeaways that the COVID pandemic has shown me is that the need for people in this industry is very much real,” notes Street Jones, SIOR, principal, vice president, RCR | Rich Commercial Realty in Raleigh, N.C. “People are a key component in transactions that I don’t think can ever be replaced [by technology]. By the same token, people have to be together for ideas to flow.”
“I have a ‘service first’ philosophy,” adds Paul Kluck, SIOR, first vice president, CBRE/Advisory & Transaction Services Industrial & Logistics, in Denver. “My mantra is I’m here to give you good real estate advice; regardless of what the outcome of the transaction is, I’m here to tell you what you need to know, as long as it’s best for you and your company.” Often, he notes, that can mean pointing out a bad deal that should be avoided, resulting in no commission, and he’s fine with that. “If you give good real estate advice, you have customers for life and the money will come,” he says. “Most brokers will say, ‘Let’s get this deal done’ and move on; that’s not me.”
In addition, he continues, his company has a “RISE” code of ethics—Respect, Integrity, Service, and Excellence. “That’s not just lip service,” he asserts. “This is something that is incorporated from the top down into how we manage and service customers.”
Perhaps few SIORs have been as close to the personal impact of real estate as Orlando-based Matt Messier, SIOR, principal at Foundry Commercial, who has focused his career primarily on the niche of not-for-profit, religious, and educational properties. “If there was ever a year when putting people first was critical, that year was 2020,” he says. “From food drives to serving as mass vaccination sites, church buildings have risen to the occasion.”
Slogans alone, notes Williams, will not lead to success; you’ve got to put your beliefs into action—or the client will notice. “In my opinion, most times a client or prospective client will be able to see through to your heart’s desire,” he says. “If you’re only in it to get a deal or make a fee, you may have success over a short period of time, but if you go into every deal thinking ‘this is a relationship,’ that they have a challenge and we’re helping to find a solution—which we’re well suited to do—that’s a much more fulfilling way to do it.”
Williams says this holds true in any business relationship, “not only with clients, but with co-workers—whether they’re a partner or the marketing team or a property manager—or an attorney, a CPA, whatever. Any time we can try to figure out how to help them, to work with them collaboratively, one plus one equals much more than two over the long term.”
He recalls a situation where a company had been recognized in the media as small but growing. “I reached out to them to congratulate them—and that was it, a short e-mail saying, ‘If you ever need help, let me know,’” he shares. “We ended up buying a large industrial building for them, selling a smaller one, and we now have a valued friendship with repeat business ongoing. It has become what I consider to be a good friendship.”
The importance of putting people first, he adds, was never clearer than during the past year or so. “During the pandemic, especially since I’m focused on capital investment, we went through a period of lull in the market,” he says. “During that time our everyday process would be to just call investors, and say, ‘Hey, we just wanted to tell you about some information we’re getting from other sources that we hope is helpful for you as you make decisions, and to let you know that we’re here for you.’ There were no immediate deals or plays we could help them with, just passing along information we gathered. Time will tell, but we think folks will remember you were there for them during tough times.”
“So often, when people are feeling overwhelmed or are in a period of turmoil, they turn to their faith, so it was especially challenging for churches to have to temporarily close their buildings to help flatten the curve and move so much of how they serve the community to a virtual format,” adds Messier. “However, there are some needs churches fulfill that could not be managed virtually, such as serving as a location to drop-off and pick-up supplies and food donations.”
Added into an already stressful time, he continues, was the reality for many families that jobs were being lost or people were being furloughed, launching many people into positions where they didn’t know exactly how they could provide food and necessities for their families. “Many churches, and the people who make up their congregations, stepped up to meet those needs,” says Messier. “As time wore on during the pandemic, churches also began to serve as sites for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, offering a local place where people could feel comfortable coming to receive their first and second doses.”
The physical layout of these facilities also lent itself to these types of activities, he points out. “Most religious properties have ample parking and space to accommodate socially-distanced, safe gatherings,” notes Messier. “Many also have the staff and volunteer base to organize and mobilize efforts like vaccine distribution and food donation drop-off and pick-up efforts.” Many religious properties, he adds, are also uniquely suited to serve hyper-local communities, especially in rural locations where it may be more difficult to get these services to harder-to-reach populations.
Bauer shares some ways in which his company reaches out to its employees, in order to better understand what makes them happy. “Once a year we undertake an anonymous survey where people are asked to list things that benefit one’s work happiness,” he shares. “This is followed by a second survey, where everyone is invited to rank those parameters in importance, as well as to give scores indicating in which areas the company is already doing well and where we need to improve.”
The survey, says Bauer, has shown some interesting results. For example, at the top of the list for most people are issues such as:
“Items like having a massage chair and free fruit are certainly welcome, but they are way down on the list of priorities on what makes for people’s work happiness,” says Bauer. “It is also interesting to note how important it is for staff to know what the company’s strategy and future plans are, and how important it is for team members to feel aligned and having bought in into the company’s mid- and long-term goals.”
This is not just a “feel-good” exercise, he explains. “Having a stable team with duration far above market average is a strong competitive advantage,” Bauer asserts. “As long as our team members stay onboard, our clients tend to do so, too.” Similarly, he says, the amount of expertise, trust, and teamwork among team members will increase over time. “This leads to better results for clients, more fun for consultants and brokers, and ultimately to a better situation for everyone involved,” says Bauer.
Several times, he recalls, people in the company have felt it was time for them to quit or pause their work because of family matters. “People have spouses, children, parents, etc., and often a lot of responsibilities which come on top of a fast-paced work environment,” he notes. Almost always, he shares, the company was able to find ways to keep people onboard by showing flexibility in regard to working hours, hiring additional supporting staff, offering extended paid or unpaid holiday, etc.
“In one case, however, we had to accept that a person was leaving and moving into another industry,” he continues. “While feeling disappointed, we made it a point to treat her as well as we could, possibly beyond what is typical market practice. That person has since introduced several clients to us and keeps telling the market that we are the best company out there.”
Another area where the company practices "people first" is to back-up team members when clients or suppliers act unreasonably. “It is tempting to say, ‘the client is always right’ and ‘business is business,’ but in the long-term, both business success and life happiness depend on values such as trust, integrity, reliability, etc.,” says Bauer. “So, we’d rather skip a deal if a buyer or seller acts in an unethical manner and focus on winning and retaining business from people and companies that display good values.”
Kluck accomplishes similar benefits through employee coaching. “I am in the twilight of my career; I’ve got my number in the bank and I’m not worried about getting deals done,” he shares. “My goals revolve around coaching, mentoring, and training.”
On Fridays, he works with 35 employees from all areas of the business—research, graphics, marketing. “I can’t name the number of young brokers I’ve mentored or coached,” he says. “A lot of times they’re not on my team, but they just need the help.”
The bottom line, says Jones, is that the end of the pandemic will enable all of these efforts to be optimized. “Our firm has looked into the mirror and the reality is this: we needed to be together in an office environment,” he shares. “We undoubtedly missed opportunities when we were apart. As convenient as it was working from home, we, like so many other types of business, lacked collaboration. More frequent dialogues with colleagues lead to different perspectives, approaches, and ideas, and the frequency of that dialogue was lacking when we were apart.”
Brainstorming, he continues, leads to creating off-market transactions that can be better deals for the parties involved. “These deals are transactions that would not have been made without human dialogue and in-depth understanding of not only the market, but the users and businesses that operate in that market,” he asserts. “We work through extremely complicated scenarios to help problem solve for our clients—scenarios that I think are irreplaceable by technology.”
Based on their experiences in real estate, what do SIORs consider to be the “best practices” when it comes to putting people first? “Keep asking open questions and don’t stop until you receive honest feedback—even when that feedback tends to be hurtful,” Bauer advises. “People are not used to sharing criticism, especially towards their firm’s leadership. But once people speak their mind the firm gets clues on what to change in its decision-making process, what to change regarding the way decisions are communicated, and how to provide team members with those resources that are needed the most.”
"The future is people"
“With employees, the toughest part is focusing on their needs, not my needs,” says Kluck. “When coaching or mentoring, extract what they need from me.”
With clients, some of the same lessons apply. “The hardest thing is not to focus on my expertise or my knowledge; understand my customers’ needs,” he shares. “That was pretty clear during COVID. A lot of times I’d call and ask ‘How are you doing? Have you gotten your PPP? Is there anything I can do to help you ameliorate the real estate impact?’”
“What goes around, comes around,” adds Williams. “When we collaborate with teammates, our team always tries to help those who we partner with. We would be their resources within the organization and felt that was reciprocated when we needed them as resources. Before, during, and after COVID, that truth remains.”
The future, adds Messier, may mean different things to different people. “For some, that means a return to the physical location of their church. For others, who became quite comfortable with the virtual format—or who still have reasons to remain cautious at home—there is an opportunity for churches to continue to engage people in a virtual format,” he says. “I’m not sure we’ll ever see things go back to how they were before the pandemic; the churches that adapted to serving their communities and meeting their members’ needs during the pandemic—however that looked for their own location or congregation—are going to be the ones that come out of this stronger.”
For Street, the future is even more clear and succinct: “The future,” he says, “is people.”
This article was sponsored by the SIOR Foundation - Promoting and sponsoring initiatives that educate, enhance, and expand the commercial real estate community. The SIOR Foundation is a 501(c)(3) not-forprofit organization. All contributions are tax deductible to the extent of the law.
Bjarne Bauer, SIOR
Street Jones, SIOR
Paul Kluck, SIOR
Matt Messier, SIOR
Landon Williams, SIOR