Writing The Next Chapter

July 6, 2016

Millennials may have earned a reputation for changing jobs often, but seasoned CRE professionals, too, are making career moves, albeit on a more strategic level

Millennials are known for frequent shifts from one job to another. A recent LinkedIn study found that members of this generation have, on average, changed employers—and, often, industries—four times during their first decade out of college. That’s a faster pace of change than Generation X managed during the same life stage, let alone Baby Boomers, and the pace is increasing among more recent college graduates. However, within commercial real estate it’s not only professionals in the early stages of their careers that choose not to stay in the same place for the long term. Their more seasoned counterparts do the same, even if it entails climbing out of a comfortable berth and into something less familiar.

“There are personal and professional considerations that influence an industry veteran to be attracted to a new position, and each person is unique in what he or she is searching for,” Jana Turner, principal with Newport Beach, CA-based recruiting firm RETS Associates, tells Real Estate Forum. “One of the top considerations is culture. People wantto be part of a culture that is complementary to where they are in life.”

Another key consideration for many industry veterans is family and quality of life. “Whether it’s important to be near kids, parents or other relatives, many employees are considering the needs of the family when looking to move positions or accepting new ones, says Turner. “In a recent proprietary study, we discovered that 60% of real estate employees have considered relocating to new cities across the west. The survey found that quality of life and accessibility to outdoor activities were among the top drivers” leading employees to consider relocating.

Separately, Turner adds, “professional factors greatly drive a seasoned employee’s decision to seek or accept a new job.” In the same RETS study, “a defined career path was the number-one consideration when looking to relocate.” Other common factors driving an industry veteran’s decision to seek a new position include “exhausted growth opportunities with a current company, changes in compensation components and/or packages and company reorganizations,” says Turner. The veteran may find that such a reorganization takes the form of a merger, an initial public offering “or a change in leadership or management that causes concerns that misalign with his or her desired career path. Depending on personal preferences, people may enjoy a nimble, entrepreneurial company with more opportunity or an employee may prefer to be in a structured, large company with defined roles.”

When Barry Polen, a finance veteran with nearly three decades’ experience, joined Hunt Mortgage Group this past November, “it was to move from a bigger shop to a smaller shop,” he tells Forum. “I think it’s natural to want to get out of a bigger organization where you’re kind of a cog in the wheel and part of the chain, as opposed to a smaller place that’s more entrepreneurial, where the experience you gained in larger organizations can be put to use” and the ability to influence the outcome is greater.

Before joining Hunt Mortgage as a managing director, capital markets in its New York City office, Polen served as managing director with Guggenheim Securities and before that headed the CMBS capital markets desk at Credit Suisse. Often in the financial services sector, he says, “you come to the job on the ‘sell’ side and it’s a daily sprint. You’re trying to get a lot of things done, but there isn’t a lot of thought process on the longer-term ramifications of what you’re doing. You’re buying something with the idea that you’r going to be selling it in a very short period of time.”

By contrast, “in a ‘buy’ organization like Hunt, there’s more use of your brain power” to determine how a particular transaction “achieves value for us in a long-term hold.”

In common with another industry veteran who took a senior role with a major services firm earlier this year—Mitchell LaBar, now COO at Marcus & Millichap—Jim Underhill came to his current position via a consultancy. For both men, their current posts represent a return to the fold: LaBar rejoined M&M, for which he’d worked for 24 years beginning in 1984, while Underhill’s position as CEO of Cresa entailed returning to the tenant-rep sector. He’d founded and led the Staubach Co.’s Northeast division before the Staubach organization was sold to JLL in 2008.

In the interim, Underhill served as Americas CEO at Cushman & Wakefield. “After I left Cushman at the end of 2014, I wasn’t necessarily looking to get back into this type of role,” he told GlobeSt.com, sister organization to Forum, earlier this year. “But I’ve had a lot of respect for the Cresa organization,” and he knew some of the partners and leaders in the firm’s Washington, DC operations. “They asked if I’d be interested in an advisory post, knowing that I came with a good perspective on the industry and had roots in tenant rep.”

Cresa’s invitation was motivated in part by the company’s interest in developing a strategic plan, on grounds that it was “an important time for them to take advantage of the fact that they had built what today is the largest tenant rep firm in the world but with a lot of growth potential.”

While serving on Cresa’s board as a strategic advisor, Underhill got to know the firm better “and found that there were things I just loved about it. Part of it is the culture, which is very different from where I was. It’s a 100% employee-owned company that didn’t have outside shareholders or private equity that was driving us to do things. Everybody sitting around the table had a significant ownership stake in what we’re trying to do.

“I also loved the focus that the firm had,” he continued. “Today, everybody is trying to be the biggest firm in the world, and I think it’s really hard for them to differentiate themselves. I’ve been in that role. But I came here and had meetings with clients; they loved the fact that Cresa was focused on doing one thing and doing it very well.”

Miami-based Blanca Commercial Real Estate today is among the most successful independent brokerages in the Southeast, but founder and CEO Tere Blanca’s 2009 departure from her position as head of Cushman & Wakefield’s South Florida region was seen as a risky move in the middle of the country’s worst recession in decades. “The biggest driver for me was missing the closer interaction with clients,” Blanca tells Forum.

Prior to joining Cushman & Wakefield, Blanca spent 14 years with Codina Real Estate/ONCOR International, where she was consistently among the firm’s top producers. The interaction, she says, “fueled my creative abilities in terms of helping clients succeed. I really wanted to get back to that side of the business, as opposed to playing only a managerial leadership role.” She opted to make this return by launching her own firm, rather than taking a job elsewhere. “I enjoy the freedom and decision-making and the ability to be very proactive about how we approach the business.”

Although Blanca CRE was launched amid the downturn, Turner cites reasons why career moves are more likely to occur in an upcycle. “Most prominently, when there is more money in the industry due to a healthy economy, more job opportunities are created,” she says. “More opportunities in turn create an increase in competition for top talent that leads to a ‘talent war,’ similar to the one that we are currently experiencing.”

As demand for top talent increases and supply decreases, companies compete by offering “more growth opportunities, appealing office cultures and increases in compensation packages,” adds Turner. “In this type of environment, the candidate is most often in control and has the ability to ‘job hop’ every few years as more job opportunities arise.”

Naturally, growth within organizations can create more such opportunities, yet Underhill states, “Smaller firms are always trying to get bigger, but with a bigger firm come a lot of challenges and complications. One of the biggest is that at some point you grow to a size when you’re overcrowded and you’re too big. That’s one of the issues driving all the musical chairs in the industry—it’s not just money being thrown at people. Rising stars in particular want to see career progression, growth opportunities and a chance to be a significant person in the organization.”

Rising stars could learn a fair amount from the “veterans” on making smart career-change decisions, Turner and others agree. The key, Turner says, is to do one’s due diligence. “Younger industry professionals need to step back from the appeal of more money and assess the company and opportunity as a whole. This assessment includes understanding the capitalization of the firm, the culture, its industry specialization, people and management and more. We advise talent of all ages that the ‘grass isn’t always greener on the other side’ and continue to stress the importance of doing your homework and understanding all the components” of the assessment, in particular the company’s growth plans.

In terms of knowing when it’s time to consider finding other opportunities, Blanca counsels that regardless of whether it’s earlier or later in one’s career, “The impression that you make coming into a role, how you play that role and then how you exit that role are really critical. It’s important to understand that in our business, as in many other businesses, the relationships that you build early in your career are always there for you as you progress and people move around. So you always want to do the right thing.”

She notes that “there’s this eagerness for immediate results” among the current younger generation of professionals. “In an industry like ours, the advisory world of commercial real estate, it takes time to build your career. It takes a number of years for you to become an expert. Some patience is important to allow yourself the opportunity to learn and grow.”

Polen takes a fairly dim view of job-hopping, citing his own career trajectory—three employers since college—as an example. “When you change jobs, almost by definition you’re going to get an increase in pay, but it’s a short-term gain for a long-term loss,” he says. “When you make inroads into an organization and you’re well liked, you could go elsewhere and maybe get a 10% pay raise, but the relationships that you build internally are very valuable. People shouldn’t take lightly the fact that when you go to a new place, you have to establish yourself all over again.”

That being said, the new organization can benefit from filling a vacancy with an outside hire, even one who was strongly identified with another brand. “In addition to transferable skills, a new employee brings a fresh set of eyes, ideas and experiences that can potentially shape a new way to do business and attract new clients and employees,” Turner says. “It is important for the hiring company to understand what they have, what they don’t have and what they’re looking for in a candidate to best understand the key attributes that they require to achieve their business goals.”

A 2015 report from executive search firm Korn/Ferry similarly makes the point that a fresh perspective from an outside candidate can be beneficial. “When it comes to driving execution for businesses, it turns out that a deep knowledge of the lay of the land—in this case, the relevant industry—is vitally important,” the report states.

Data from Korn Ferry’s CEO Readiness Assessment indicate that “executives with longer tenures in the same industry are more likely to be skilled at driving execution compared with those who have jumped between industries. At the same time, it helps to have changed companies within that industry too.”