For the past few years, Grubb & Ellis has been buffeted by its fair share of corporate turbulence. No fewer than three CEOs have occupied the company’s corner office since 2001. At the same time, the stock price of Grubb & Ellis (NYSE:GBE) hit a 52-week low of 81 cents per share on Nov. 13 before rising to $1.03 on Nov. 19.
Despite the unsettledness, the company has managed to attract a cadre of fresh talent that continues to shake up the organization as it tries to find its place in an increasingly competitive real estate services world.
Jack Van Berkel joined Grubb & Ellis in August 2007 to assist in its merger with NNN Realty Advisors after serving for four years as the senior vice president of human resources at CB Richard Ellis. Van Berkel, whose official title is executive vice president and COO, brings with him more than 20 years of experience from outside the commercial real estate industry, including roles in human resources, operations and sales with First Data Corp., Gateway Corp., and Western Digital.
In early November, Van Berkel made his presence felt by firing 100 of the company’s lowest-producing brokers, but insisted it was anything but a cost-cutting exercise.
NREI caught up with Van Berkel to find out more about how the changes he has initiated at Grubb & Ellis could make the firm increasingly relevant in the future.
NREI: The new Grubb & Ellis forecast for 2009 calls for increasing vacancies through the first part of next year. How will that affect your brokerage business?
Van Berkel: Let’s hope it’s a year of two halves because we know how 2009 is going to get started. What we’re hoping for in the second half is an increase in investment-related deals. A lot of it depends on the job market. We’re hoping there is some stability in the job market and that unemployment doesn’t go too high. We still see some velocity in the market with companies still doing leasing deals.
In the second half of the year, we’re hoping for some upside investment in the marketplace and people doing deals. Obviously there are companies with leases still coming up, and we’re actually seeing almost no decrease right now in leasing-related deals. We’re fairly optimistic we are going to see pretty much the same thing heading into 2009 and some acceleration in the back half.
NREI: How are you preparing for the increased volume of sublease space that will hit the market next year?
Van Berkel: The best thing to do is look for opportunities for your customers. If you’re a tenant and you’re looking for space today, it’s a great time to be in the marketplace. Corporations also will be looking to save money in 2009. That is an absolute certainty. For us the best opportunity is to find those cost savings.
NREI: Your brokerage services include agency, landlord and tenant representation. Do you expect any one of those business segments to be more significant than the others?
Van Berkel: It’s hard to know at this point. We’re reviewing all of our data here in the fourth quarter, and we’re trying to make some projections about where we want to put our money and resources in 2009. We know certain geographic areas of the market are going to be down. We’re still looking for some upside in some of the growing areas of the country where we think there is upside.
NREI: Are you thinking about opening new domestic offices in markets where you don’t have a presence?
Van Berkel: We’re looking to maximize productivity with the existing brokerage workforce. We employ approximately 800 brokers, and we’ll probably be at about 800 by the end of 2009. We’re looking to grow at least 15% to 20% productivity within that brokerage community. That’s the goal for us.
There are two other critical components. One component is that we need to leverage our affiliate population more than we have in the past. Today we’re highly focused on them as an extension of our platform (Grubb & Ellis has about 130 owned and affiliated offices worldwide). At the same time, we’ve really reorganized our organization and given local managing directors full responsibility for corporate services work rather than have it centralized. So we’re trying to do a lot of corporate outsourcing work right now, including property management, facilities management, project management and appraisal.
NREI: A lot of that business is low-margin though, so is your aim to offer a more one-stop service for clients?
Van Berkel: If we want to be a player in the marketplace, we have to do those things. All of the Fortune 1000-type customers want a full-service platform. Even if they don’t need it right now, it’s a rule for entry. It’s critical that we have that platform for our customer base.
NREI: Earlier this month you dismissed 100 brokers across the company. Why did you make the cuts, and how does the move fit with your go-forward strategy?
Van Berkel: Our number one objective is broker productivity. We’re trying to drive more and more business through a common sales organization. Grubb & Elis has had a history of not trimming brokerage. In fact, it has tried to add brokers on an incremental basis. With this new go-to-market strategy, with the consolidated platform, with the reorganization that we had and a big effort on teaming and specialty groups, there has been a lot more focus on broker productivity and going to market together.
It’s the old saying, “If you want to get something done, give it to somebody who’s busy.” You want to make sure that if you’re driving revenue, give it to somebody who can drive it. The worst-case scenario for us is losing a deal done by a bad broker and never be able to do that business again.
NREI: Who is driving this new strategy? Is it you, and do you feel that an outsider can be successful in this business?
Van Berkel: The technology world brings a lot more processes and systems centered on sales. Obviously, what we need to do is be a lot more systematized and process-oriented so that every time a broker goes out to the market he’s got the right materials, he’s got the right information about the client, and that he understands the client’s needs.
Often you only have one shot at these things, so when you go to market you want to be completely buttoned up. The local Grubb & Ellis managers really like it because it gives them full control of a customer as opposed to splitting the service, which the customer never likes.
Back to the 100 brokers we let go. We feel [the decision] allows us to now bring more brokers into the organization that we think can really help us.
It’s a great, great time to recruit, and it’s a whole cultural change in the organization. You have to start thinking bigger about how we go to market, about cross selling, about ancillary services.
NREI: How will you measure the productivity of your brokerage team?
Van Berkel: It’s all revenue based. But we’re now looking at other things. We’re looking at how much “exhaust” revenue a broker produces (how much revenue the broker exports). Let’s say a broker is doing a deal with XYZ Tech Company in San Jose. Almost every tech company I know has an office on Interstate 128 in Boston. There should be a direct correlation between the deal being done in San Jose and exported business to Boston. If you’re doing a big financial deal in New York, there should be exhaust revenue being produced from New York to other offices across the country.
We know that if we share our business and information with others in our organization, then we’ll grow. I tell all of the brokers, “I can’t make more money unless you make more money. It’s really, really simple. I’m looking at every way possible that you can make more money.”
I think they’re getting it. I formed a leadership board of seven brokers from across the country as an inside council that is helping to provide input and direction. We call them the “magnificent seven.”
NREI: How are you competing against firms like CB Richard Ellis, Cushman & Wakefield and Jones Lang LaSalle?
Van Berkel: We’re holding our own, and their business is off fairly significantly. They’ve been heavily investment-oriented, so we’re holding our own on the leasing side of the business. But we’re also very focused on corporate accounts. Just in the last six months, we closed big management deals with Kraft, Wells Fargo Mortgage, Ingersoll-Rand and others. Corporate accounts not only make brokers richer, but they also provide evidence of wins. And it gives you a lot of momentum in the marketplace.
We’ve brought in 30 senior-level brokers since July. So when you cut 100 brokers, you lose a little revenue but the 30 you bring in generate a multiple five times that revenue. And they’re coming to Grubb & Ellis from all of the companies you mentioned.
NREI: What do those brokers find at Grubb & Ellis that they wouldn’t find at other firms?
Van Berkel: CB Richard Ellis has 2,800 brokers in the U.S., so some of its shops are a little crowded, especially in some of the big markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Part of the reason we’re trimming is we’re trying to send a message that it’s going to be more of an elite sales organization with more room and chance to do your deal. And as those companies get big, brokers tell me that the only thing worse than being poor is not being important. You’ve got to treat the brokers like they’re important. That’s especially true today because some companies have grown so quickly that brokers are becoming less relevant to the success of the organization. What they say is true. The fun is in the journey; it’s not reaching the destination.
NREI: Given Grubb & Ellis' recent stock price, is it still a good time to be a public company?
Van Berkel: The recent volatility of the global stock markets has affected the stock price of Grubb & Ellis along with the stock prices of our publicly traded peer group. The decision to be a public company cannot — and should not — be tied to the daily fluctuations in a company's stock price.