Top-producing brokers coast to coast share success secret: work, work, work

At 6 a.m. from his hotel room in Hawaii, Tim Relyea is wide awake and fast-talking on the phone.

Even though it's supposed to be the first day of his two-week vacation, the Cushman Realty broker is already on his third call.

"For the past few weeks I've averaged only about three hours of sleep every night getting ready to go out of town," says Relyea, who last year brokered about 1 million sq. ft. of leasing out of Cushman's Houston office.

Barry Gosin, the top broker at New York-based Newmark & Co., an affiliate of New America Network, can relate.

A few years ago on a "vacation" to the Canadian Rockies, he took a portable phone in his mountain bike bag to keep on top of his deals. "Yeah, I know it sounds crazy," Gosin recalls. "I got up at 6 o'clock in the morning and made calls."

In many ways the stereotype of the on-the-run, workaholic top-producing broker still hits pretty close to the mark.

But along with the 70-hour weeks, early morning meetings and late-night presentation planning sessions that characterize the life of some of America's most successful commercial property brokers, there are significant changes from the way the business was conducted just a decade ago.

While top brokers are still working as hard as -- if not even harder than -- they did in the 1970s and early-1980s, they are much more likely to be working in partnerships with other professionals, face tougher competition and are required to be more flexible than in the past.

And with memories fresh from recent downturns in many markets, commercial brokers are also often driven to make as much money as they can before the next downturn.

David Nicholson, the top producer with Dallas-based Weitzman Group, says it's like the television game show where you get in a booth with money blowing around. "We have to grab as much as we can before they turn the machine off," says Nicholson.

For brokers who survived the last shake-out, becoming a top volume player in the 1990s has meant reinventing the real estate brokerage business.

With the advent years ago of real estate networks, brokers have still more resources to draw upon. A few of the more prominent networks include New America, based in Hightstown, N.J., ONCOR International, Houston, Colliers International, Boston, Chain Links, CORFAC, CRESA and ICRS.

The biggest change, industry members say, is the demise in many cases of the lone-eagle broker. These days, top producers are more likely to be team captains.

"Working as an individual, it's harder to succeed in this business," says Bruce Mosler, regional president in The Galbreath Co.'s New York office.

Last year, Mosler worked on almost 2 million sq. ft. of leases. He's been one of Galbreath's top producers since 1991.

Increasingly, Mosler functions with a team of four or five other brokers, plus support personnel.

"To provide the client with the strategic advice they want and the turnaround they need, you can't do this alone," Mosler says. "You have to have a team that is experienced working together."

Along with other brokers, that team may also include market researchers, architects, construction analysts and engineers.

"In some of these situations, we are now essentially the real estate department for our client," says Cushman & Wakefield executive vice president John Dowling.

Dowling, who was involved in almost 3.8 million sq. ft. of lease negotiations last year, has five other professionals working with him, in addition to support staff.

"In the old days, they thought all we did was shovel space," says Dowling, who's spent more than 30 years in the business. "Today, clients understand we have a far greater contribution to make. They are expecting us to do much more sophisticated analysis."

Still, not everyone has embraced these changes.

Larry Glickman, who brokers $200 million to $300 million a year in investment sales as head of San Josebased BT Commercial Inc., an affiliate of New America Network, until recently worked alone.

"I'm still a dinosaur, I guess," says Glickman, "I prefer working by myself."

But even Glickman has now taken on the help of another broker in the firm.

Sometimes these partnerships between top producing brokers just happen.

Matt Lawton and John Simon, who work in CB Commercial's Schaumburg, Ill., office, have worked as a team for almost 10 years. Last year, they were the top producers in CB Commercial's central division.

"We were individually top investment brokers in the ofice and worked a large RTC disposition together," Lawton says. "We felt that working together we can leverage our time and efforts a lot better for our clients. Within our company, these partnerships are being adopted more with top producers."

In a business where the competition and potential client demands now cross all geographic boundaries, just keeping up with the deals requires more time, travel and energy.

"Most of our people aren't tied to the city where they are based," says Cushman Realty's Relyea, who joined the firm in 1978 when Houston's building boom was in full swing. "I'm now working on two or three deals at a time out of town. I've recently done a lot of business in Atlanta, and I just started on a deal in Tokyo."

Relyea, whose clients include British Petroleum and Amerada Hess, has also brokered some of Houston's biggest recent corporate moves and office build-to-suits. "But our boundaries have gotten a lot wider," he says.

The meltdown of geographic boundaries has made a competitive business even more challenging.

"It's anybody and everybody, and we're all pretty competent," says Robert Donhauser, a top producer and managing director of Faison & Associates' Washington, D.C., office. "That's why we focus more on building relationships and repeat business."

Donhauser, who does investment sales in partnership with Faison's William Asbill, was involved in more than $100 million in sales last year. As with most experienced brokers, more than half of his deals are with repeat clients.

"I've got the same clients today that I had when I started in the business -- I haven't lost anybody," says BT Commercial's Glickman. "The primary focus of business has been year after year representing some of the same individuals."

Cushman & Wakefield's Dowling has brokered more than 6,000 transactions representing 50 million sq. ft. of space. During that time, he has created longerm contacts that stretch across decades.

"I recently worked on a lease for Meredith Publishing's headquarters in New York," Dowling says. "The guy I started working with 25 years ago is now chairman of the board."

While most senior brokers say they no longer do cold calling, even top producers concede it still has an important place in the business.

"Cold calling isn't dead," says Elysia Holt, the top volume producer at Dallas-based Staubach Co. "Although I don't spend much time doing it, it's a fundamental part of our business."

"I figure somebody ended up cold calling Bill Gates sometime way back there, and I bet that person is still doing his business," Holt says. "I don't want to end up missing the next Microsoft."

Likewise, even brokers who do millions of square feet of deals a year won't let a modest transaction get away.

"No deal is too small," says Relyea. "One of my biggest deals came after I started working with the company on the first call for 3,000 sq. ft."

Unlike the 1980s, when fast-growing companies were taking on millions of square feet of additional commercial space, office and industrial brokers say at least a third of their current transactions involve some kind of consolidation or tenant contraction.

"Probably 40% or 50% of our business is along those lines," says Galbreath Co.'s Mosler. "They tend to be more complicated because they often involve some wrap in of an old lease."

As overbuilt office markets recover across the country, these transactions have been more difficult and costly, brokers and leasing agents say.

"Early renewals and restructurings are tougher to do today in a tighter market," says Mitchell Steir in Julien J. Studley Inc.'s New York office.

Steir, who closed over 1 million sq. ft. of transactions last year, represented tenants including Burlington Industries, D.C. Comics and Greater New York Mutual Insurance Co.

"Now, unless it's a year or 18 months, fewer landlords are wanting to roll the dice on the market," says Howard Nottingham, a senior vice president with Chicago-based LaSalle Corp. who oversees the Northeast region. Last year he participated in about 800,000 sq. ft. of leases.

Nottingham says many office space users are out of touch with the leasing markets.

"The tenants are pretty well behind the market -- maybe six months to the year," he says. "Those folks out in the market today were last in the market in 1986 or 1987. What they think is that the market is still soft and they can take advantage of it."

Even with a stronger economy and record corporate profits in many sectors, brokers say that tenants are keeping a closer watch on their real estate expenses than in decades past. "Unlike before when they would take extra space, now I think they figure that if they have a space problem down the road, they can figure it out then," Nottingham says.

And while rents are rising, few tenants expect to see office and commercial costs double like they did in the early-1980s. "They are more confident that those kinds of ratchets aren't around the corner," Nottingham says.

Some tenants are getting sticker shock.

"Right now, I'm dealing in a submarket in Atlanta where rates have gone up 15% to 20% in 18 to 24 months," says David Kilborn, a top broker with Atlanta-based CARTER.

Those kinds of increases in rents still aren't enough to make tenants go out on the limb with longer lease terms, he says.

"Flexibility is very important to a lot of businesses," Kilborn says. "Although it would seem in the right situation to make good business sense to lock down for as long a lease term as you can, even mature companies that know their space needs aren't wanting to make a commitment for 10 years."

If some tenants have lost touch where the real estate markets have been, brokers and leasing agents remember all too well the recent down times.

Avtar Bains, vice president at Van-couver-based Colliers Macaulay Nicolls, had only been doing investment sales for a year when the downturn hit.

"Things were so bad that I was almost ready to go back to university," says Bains, who handled more than $200 million (Canadian) in investment sales last year. "I wasn't even making enough money to pay for my monthly expenses."

But Bains credits those bad times with making him a top producer.

"While I didn't make any money in the early years, I was determined to create really strong relationships," he says. "When the market turned, I had the level of trust where people felt comfortable doing business with me."

Today, Bains says that 90% of his deals come from repeat clients or referrals.

BT Commercial's Glickman, who started his company in 1980, says the recent real estate recession in California left him few options. "I own the firm, so where am I going to go," he says. "It was horrible. In 1991, I did not sell a single leased investment. I survived by selling land."

While few top producers will admit that they considered leaving the profession, most agree that flexibility was their key to survival.

Kenneth Shulman, an executive vice president in the Dallas office of Grubb & Ellis Co., chased the business during the Texas Oil Patch recession and through the recent rebound. Shulman was Grubb & Ellis' 1994 Broker of the Year.

"When the leasing market turned down and it was the ownerships of the properties that were changing, I switched over to the listing side of the business and worked for the institutions that had the distressed assets," says Shulman. "In our business you have to be ready for change and see it coming. If the product you are working on isn't selling, you have to find out where the market is going."

When the property market went in the tank in the Washington, D.C., area, Faison's Donhauser teamed up with partner William Asbill to co-broker deals.

"Bill's background is primarily finance and mortgage banking, and I've always been on the investment sales side," he says. "As the depression started hitting, we used our expertise in both areas to deal with banks and troubled partnerships."

Now that many of those sellers are out of the market, the team has shifted gears again. "One of the reasons we came to Faison two years ago was to work with more institutions that the company had developed relationships with," he says.

Because of the complexity of the transactions, the time to complete deals has increased significantly during the last 10 years.

"I've got one transaction I think I will have closed by September where I started the first conversation two years ago," Shulman says. "Out of 20 odd deals that you make proposals on, you might make one to closing."

Brokers say the up front requirements of research and planning for a presentation have grown dramatically during the last few years.

"There was one transaction not too long ago where we spent three weeks preparing for the presentation and didn't get the assignment," Shulman says.

Brokerage firms can wind up putting too many of their resources into pitching and winning the deal.

"I know of companies that spend 95% of their time working on the presentations and only 5% on doing the deal," says Newmark & Co.'s Gosin. "We have to draw the line somewhere."

With the increase in competition and preparation requirements to do each deal, brokers believe that they are now earning every dime of compensation.

"Some old timers made a ton of money in the 1980s without doing much work and no one questioned it," Gosin says. "Now, you have to kill yourself."

But the rewards can be commensurate with the exertion.

A recent study by Chicago-based FPL Associates found that "outstanding" tenant representative brokers can easily earn between $250,000 and $500,000 a year, while top leasing agents make between $125,000 and $200,000 on average.

"It's been my experience that the good brokers do really well," says FPL's Patricia Mitchell. "It's not uncommon to see some of the top leasing reps making more than some of the managers in the company."

But Mitchell doesn't begrudge top brokers their due. "When they do well, they make a lot of money," she says. "Next year, they may not have that same income stream."

Also, some of these brokers almost single-handedly account for the lion's share of their offices' profits. "Some people think it's unbelievable how much money these guys are making, but then you have to look at how much they are bringing in for the company," Mitchell says.

She concedes, however, that other important players in real estate services companies don't receive the same degree of recognition in compensation.

Even the busiest top producers are also nagged by questions of how long they can continue at such a frantic pace.

Working 12- and 14-hour days plus weekends with clients takes its toll.

"I made a conscious effort about a year and a half ago to cut down to 50 hours a week, but I couldn't do it," confesses Colliers Macaulay Nicolls' Bains. "I would like to cut down to 60 hours a week."

With an average age in their late-30s and early-40s, brokers like Bains say theirs is a "young person's business."

"The marketplace wants to deal with people who are between 28 and 40 -- you have to have the energy," Bains says. "I know that I am not going to be here selling real estate forever."

Cushman Realty's Relyea shows no sign of a slowdown. "I have about 15 more years to go in my book. I couldn't be doing anything else," he says.

Still, even the most successful brokers find themselves thinking about life after the days of frantic deal making.

Staubach Co.'s Holt was recently promoted to executive vice president in charge of the company's Southwest regional office and industrial brokers.

"I love the transaction work. I love the customers. I love the deals. It gets in your blood," Holt says. "But I didn't feel like that if I kept up this pace until 50 I would be happy."

Even Dowling, who's been recognized as a top producer more than 20 times in his long career, maintains an incredibly long list of outside civic involvements and interests and talks freely about leaving the business -- maybe some day.

"I've watched too many people die with their boots on," Dowling says. "I don't want to do that. Some day I hope to have the guts to go out and teach or work with some charities."

But in another breath, Dowling shows his commitment to staying with the job: "I like the problem solving. I like the challenge. I like the bricks and mortar. It's an elixir I'm addicted to. You have to be to survive in this business."

Whether they represent office tenants looking for a lease, landlords with a building to fill or institutions trying to sell properties, America's top real estate brokers share a lot of common characteristics.

A survey of more than a dozen of real estate's top producers paints a picture of hard working, experienced professionals who go to almost any length to do a deal.

Most work more than 65 hours a week.

"My day starts at 7 a.m. tomorrow and will end at 8 or 9 p.m. That's about average," says Bruce Mosler, who heads Galbreath Co.'s New York office.

Newmark & Co.'s Barry Gosin isn't ashamed to say that he works 70 to 80 hours a week. "When you pick this profession, you chose work over life," he says.

No wonder, given the grueling schedule, that the average age of the top brokers polled for this survey was just over 40.

"There are very few people who are still on the ascending part of the curve after 45 years of age -- it's a grueling business," says Mitchell Steir, the top volume broker in Julien J. Studley Inc.'s New York office.

Most top producers have been in the real estate business an average of about 16 years.

"There is no short cut to that experience," says Avtar Bains, the top investment broker with Vancouver-based Colliers Macaulay Nicolls Inc. "For the first five years, no one talks to you. You are a cross between a life insurance salesman and a used car man. You have to get over that hump where people return your calls."

To make it to the top producers level, most senior brokers don't jump around from firm to firm. Leading brokers surveyed for this poll had worked for an average of only two real estate companies, with the maximum being three.

"It says something in how long you've been with a company when you are interviewing for business," says David Kilborn, a top office tenant rep with Atlanta-based CARTER. "Clients want to see some stability."

While the industry stereotype of a top broker is someone who's always on the run looking at deals and meeting with clients, these days top brokers say they average more than half their time in the office researching and preparing for deals.

Top brokers have an amazing success rate -- over 70% among the professionals polled.

"While the amount of transactions in the market today are not as great as they used to be, the success rate is probably higher," says robert Donhauser, a top producer and managing director of Faison & Associates' Washington, D.C., office.

Overwhelmingly, leading real estate professionals say their best source of business are the clients they've already worked for.

"Quite a bit of it turns out to be repeat business," says David Nicholson, the top producer with Dallas-based Weitzman Group. "Over a 10-year career, I've seen a lot of the same faces."

To make it to the top of most companies' brokerage rosters, high-volume producers with national and super-regional firms on average do almost 2 million sq. ft. of leasing a year or handle more than $100 million in investment sales.

In order to make so many deals, most top producers have support personnel that usually includes secretaries, researchers and administrative assistants. Increasingly, top producers work in a team with other brokers.

"It's not a Lone Ranger business any more," says Tim Relyea in Cushman Realty's Houston office. "Especially in the large deals, there is just too much work for one broker to handle alone."

For the most part, the top brokers work their way up in the business. Most start out their careers in real estate or working sales for major corporations.

There are some colorful exceptions.

Howard Nottingham, a New York-based leasing agent for Chicago-based LaSalle Corp., did more than 800,000 sq. ft. of leases last year.

But before he got into the real estate business 11 years ago, Nottingham was in a much less glamorous sales job.

"I was a Chevrolet dealer in a small town," Nottingham says. "When I wear my plaid sportcoat to work I get a lot of ribbing."

Dallas-based Staubach Co.'s top-producing broker Elysia Holt came to the business on an even more unusual path.

"Right out of college, I taught high school for six years," Holt says. "And that has nothing to do and everything to do with my success.

"There is nothing harder to handle than six classes of 30 15-year-olds," she says. "It was a good foundation for building people skills. It makes you get organized because you are running your own little business in that classroom."

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