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Same Time Next Year

May 2, 2017 | By John Cumbelich

Imagine spending exactly 48 hours with the same group of 500 people, once a year for thirty years.

Imagine that in your first year you are twenty two years old, single, broke, fresh out of college and ready to take on the world.  You’re frightened that you will be the least knowledgeable, least known and least capable person at the meeting.  You’re glad that it’s a two-day event, because you only have one good suit, and casual attire is permitted on the getaway day.

The internet doesn’t exist and there isn’t a single person in the industry that has a personal computer sitting on their desk.  It’s the 1980’s and no one has ever heard of a REIT, a lifestyle center, fast-casual cuisine or a smartphone.  Department stores are the center of gravity in the retail real estate universe, and like all your colleagues, you are convinced that they always will be.

This was the reality for a now 52-year old brokerage firm principal, and sometimes real estate blogger, when he first attended a regional International Council of Shopping Centers conference, or ICSC, in Monterey, California in the spring of 1988.

Completely unbeknownst to this inexperienced kid was that in his energetic efforts to meet as many of these smart and experienced conference attendees as possible, he was beginning to form a reservoir of contacts that would evolve over the next three decades into hundreds of relationships and countless close friendships in his business life.

The first few years in Monterey were characterized by a poor command of the art of scheduling, attendance at all the wrong parties, a budding talent for reading the name on a conference badge across a room, and the overzealous enthusiasm of a recent college graduate to consume beer late into the night with contemporaries that might be back next year, or might not.

With time came seasoning and a feel for the faces that kept re-appearing, year after year.  Some of the crowd moved from one firm to another, yet stayed inside the boundaries of the industry, returning each year with a different business card.  Others were pillars, seemingly locked in time and space to one desk, one career, one firm.

As the spring conferences rolled by, I developed friends in the business and over time watched and learned as they honed their craft and began to take bigger bites out of the industry apple as brokers, developers, real estate managers and architects.  We learned from each other, compared notes on who was enjoying the most success, and whispered wonderingly about he faces that stopped returning.  And just like in families or school, we learned who we could trust, who we could not, and who we would cling to.

While commercial real estate was a dream career for many of us in the 1980’s, we grew anxious in the 1990’s as the tech industry exploded and, it seemed, all the top young talent ignored real estate in favor of places like Oracle, Cisco, Dell or Microsoft.  Our ranks thinned and the annual conference was a chance to take the temperature of our industry, our peers and our prospects.  Through the adversity of the changing marketplace, we unknowingly began to grow closer, lean on each other, and in some cases work together, or date or marry.

By the 2000’s, ICSC had become part business, part reunion, and a very real milestone in our business and personal lives.  Every year I would go with plans to talk up new projects and new clients, but drive home two days later contemplating the news of a friend’s new child, new job, sudden illness or divorce.  I would look at my life against theirs, and sort out where things stood both for them and for me.

Interestingly, after thirty years, I really can’t recall too many conversations about sales or leases or listings or proposals.  But I can tell you exactly where I was when a friend who hired me to lease his first shopping center told me that he had suffered a heart attack, or where I was standing the morning when a young lady broker walked out of her hotel room, and crossed the parking lot in pink slippers to grab something from her car.  I can tell you (but I won’t) about the guy who drinks too much every year, or who I can always count on seeing taking a morning jog.  I’m reminded that that the industry is always watching, and that the industry doesn’t forget.

Our 2017 conference was nostalgic for many of us, as the annual Northern California ICSC returned to the Monterey Hyatt, after a ten-year hiatus at a downtown venue.  For those of us who spent the prior twenty years tramping around the Hyatt each March, a flood of memories washed over us in waves.  But as familiar as it was, the return to our old haunt was markedly different too.  Younger people now referred to me as “Mr. Cumbelich”, some of my former late night pals now asked me to join them for a faith-based breakfast gathering, and I texted photos of beautiful Monterey vistas to my teenagers at home.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve been blessed with the chance to watch a body of people, all striving to make a living in the same industry, renewing their vows each spring in Monterey.  I’ve seen some grow fatter or thinner, some grow richer or poorer.  Almost all of us are greyer.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but everyone seems a bit wiser as well.  You can’t make it over the long term in a close-knit business by burning bridges, or treating people poorly.  Our business self-selects, and the veterans have earned a measure of respect in the eyes of their longtime peers.

I used to be the young alpha male, ready to do battle with the competition, and fight for all the business I could earn.  Thirty years later, I’m more philosophical, more grateful, and more interested in paying forward some of what I’ve learned to tomorrow’s stars.  I hope they realize that every relationship matters.  Or that the five minute conversation in the hallway can change your career as effectively as the meeting that you planned two months in advance.  I hope they understand that the people that they are working with today may well still be here twenty or thirty years from now, so they should never embarrass themselves, their clients or their firm.

And maybe most importantly, I hope they realize that while we are all in business trying to earn as much as we can, you will be reviled if you are remembered for chasing the last nickel, but you will be respected if you create a legacy of doing right by those whose path you’ve crossed.