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I Remember

08/11/2022 | By John Cumbelich

In the early days, I would take a listing on a retail center with one or two 1,200 SF vacancies, hoping to get leases signed at $1.00/SF per month with a Subway or Supercuts franchisee. That would result in a leasing commission of $6,000, which would be split 50/50 with the outside broker, then 50/50 with the house, leaving me with two $750 commission checks…before taxes.

I remember…leases with a pizza restaurant, a sandwich shop, an appliance store, auto parts stores, Chinese restaurants, book stores, skate shops, a chiropractor. The vast majority of the people I did business with back then were small businessmen. Both the landlords and the tenants. I quickly came to learn that they all had an interesting story. Either they had started with one restaurant or store, and eventually grown it into a small “chain” of three or five locations. Or, they had saved and borrowed enough money to buy their first rental property, and now had three, or five…or ten. I learned to always ask them to tell me their story. They all had such interesting stories about how they had done it.

I soon realized that my nascent career in commercial real estate gave me the opportunity to drink deeply the waters of enterprising small businessmen; people who bet on themselves, each finding their own paths to success.

So long ago. Reagan was in the White House and Johnny Carson still ruled late night television. But I never watched television. I came in early, I worked late, I worked on Saturdays, and went into the office for an hour on Sunday after church. I was young and poor, but rich in energy and the fear of failure, and that fueled me to build the small steps to my own success.

It all distilled. Pitching new listings. Cold calls. Succeeding and failing. Learning how owners and users made decisions. Helping businesses grow. Learning how the lender, the real estate attorney, the contractor, the city official and the other members of the cast with whom I now shared a stage all fit together.

In those days most of the young real estate brokers that I knew aspired to become real estate developers. Developers were the builders, the decision makers and the catalysts who first envisioned and then built the shopping centers that made the industry grow larger, better and ever-new. In the pre-personal computer, pre-email, pre-internet era in which I began, the retail industries’ growth was built upon wave after wave of big box retailer roll outs. Daring and successful real estate developers in my world were mavericks, cowboys and bad asses. Prior to the great consolidation of portfolios by NYSE REITs and other Wall Street backed investment funds, real estate developers built impressive regional portfolios based on key anchor-tenant relationships and deep roots in local markets. They were rarely the highly educated types – more frequently savvy risk evaluators with equal parts charisma, capital and smarts.

But I was more interested in building a brokerage company. My own. When I started interning at Coldwell Banker (now CBRE) in the early 1980s, I learned that its founder Colbert Coldwell was a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. I then learned that Dean Witter, another iconic brokerage builder, was a Cal grad as well. My own Cal provenance helped to focus a young mind searching for a career path to ponder the example of men like these. Building a respected brokerage company struck me as noble goal, worthy of my best efforts and just possibly within my grasp.

Little did I realize how all of those small-fry real estate investors, retailers and restaurateurs who were telling me their stories about betting on themselves, and succeeding, had crystalized the vision in my mind, that I could do something similar, in my real estate brokerage space. I talked to a client, who introduced me to a banker, who gave me a line of credit to start my business. It turned out that someone else was willing to place a bet on me too. I opened for business on my birthday, May 20, as the new century began.

And the business became successful beyond my imaginings. I don’t mean financially. I mean that I learned what we were capable of when competing against, not working for, the best in the business. And after a year or two, I realized how this was the last job I would ever have.

My story in not unique. I just did what my parents had always preached. Work hard. Always try to exceed expectations. Surround yourself with people who are better than you.

In today’s pandemic recovery, we’ve consummated a sizable share of the business defining the next chapter in retail real estate. With Amazon. With Costco. With Crate & Barrel and Raising Cane’s and Lucid Motors and CVS and Dutch Bros and with many others. I’m in the fourth decade of learning my craft and I’m rich in relationships, in clients who became friends, in wisdom to share and stories to tell.

Looking back, there were good times and there were hard times, but there were really never any bad times. Perhaps I’ve turned into one of those people I met so many years ago who has an interesting story to tell.

A long way from hustling for those $750 checks.