CCIM Q&A: The Gift of Perspective
The adage, “Go West, young man!” is ubiquitous in American folklore as a command for the country’s expansion across the continent. But has anyone ever checked to see what happened to those who did? George Larsen, CCIM, arrived in Arizona in 1970, after growing up in Chicago and leaving the U.S. Army. Now, in his 50th year as a commercial real estate professional, he talks about a successful career that has seen its share of ups, downs, left-hand turns, recessions, and pandemics.
Larsen and his partner, Don Baker, founded Larsen Baker in 1993, which has become the largest independent retail-commercial property owner in Tucson, Ariz., managing over 3 million sf of commercial space in approximately 50 locations with 500 tenants throughout Southern Arizona. With a half-century in the business, Larsen spoke with Commercial Investment Real Estate about his career, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and what the next generation can do to succeed in a new world.
CIRE: With 50 years in CRE, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry? In other words, how different is doing business in 2021 compared to 1970?
George Larsen, CCIM: I can’t remember if I took my Prozac this morning, and you want me to recall stuff in 1970?! In commercial real estate, CCIM Institute was just getting started. More than 2,500 CRE professionals took their first CCIM course in 1970-1971. I took my first CCIM course in 1980.
The world has changed since 1970. But as I reflect on it, what’s surprising is how CRE is still “high touch/low tech.” That’s not a criticism — it’s a testament to the complexity of commercial real estate and the need for brokers to suss out the nuances of a deal. Those details do not lend themselves to artificial intelligence. Sometimes, not even human intelligence.
Sure, we now have blazing fast analytics and communication tools, but we still list, lease, and sell properties with one-on-one advocacy through a broker network. That’s not true of many other occupations. For example, Larsen Baker’s specialty is in retail, and retail has seen a seismic change from an all-store format to a hybrid of e-commerce and stores.
Home selling is becoming automated through Opendoor, Zillow, and Offerpad. In Las Vegas, it’s been reported that about 20 percent of home sales/purchases are now made through algorithms, not humans. But here in CRE, most every large or complex transaction is accomplished through one-on-one negotiation. When AI can negotiate a Ross lease, I’ll change my opinion!
CIRE: You’ve weathered a few storms in your career. Understanding the ups and downs of the market, what kind of historical context can you provide for our current situation? What’s your advice to younger professionals?
Larsen: My advice: Get in the business of owning, not just brokering CRE. The real wealth is in ownership. CRE is an imperfect market. You can thrive in an imperfect market if you have superior knowledge. I was lucky enough to start out with an MBA (courtesy of the GI Bill), but I certainly did not know CRE until I finished CI 101, 102, and 103. In 1982, I earned my CCIM [designation]. It is the most valuable wealth-building, self-help education program in the country!
Use your skills to identify commercial properties with the potential to reward your clients with a 20 percent or more annual IRR. Most likely, those properties will be fix-ups or “value-adds.” Most value-add projects are also initially priced higher than we want to pay. The key to convincing a seller to sell at a lower price is to show the seller data like comparable sales — mostly, the comps that support our value — and to create a future pro forma showing the seller why our purchase price has to be lower, to allow us to make a reasonable profit.
If you believe in and invest in your own deals, you will find investors who want to invest with you. Now you are the sponsor, the managing member, the buyer broker, the developer, the property manager, the TI contractor, and the selling broker. (Unfortunately, you’re also the loan guarantor — but that’s a different story.) You can make money providing all these specialized services. If your investment skills are good, you will have partners for life.
While I’m giving old-man advice: floss, take risks, differentiate yourself as an expert, get more education, teach your skill set to others, treat people fairly, and never get seriously in debt to anyone who says they cried at the end of “Scarface.”
CIRE: With no shortage of deals in your career, does a project or transaction stand out to you?
Larsen: In 1996, we bought a monumental failure of a 109,000-sf shopping center in a great location in Tucson. It was a bank REO that was 50 percent vacant. Don Baker and I had barely survived the recession of 1989 to 1994. We were used to buying small REO cast-off retail and office buildings at $20-$35/sf. (Buildings really sold at those prices in the early ‘90s. Our record low was a 22,000-sf medical office building — we paid $12/sf for it!) This one was priced at over $100/sf. Some tenants hadn’t paid rent for two years. The REO bank owner had no tenant files. Loan brokers were quoting our financing at an 8 percent interest rate.
I almost chickened out the day before the drop-dead date — too risky, too expensive. Don was a strong go, and Don prevailed. We bought the shopping center, and we still own The Plaza at Williams Centre. We refi it every 10 years. The original 8 percent loan became a 6 percent loan and then a 4 percent loan. Now, 25 years later, The Plaza is worth almost three times what we paid for it.
Not that you expected me to tell you about one of our mistakes.
If you believe in and invest in your own deals, you will find investors who want to invest with you. Now you are the sponsor, the managing member, the buyer broker, the developer, the property manager, the TI contractor, and the selling broker.
CIRE: Arizona is one of the hottest markets in the country. (Apologies for the bad, if appropriate, pun.) What has helped your state become such an appealing location for commercial real estate?
Larsen: California. We know a lot of Californians who say, “Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and high taxes in California, but it’s just not hot enough!” So, despite the tragedy of an occasional dog that self-combusts on a Scottsdale street in July, Arizona and similar Sun Belt states have benefited from the dysfunction of California.
Also, Arizona has relatively low housing costs, unobtrusive regulation, right to work, and a young workforce. And Arizona is uncrowded by coastal standards. When I got out of the Army in 1969 and moved here from Chicago, the entire population in Arizona was about equal to the population of just the South Side of Chicago! I’ve never left Arizona. When I make a real estate mistake here, I just wait a few years.
CIRE: How has the CCIM designation played a role in your storied career? Could you guess how different things would’ve been without it?
Larsen: It didn’t just play a role — it was the key to my success. With the CCIM education, I had the analytic skills and the confidence to uncover deals that others overlooked. Without the CCIM education and really great employees and partners, my life’s work in CRE would have been different and not nearly so rewarding right now. I would probably be working in a red vest that says, “May I help you?”
CIRE: Finally, what advice do you have for CCIMs who are looking for long, successful careers in CRE? What’s been the biggest contributor to your longevity?
Larsen: I think success comes from a combination of strong business relationships, industry knowledge, and work ethic. The only one of these that can be partially bought is knowledge. Buy it from CCIM Institute. Also, keep this success thing in perspective. Remember: Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right next to it.