CCIM Feature

Corporate Experience Translates into Entrepreneurial Endeavor

How did a woman who had no intention of working in commercial real estate end up managing buildings for the federal government, rising through the ranks of the corporate real estate world, and owning a franchise region for Fantastic Sams?

As Anne Comstock Halvorsen, CCIM, will tell you, her entry into the industry was “somewhat unintentional,” yet she has created a successful career by taking on new challenges, including starting a business with two strangers.

Starting a new business is “like starting a freight train,” she says. “You need a lot of energy to get it moving. There is a lot of up and down, little successes, and you can feel the momentum building. It feels terrific to have it moving and accelerating.”

The Road to Real Estate When Halvorsen started college at the University of Vermont, the idea of working in the commercial real estate industry never crossed her mind. She was a political science major and planned on working in international relations.

She needed a job during the summer after her sophomore year, so she applied to be a clerk in the building manager's office of the General Services Administration in Burlington, Vt. However, “Once I was exposed to the [commercial real estate] industry, I realized I really liked it,” she says, which led her to joining the GSA's management training program and becoming an assistant buildings manager. At a fairly young age, she was promoted to buildings manager and was responsible for managing building operations and staff for 36 federal properties in northwestern New England, including the eastern regional offices of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

From Government to Corporate America After several years with the GSA, Halvorsen wanted to “see the bigger outside world of commercial real estate,” so she left her government job and entered corporate real estate. She became a lease administrator of field office facilities for Unum Life Insurance Co. of America in Portland, Maine, which entailed directing all site selection and leasing activities for the national sales office. This position was “a terrific transition [for me] because my previous job had no leasing exposure,” she says. It reinforced her love of property management and instilled a new enthusiasm for leasing.

After two years as a lease administrator, Halvorsen was promoted to regional property manager in Unum's Real Estate Equity Group. In this position, she managed a national portfolio of foreclosed, company-owned, and joint venture properties totaling nearly 2 million square feet.

While working at Unum, Halvorsen learned about the CCIM Institute and was the first person at the company to take the introductory course. “I am a big proponent of education,” she says. Halvorsen believes that it is important to “understand the whole process” of commercial real estate to be successful in the industry and that the established curriculum of the institute and other associations offers practitioners a good opportunity to learn about areas other than those in which they work. For example, Halvorsen already was schooled in property management and leasing from her positions at GSA and Unum, but her designation education taught her how “real estate works as an investment,” which helped her in her next career move.

In 1989 she moved to Boston and joined the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. In the company's investment real estate group, Halvorsen rose through the ranks, soon becoming the senior investment officer in charge of the company's workout portfolio and retail properties. This position offered Halvorsen new opportunities in management and asset management, as she was in charge of a nine-person staff overseeing a national portfolio of approximately 11 million sf. She was responsible for developing and implementing property business plans and leading her staff to achieving optimal portfolio performance.

Halvorsen believes she excelled in this position because “I largely tend to think outside of the box.” For example, a property in one of the portfolios she managed was a failing regional mall in Tampa, Fla. To achieve optimal portfolio performance, Halvorsen ousted the remaining tenants and redeveloped the property into a thriving high-tech office park.

New Business Opportunity John Hancock sold its real estate portfolio in the late 1990s, and Halvorsen was forced to consider her next career move sooner than she expected. Luckily, she had “the luxury of taking some time off and figuring out what I wanted to do next,” she says.

After more than 10 years in corporate real estate, she decided that it was time to try something new, combining her skills and interests together into a new career.

Halvorsen enlisted the aid of a business broker and debated about starting a small business. She decided that becoming part of a franchise would be the best choice for her because it would offer her the support of a large organization. “I am a creature of large organizations and knew it was more my style to be a part of one,” she explains. Franchising provides an “interesting and wonderful combination of freedom and flexibility of owning my own business with the support and structure of a large organization,” she says.

During her research, she discovered that Fantastic Sams, the world's largest hair-care franchise, did not have a regional sales office in the Northeast. While conducting due diligence on the company, Halvorsen met two other individuals who also were investigating the opportunity. The three each had complementary skills -- real estate, franchising, and marketing -- so they decided to go into business together and bought a regional franchise master license for Fantastic Sams.

Starting a company with two strangers “is a bit like the dating and getting engaged and married process,” she says. “You must explore these people and their goals and make sure they are in alignment with yours.” Similar to having a prenuptial agreement, “discuss issues up front of what would happen if the partnership doesn't work out,” she says.

Halvorsen became the partner in charge of real estate development and provides all of the site selection and development services for the franchises they sell. “We have been in business one year and are developing salons in Massachusetts and northern New England,” she says. By the beginning of June, two salons were open and licenses for approximately 30 more were sold.

Since part of Halvorsen's position is finding small retail locations in a region where they are scarce, networking is vital to her success. “Connections are important when doing your own small business,” she says. “When you are in the corporate world you are immersed in a network, but when you are on your own you have to work to keep those connections.”

As well as being a member of the CCIM Institute, Halvorsen belongs to New England Women in Real Estate. She also is involved with a New England association of franchisors and franchisees. “Organizations help facilitate connections,” she says.

Owning her own business and being involved in franchise sales “has been an interesting transition from the corporate world,” Halvorsen says. The two are “as different as night and day, but that's part of the motivation. It is exciting to create something brand new, and my foundation and training in the corporate world has really helped,” in particular, her skills in negotiating lease transactions and problem solving abilities.

The Meaning of Success The most important aspect of Halvorsen's success is “having a career that is fulfilling, but not at the sacrifice of my family,” she says. “The attraction of small business is that you have more flexibility,” she says. “Now I can take time off when I like to go to games,” and to spend more time interacting with her family, she says.

In the near future, Halvorsen wants to “focus on making Fantastic Sams very successful,” she says. Although she has no immediate plan to change career paths again, “I'm not adverse to change, so who knows,” what will happen in the future, she says.

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