Superstar Brokers Share Their Secrets of Success

You've probably noticed that some brokers, no matter what the market conditions, seem to consistently outperform the average. Call them lucky, call them overachievers, call them what you will; the bottom line is that they must be doing something right--and doing it better--or they wouldn't stand out head and shoulders above the rest of us. The question is, what are they doing that sets them apart?

A panel entitled Superstar Brokers tackled this issue head on at the recent CCIM/Real Estate Forum National Commercial Real Estate Conference in San Francisco. There, four heavy hitters--Duane Fitch, Robert McLean, Rob Griffin, and Ralph Spencer, CCIM--shared their personal philosophies on what keeps them performing at their peak. Their remarks, which appear in this article in a condensed form, will inspire and motivate you to pursue excellence so that you, too, can perform like a superstar.

Duane Fitch
Sell with a Purpose

Duane Fitch is the senior vice president/officer of CB Commercial, Oakland, California, which he joined in 1973. He specializes in selling and leasing industrial and research and development properties in Alameda County, California. In the last 20 years, Fitch has been involved with more than 800 industrial lease, sale, and investment transactions. He was the 1993 recipient of CB Commercial's McCarthy Award, the company's highest award for brokers.

If my whole selling approach were diagrammed, it would appear as three concentric circles. The innermost circle represents my purpose. The second, or middle, circle is my philosophy, And the third circle, on the outside, is what I call the process--the day-to-day plan to get the job done.

PURPOSE--In successful selling, you always have a purpose, which serves as your personal and professional beacon. My purpose is to render preeminent client service to every client I talk to. To attain that is to attain selling excellence. If I want to realize my purpose, then I must have goals. But the goals must be more than just income. I establish goals in terms of relationships, knowledge, information technology, or selling skills.

PHILOSOPHY--The second circle in my diagram, by which I've lived for years, is my beliefs or philosophy--what I consider the mental approach to our business. For me, this consists of 10 tenets of selling.

Number one is knowledge. I want to know more about my aspect of commercial real estate than anyone else. As a service provider I strive to be the most genuine voice in my marketplace.

Second is relationships. I go out and target the people I should be talking to on a regular basis. I need to know the most active clients in my marketplace so I can spend time with these people to learn more about their business plans and their specific needs.

Number three is communication. A superstar broker is the expert on every deal opportunity that he or she is working on. I should be able to communicate more about that deal than either principal. Determine what it would take for you to improve your ability to communicate and market your services.

Commitment is the most important tenet, the one that you'll see in every superstar service provider. It's what you need to be the very best. We all have the potential. But we have to be committed to success.

Integrity is also important. Integrity is more than just trust. It's the ability to subordinate your commission to the client's best interest.

Service providers need focus. I have a business plan, which provides that focus. Do you have a business plan? If not, you need to develop one. Sit down with your clients every year and talk about their plan. Listen carefully to what they are really saying so you can come to a full understanding of their needs. Then assess whether your present skills and knowledge reflect your clients' needs, especially in the area of information technology.

Offer creativity. When I'm going to be talking to a new potential client, I ask myself what I can do to be unique. Offer your client something that your competition does not have to offer, and decide what you are going to do to stay ahead of your competitors.

You also need a competitive spirit. Let me give an example. In 1975 or '76, a company headquartered in Hayward, California, had 12 locations. I said, "I'm going to call this company because some day they are going to need to consolidate all of those operations.” I called and called for two years and never got much response. Then one day I was at the airport in Los Angeles and had a couple extra hours before my flight. I called the man and said "I'm five minutes away; can I come over for five minutes to say hello?" I got in a taxi cab and went over. [The operations manager] said, "You know, you are the most persistent guy I've ever met. You don't take 'no' for an answer." "How are you doing with those 12 locations?" I asked. He said, "You know what? We need to consolidate. We're looking for 50 acres of land. Do you want to be our broker?" That's competitive spirit.

Attitude is similar. You have to want to be better than your competition. In a tough, honest, and above-board manner you have to want to do your very best.

The last tenet is belief--believe in yourself, believe in your market segment. If you practice these other nine tenets, you will believe in yourself and you will keep growing toward the goal of being a superstar.

PROCESS--The last and outermost circle is process. The process is the daily series of actions and events that help me achieve my purpose. Process is the day-by-day, week-by- week, month-by-month, year-by-year actions by which I grow and keep moving ahead.

How do you become a superstar in the 1990s? You should have a purpose, a philosophy, and a process. My purpose is basically to provide the very best service every single day. To do this, I've got a philosophy, a mental focus with 10 tenets, and I practice these goals every day. You can take these principles and grow from them, too.

Robert McLean
New Beginings

Bob McLean is an executive director and a member of the board of directors for Cushman & Wakefield. He has been an active broker in Washington, D.C., for the last 10 years, serving such clients as World Bank, FDIC, OCC, the Kennedy Center, American Management Systems, Sallie Mae, and Arbitron. He recently authored the book Countdown to Renaissance II: The New Way Corporate America Builds, which tells the case histories of several firms involved in the retrofit and new construction of 8 million square feet of space that reshaped the Pittsburgh skyline.

I believe there are four personal characteristics found in top producers. First, every day should be a new beginning. The second trait is that top producers are in the flow of the business. A third trait is that top producers are flexible. The fourth trait is that they hold to core values.

You've got to stay fresh in this business. One of my new beginnings was with Cushman and Wakefield. In 1966, I was putting together a national marketing program for the city of Philadelphia. One day I called on Leone Peters, chairman of Cushman and Wakefield in New York. About two minutes into my presentation he interrupted me. "You know, Philadelphia is really a lousy city. But you're a pretty good salesman. How would you like to work for Cushman and Wakefield?" I told him I took that as a high compliment, but I was just getting started on this project. I said I'd give him a call when I was finished with it. Five years later I called him. He remembered me and asked if I was ready to come to work at Cushman and Wakefield. That was a fresh beginning for me. I try to carry over that enthusiasm every single day.

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be in the flow of life? It does not happen by accident. They work at it: they stay in touch with business contacts, they join industry groups, they write articles and conduct seminars, and good things seem to happen to them. Being in the flow of business radically changed the course of my career. A few years ago, I was working on a major relocation of the Johnson and Higgins offices in Philadelphia. After a long day, the space planner asked me to have dinner with him. I didn't really want to, but I joined him. About halfway through dinner he asked me if I had ever been to Pittsburgh. "You really ought to go to Pittsburgh," he said. "PPG Industries is beginning to develop a long-range real estate strategy and could use some of your firm's expertise." That was a lead with awesome potential that came from being in the flow. Two weeks later I went to Pittsburgh and received my first assignment for PPG Industries, which eventually led to us being involved in Renaissance II, which led to me writing my book.

Third, flexibility is very important in this business. Certainly all of us are learning to be more flexible in today's ever-changing environment. I wrote a memo to our CEO about the 1990s for Cushman and Wakefield's strategic planning conference. Let me briefly quote from the text since it speaks to changes and initiatives that might be useful to your practice:

I think that all of us who are real estate professionals either over the long or short run share the same feeling about the decade of the '90s: that the playing field is different, the rules have changed. In fact, we are playing a whole new game. The truth is that we're all learners and much of what we're learning is brand new. We need each other now more than ever to achieve our new objectives and to define ourselves and our marketplace in innovative ways. The fear is that we are not sure where the journey leads. The delight is that we are on the edge of a new springtime of our profession.

There are a number of new factors and possibilities that arise with the future. We are forming new strategic partnerships and teams to maximize the resources and to best meet our clients' needs. We should be learning from each other. This conference is an example of how we brokers need to learn to communicate and share our experiences more effectively.

Another practice new to all of us is the emphasis on dispositions--corporations are now disposing of real estate. Dispositions are four times harder than acquisitions, but with the downsizing of corporate America that is where our bread and butter is today. There are a lot of ways to get creative in disposition of properties.

We also need to think globally. The industry is no longer exclusively U.S. properties and investors. We recently received the commission to sell the regional headquarters of Martin Marietta in Denver. We're trying to reposition this property in the international marketplace. As a result, we've come out with a video that will be translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, and English; and we're developing an international marketing program.

Our core values are what really drive us. In these times of change, there's nothing more important than fundamental values; whether they are religious or moral values, they are the core that makes us the person and the professional we want to be. These are the first building blocks toward who we are, how we develop ourselves as individuals, and how we develop ourselves in the local real estate market.

Every day should be a new beginning. Every time you do something, you should do it as if it is the first time. Being in the flow of life is very important. You never know what event is going to change your life. Flexibility is essential in today's changing market. And hold on to those core values.

Robert E. Griffin, Jr.
It's About Relationships and Contributions

Robert E. Griffin, principal, Fallon Hines & O'Connor, specializes in the disposition of office, warehouse/distribution, industrial, research and development, retail, and multifamily investment properties in greater metropolitan Boston. In the course of his career, he has closed more than $1 billion in sales. He has represented many domestic and international corporations, investors, institutions, and developers. In 1993, Griffin's executed sales transactions totaled more than 700,000 square feet of space and $175 million.

In this information age, with its changing global economy, I believe there are some time-tested principles that haven't changed. Here are what I consider to be the seven most important principles to keep in mind if you want to attain the highest level of success in this industry.

SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE--It's critical in the 1990s to stick to your game plan. When you set your goals, pick a niche market where you can become the number one or number two service provider. Concentrate on that one market niche, and be the best. Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest individuals this country has ever seen, said "Achievers don't scatter their energies. Put all your eggs in one basket, then stand by it and see that no one kicks it over.”

UNDERSTANDING--You need to understand your clients. You've probably been on a million sales calls that are monologues in duet. While the client is telling you what their needs are, you're thinking about what you're going to say next. Our brain thinks at about 700 words per minute, and we talk at about 150. So, if you're thinking 700 and they're talking 150, there's no way they're going to catch you.

Bell Leadership studied 3,000 successful sales people. It found that they had four recurring character traits: they sought to understand their clients; they were empathetic; they made a personal commitment [to the clients]; and they were creative in addressing their client's needs.

You also need to understand your team. You need to do an honest evaluation of what you have to offer your clients and then put together a dream team comprising people whose skills complement each other. For each assignment, form a mastermind group made up of the people in your firm who can best serve that client. In our firm, everyone on the team has a different strength and we play to the team's strengths.

CHARACTER--Remember the golden rule--treat people the way you want to be treated. I try to treat people as if they are going to give the eulogy at my funeral or explain to my wife and my children what I stand for.

A study determined that people on their death bed focus on two things: relationships and contributions. So make deposits in people's emotional bank accounts. Keep your promises, be kind and courteous, clarify expectations, be loyal. Focus on the relationships not just the deals. If you can make a friend, you'll get the business.

CREATIVITY--Success is about finding solutions. If you take the same approach for every situation day in and day out, you're going to have a problem. Take to heart Will Rogers' advice: "Even if you're on the right track, you'll be run over for sure if you just sit there." To foster creativity, find time alone. I built a separate office off my garage to do this. I go out there and sit and spend time alone.

Take a different approach to your job. For example, my company wanted to get involved in a small retail building that has The Limited as a tenant. We couldn't get inside to view it because the landlord had some concerns about disturbing the tenant. I really wanted the project. So one Sunday afternoon my wife and I went over to the store. While I looked around and checked out the building, she spent $400 in the store. I took Cathy's receipt and blew it up to 8 1/2" by 11" and enclosed it with my proposal. I told the owner that I had spent my Sunday afternoon in that store because I wanted to understand the property so badly. I said that my wife had boosted sales and she'd continue to do so if he gave me the assignment. He felt this approach was humorous and creative and he gave us the assignment. We sold the property for $5 million. Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity from another client who had heard that we had sold the building. He listed the seven-story landmark Limited building located in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. We later sold it for $25 million. A creative approach to one transaction got our team involved in two.

ENTHUSIASM--Being enthusiastic is one of the biggest keys to the business. You need to have a burning desire to succeed. Sometimes it takes going the extra mile. I once read a 46- page engineering and environmental document prior to a listing presentation and discovered that the property had an environmental problem. Just by taking the time to read the document, we were able to inform the institution about some problems that it hadn't realized were there. As a result, we received a $10 million signing.

Practice enthusiasm. Go to the mirror and practice getting pumped up for a presentation; then during a presentation, lean over the table and tell your potential clients you're making a personal commitment to them and that you really want their business.

SETTING GOALS--The most successful people set goals for themselves. A study showed that 3% of the students in one of the most successful graduating classes at Princeton wrote their goals down on paper while undergraduates. Twenty-five years later, those 3% had accumulated 90% of the wealth of the class. So write your goals down.

I have an example of this: in 1982 I was two years out of school. I wrote down my goal, with a little saying: "200 will do in '82." That was my goal--$200,000. At the end of 1982, I had earned $198,000. I wrote down my goal and repeated it every day, and it came true.

STUDENT OF SUCCESS--You can't continue to grow in your field if you don't take the time to take courses, attend conferences, read as much as you can, and continually improve yourself. Develop an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Learn from your mistakes. Every time you lose an assignment, go back and ask what you can do better. We just lost a $3 million assignment that we worked awfully hard on. We went back to find out what we could do better next time. The client liked the fact that we came back, because most people leave with their tail between their legs and are never heard from again. As a result, the client gave us a $10 million assignment.

In the end, the real secret to success is to focus on these two things: relationships and contributions. Treat every person as if they were going to explain to your children what you are all about. Contribute to your clients and coworkers, your family and friends, your church and community. Remember that every one of you who has ever developed one special relationship with your child, your spouse, your family, or your parents has what it takes to be one hell of a salesperson.

Ralph Spencer, CCIM
Putting Together the Success Puzzle

Ralph Spencer, CCIM, is a partner and executive vice president with Harrison Bates, a commercial real estate firm in Richmond, Virginia. He heads up the Corporate Services Division, which provides both transaction and consultative services on both a local and national basis to Richmond area corporations. In his 23 years in real estate he has been involved in retail, industrial, office, and investment brokerage; development; and consulting. He is a senior instructor for the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute.

Most of the basic pieces of the success puzzle haven't changed, but in today's market there are some new pieces and new opportunities. The pieces that really haven't changed are knowledge, attitude, skills, and habits. The basic knowledge you need in our industry hasn't changed. In the 10 or 12 years I've been an instructor, the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute has been teaching just about the same thing, and yet it's more on target today than ever.

You achieve the right attitude by staying in balance and having a positive self image. To stay in balance, set some guidelines and gauge when your life is out of balance. When you're in balance, your self image is positive. The better you feel about yourself, the better people feel about you.

Skills are developed through practice. I have a friend who is on the PGA tour--he makes the game look easy. But I know how much time he spends on the practice field. Maybe some of you need to spend more time on the practice field.

The last area is the habits we develop. It's up to us to try to develop good habits--like making calls before you get to the office or writing out your goals.

In addition to these unchanged basics, there are several other basics that are important pieces of the success puzzle.

HAVE A PERSONAL MARKETING PLAN. Have specific targets. People talk about having marketing plans but you also have to have targets. My targets are 53 Richmond-based corporations. Every month I track how I'm doing on those 53. I know I'll be more successful if I focus on specific companies.

Offer specific services. When I went into corporate services, I told clients they could just tell me what they needed. Guess what? Nobody ordered anything. I realized that I needed to have specific items on a menu from which they could choose. I now offer a menu of specific services because I've learned that I can't do everything.

Establish a planned contact program. I have a modest goal: I try to make 10 business development calls per month and to make two major business presentations per month. I try to have those business presentations to clients that will generate least 10 assignments per year.

Put together a solid presentation. Don't leave that to chance; rehearse. The most valuable time you have is when you are face to face selling to the customer. You don't want to be ineffective in a presentation because you have not rehearsed and not done the pertinent analysis. That presentation is when you're making all your money.

OFFER PERFORMANCE CLIENTS CAN DEPEND ON. Clients should be put first. They can see through phoniness in a heartbeat, so really focus on them.

Be honest with evaluations. If the rent should be two dollars, say it's worth two dollars. Some of us think assignments will go to the highest bid, but I don't think that's what clients want today. They want evidence and truth.

Keep the client informed. Communication is an area of great importance. Because I'm so busy, sometimes I don't realize that it's been two weeks since I last talked with the client. Always keep the client informed.

In addition to the basics, there are also a few new pieces today.

Be relationship oriented. There are fewer single deals. Both the service provider and the corporate real estate person want more from the relationship than one-time transactions. We have to work to earn trust and respect so that we can handle multiple assignments.

Have flexibility in compensation. You need to figure out how to solve the clients' problems on some financial basis that makes sense to both of you. If you say the only language you speak is commissions, then you might not fit into the client's plan.

Offer broader services. Offer clients an "a la carte” approach to your services. Clients have needs other than transactions. Offer consultative advisory services.

Keep up with technology. There are a lot of you in this industry who would prefer to stay in the shallow water because you don't think technology is worth learning. But if you don't embrace it, you are going to drown. You've got to know how to use the technology so that you can get back to clients with the information they need.

Learn to be a team coordinator. Companies are hiring fewer individuals and looking for more teams. We need to learn how to be a team leader and to get things done through other people. We have to figure out how to manage tasks in order to complete a project.

Be people and need based, not product and geography based. I have developed industrial, office, and retail and I've done investments, but what I concentrate on today is people . If you're in the service business, you want to be in the position of "trusted advisor" with clients. That's a difficult position to get into. I used to think geographically--Richmond, Virginia, only. If a client's needs were more than 50 miles away, I didn't think I could help them. But now I go all over the world. As the trusted advisor, I go where I have to go to solve clients' real estate problems. The reason I do that is because now I'm people and need based, not geography and product based.

The success puzzle is made of old and new pieces. Be secure in the basics--knowledge, attitude, skills, and habits--and have a personal marketing plan and offer performance clients can depend on, but embrace the new pieces and get ready for them: relationship orientation, flexibility in compensation, broader services, technology, and a focus on people and needs.