Luke Hudson thought his life would be different. That was until his fourth year pitching in the major leagues when he suffered a severe shoulder injury. Two years later, at 32, after a second surgery and rehab, he was still in pain. Increasingly, Hudson found himself thinking it was time to turn the page.
On the advice of a friend and former ballplayer who was building a career in commercial real estate sales, Hudson made his decision and left the Kansas City Royals during spring training in 2009. A week later he joined Lee & Associates’ Orange, California, office. He was a rookie again.
“The first few months were the most challenging,” Hudson recalls. “For years I lived in a world where friends always were calling for tickets, fans wanted autographs and I was making decent money. Now my phone had stopped ringing. I was cold calling on small industrial users every day. I was learning fast and yet I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a transaction.”
Hudson’s story is familiar. A lot of ex-athletes populate the ranks of commercial real estate brokerage firms. Their advantage over other new agents may be that their travels to scheduled matches and games have expanded their network of friends and acquaintances worldwide. Otherwise, they know – as do all successful agents – how to win within the rules and that success isn’t accidental but a process of hard work and dedication.
Hudson’s timing couldn’t have been worse. In 2009 the recession was in full force. The wreckage of shuttered companies and lost jobs was piling up and vacancies tripled seemingly overnight.
“It took me a few months to close my first lease and a year for my first sale. That one started as a lead for a small lease that was handed to me by one of the principals in our office. It ended with my client instead buying a 4,500-square-foot industrial building in Fullerton, California,” he said.
It often takes even the hardest-working new agents one year to complete their first transaction, says Joe Vargas, Lee & Associates’ Executive Vice President-National Advisory. A key difference in Lee’s business plan is the importance the company places in the recruitment, training and success of each new agent, he said.
“That’s what sets us apart,” says Vargas. “We believe it’s important to bring young talent into the industry. Lee’s ownership structure also creates opportunities for new agents at a time when few brokerage firms see the value of investing in internal growth,” he said.
Hudson’s first deal is a classic example. Veteran brokers, who are shareholders in the company, frequently come across new business leads that are questionable or less-promising. Rather than let prospects slip away, leads often are presented to new agents to follow up. If the lead turns into a transaction, the commission helps the new agent and the bottom line of the office.
After the second and third year, a successful new agent usually is covering desk costs and increasingly is filling the pipeline with pending deals.
Chris Nash is a new agent in Lee & Associates’ Houston, Texas, office that opened January 2015. A 2013 business finance grad from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, Nash worked 18 months as an in-house agent for a large Houston-based office landlord. He oversaw nearly 1 million square feet of Class B space. The salary was decent, he says, but the work was unrewarding. Confident he could succeed in commission sales, he started with Lee & Associates.
“I didn’t expect to make $1 in my first year. After six months I got my first lead through a family friend and closed the deal with credited help of one of our principals. It was a 19,000-square-foot full-floor requirement. I’d never seen a check that big. That’s what I needed to get going,” Nash said.
“It’s a great culture here,” Nash said. “The partners are generous with training and support. They answer all my questions without reservations. Gradually, I’m building my own platform and will use all the company resources to full advantage.”
Marley Welsh, a new agent in Lee’s office in Columbia, Maryland, tells a similar story. She was introduced to a member of the golf club, where her dad is head pro. The member, a commercial property broker at an international firm, outlined the industry’s opportunities and challenges. Welsh liked the idea of independence and working through transactions.
After graduating in 2011 from Rutgers University, where Welsh captained the school’s NCAA Division I lacrosse team, she joined the golf club member’s company in Baltimore – but as a marketing assistant. It was a paid position, although she was promised that it would lead to a broker’s desk. After 18 months, she said it was evident that, despite her work ethic and earning her real estate license, she always would be viewed by management as a salaried worker.
Welsh was approached by Allan Riorda, another men’s club member, who was opening a new office for Lee & Associates along the Washington, D.C., -Baltimore corridor. She felt it was a perfect opportunity to start fresh and begin her brokerage career. She joined in April 2013.
“My mentors took me in and included me in on everything they were working on,” she said. “They never complained, and I was gaining knowledge. It took me about eight months to get my first commission check for a 10,000-square-foot industrial lease that started with a cold call. But it took me a year to get comfortable and to be able to say, ‘I’ve got this.’”
After a decade of playing college and pro water polo and as assistant coach of at University of Redlands while earning a master’s degree, Ryan Hall joined Lee & Associates in July. He is under the guidance of Michael Chavez, the office’s managing principal. Hall expects to receive his license in September.
“Michael says that’s when the training wheels are coming off. I’ll also be eligible for compensation. If it takes a few years, I’m fine with that,” said Hall, 32. “In the meantime, I’m acting like a sponge and very fortunate to be where I am. I’m confident that the time and hard work will pay off in the long run.”
Craig Hagglund, the managing principal in Lee’s office in Oakland, California, is one of several Lee mangers that have had summer interns who have returned after graduation.
“It’s a great way to test the water and see if it’s the business for them,” says Hagglund, who is co-sponsoring a new office in Walnut Creek. “One of our partners in Oakland started as an intern after his sophomore year at St. Mary’s College, where he played rugby. He’s one of our top producers.”
Nevertheless, it’s still a tough business where only one in five is successful as an agent on commission. Many who leave the brokerage business migrate to other careers in the industry.
Hudson, who was elected as a principal broker in 2012, says successful brokers are often attracted by other facets and allurements of property brokerage.
“I love meeting people and finding solutions,” Hudson said. “That’s rewarding. I firmly believe that if you work hard and take care of your clients you’ll make money and have a successful career.”