John Latessa, president for the Midwest at the Chicago office of CBRE, has worked in commercial real estate since 1989. Latessa, then, has thrived in this field for more than three decades.
But what steps has Latessa taken to build such a successful and long-lasting career in such a competitive industry? What has kept him interested in the field for more than 30 years? And what led him to this career in the first place?
Latessa chatted about these topics, and more, during a recent interview with Midwest Real Estate News. Here is some of what he had to say.
You’ve been in commercial real estate a long time. What led you to this career?
John Latessa: This wasn’t something I had always planned to do. I was working as a caretaker assistant one summer. I mowed the lawns, built rock beds and generally took care of the landscaping duties at the home of an uber wealthy family. I was curious what this individual did to afford his lifestyle. Turns out, he was a real estate developer, and a very successful one. He had built a number of properties in Ann Arbor.
I was working as this man’s weekend yard person and was on my way to college at Michigan State University. He was coming up his expansive driveway one day and I flagged him down. I told him, ‘I don’t know what it is you do, but I was wondering what you’d recommend I study in college.’ He told me he was in real estate. He recommended that I should study money issues in college, which I translated into studying finance. And that’s what I did.
From that moment on, I was interested in working in real estate. After I graduated, I came into contact with John Catalano, the founder of Catalano and Company, which was one of the most successful boutique real estate firms in Southeast Michigan. He offered me a job. Eventually, his company was bought by Grubb & Ellis. That’s how my career started.
You’ve been in commercial real estate for more than 30 years. What do you enjoy so much about his career?
Latessa: I have had the good fortune of working in different industry sectors. I started in brokerage and then moved into corporate real estate. I worked for a time as the head of the corporate real estate arm of Kelly Services. Then I went into development when I worked at Hines. Now I’ve been at CBRE for a long period of time. Each of these positions had their own nuances. I would say, though, that I really enjoy the development side of real estate. It is so interesting to watch something go from concept to completion. When I was at Hines, I had the opportunity to work on the GM Renaissance Center. If you are from the Detroit area, you recognize that as the most iconic building in our state. The opportunity I’ve had to work on some amazing projects, to take something from concept to completion, is a very exciting part of this career.
What is it like when you see one of the buildings you’ve played a part in developing?
Latessa: It is very rewarding. That building often outlives your time with whatever company you were working with when you were helping to develop it. You know that this building will last well beyond you. The legacy of it all is quite rewarding.
But it’s not just about the buildings. It’s about the people, too. I haven’t jumped around to too many companies during my career. I’ve formed relationships, then, at the companies where I’ve worked. I’ve gotten the chance to work with some great people. Those relationships are so important. There’s something about going through challenging or trying times with people that really solidifies those relationships. There are people I’ve worked with at Hines and people I’ve worked with at Grubb & Ellis whom I am still friends with. In addition to creating these buildings that you can see and touch, you also create relationships that take you through your career.
What steps have you taken to build your successful career?
Latessa: There’s a term that doesn’t get used a lot now. That term is ‘authentic.’ I like to think that I treat people in an authentic way. Being authentic, honest, forthright and transparent is important. I don’t know if that is the key to success but being authentic has always served me well. If you treat people in a very transparent and forthright manner, they respect the interplay. It’s easy for me to ask people to do something because I am probably doing the same thing right alongside them. If I had to pick one word that is important to my success, it’d be ‘authenticity.’
There’s a unique thing about our business. For what a large industry sector it is, commercial real estate remains a small community. You can get to one degree of separation in a short order. I think treating people in a manner that everyone feels good about is important. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also rewarding.
What’s the most challenging part of this business?
Latessa: The hardest part is getting something from concept to completion. You have to get everyone aligned for that to happen. Everyone has to buy into whatever it is you are working on. You have to get all the personalities and thought leaders to come together. That is the issue. That is the challenge. But while that is the part that can be difficult, it is also the part that can be great. When you do accomplish it, when everyone buys into the vision, that is pretty special.
That’s like winning your Super Bowl. Everyone bought in. You went through training camp. You went through the trials and tribulations. You worked at it. Lo and behold, the work paid off and you succeeded.
What are some of the projects you worked on in your career that stand out?
Latessa: There are a couple, but they stand out to me for weird reasons. It’s the first building I ever bought. That was special, that first building I bought with a bunch of partners. We found the property. We were able to get the capital. You look at that and say, ‘I own that building.’ That’s quite a feeling. It’s not necessarily the big marquee projects that stand out. It’s the first building you buy, the first something you build. I remember when we completed all these little, smaller projects in the downtown Detroit area. This was well before they made the downtown hum. They were rewarding, one-off projects. Having the ability to do something like that is special.
Now that I am at CBRE, the most rewarding aspect is when you see the development of people and talent. I am working with some brilliant people. It’s rewarding now when you watch great people become brilliant, when you see the trajectory of someone’s career rise.
The pandemic has obviously changed everything. Are you worried at all that the momentum we’d seen in downtown Detroit – and other Midwest downtowns – won’t return after the pandemic ends?
Latessa: Personally, I do think activity will return to all urban settings. Obviously, cities are suffering through a great setback right now. But there will be a time again when all the things that make cities great, including downtown Detroit, come back. There will be a time when people can enjoy the sporting events, theater, arts, all the reasons that people want to live, work and play in the city. Those things aren’t going away. The same things that have always pulled us to large urban centers will pull us back to them once again. You are already seeing optimism regarding COVID-19. There is great optimism surrounding vaccines. There are better times ahead.
What are some of the things you like to do when not at work?
Latessa: I have two children. One has graduated from college and the other is in college. For most of my career, when I wasn’t working, I’d follow them around in their activities. Both are very athletic, sporty kids. By doing that, I didn’t hone any big hobbies. I’m not a great golfer. What I do like to do are the things I picked up from spending time with my family, like tennis and fishing. If I have idle time, I’m going to spend it with my family.