Joseph Hill, senior vice president with the St. Louis office of Colliers International, has been selling commercial real estate since 2005. He survived the economic plunge of 2008 and has built a steady stream of repeat clients. How did he do it, and what keeps him motivated? Here’s some of what Hill had to say about his busy career and the passion he has for commercial real estate.
How did you get your start in the commercial real estate business?
Joseph Hill: I graduated from the University of Missouri in 1998 and became a high school teacher. I taught social studies, nothing to do with commercial real estate. Being a teacher is a great job, and I did enjoy it. But I felt like I needed to get out into the business world. I had that drive. I was fortunate to have some connection to real estate. My father-in-law was an appraiser. He introduced me to a couple of brokers. And that’s how I got introduced to the industry.
After you left teaching, did you jump right into commercial real estate?
Hill: I did convince some of my father-in-law’s friends to hire me. I had no experience with commercial real estate. But I did have the benefit of not being right out of college and being a little bit older. I think that experience of holding down a job already did help. It can be difficult for people who are just coming out of college and who say they want to be a broker. This is an advisor role. Our job is to advise our clients. How are you, a kid fresh out of college, in any position to advise someone who has been working in the business world for 20 years? It’s almost impossible to do that as a kid just out of college. People try to do that, and some do succeed. But you have to be in the right place. You need to get that mentoring and experience first. You can’t really do it on your own at that age.
Did you benefit from working with mentors? And how important was that to your career?
Hill: That helped. The folks I got involved with were good mentors. They took me under their wing and I gained experience quickly. But I was also very motivated. I was in a situation where I had to make an income, so I did whatever it took to do that. My first position was in a small shop, a find-your-own-way kind of place. There wasn’t corporate business being handed off. You had to generate your own business. Fortunately, I had the benefit of having more experienced people around me. Once you found a piece of business, these other professionals weren’t going to let you fail. They were sure to guide me and help me once I found the business.
How did you bring in the business during those early days?
Hill: I was terrible at cold-calling, I’ll admit. I made zero progress with that. So instead, I picked an industrial park and went door-to-door. I found some decent business that way. Before I did that, though, I put together some useful information that I could give to people. That is the key. Your chances of walking in and being able to immediately talk to a decision-maker are slim to none. Where I had the most success was when I left something behind, some important piece of information, and they called me back. They didn’t see my young face, but they did receive a valuable piece of information. That gave them a different impression of me. They saw me as someone who could help them, who could advise them. They called back and I was able to help them. That’s how I made it over that hump.
What about any speed bumps? Did anything come up that slowed things down for you?
Hill: Unfortunately, by the time I figured things out – I had started in this business in 2005 – the market crashed in 2008. I had to figure out how to get through those slow times. I did two things: We worked a lot with tenants at that time. It was definitely a tenant’s market at that time. If I was working with a tenant at that time, I had the opportunity to help them take advantage of market conditions. So that helped.
I also found the opportunity to do some appraisal work at this time. I had learned underwriting of all asset types, multifamily, industrial, office and retail. I spent a couple of years in addition to doing a few brokerage deals working as an associate appraiser. That was a turning point for me. Fast forward to today and I am an investment sales specialist. Without that underwriting and evaluation experience, I couldn’t do what I do today. Nor could I do it without the leasing and user side of the equation where you are out there working with landlords and tenants. That is equally as valuable. When you put that together, you have a unique skill set. It allowed me to transition to investment sales full time in 2014.
How important is it to set yourself apart from your competitors in some way?
Hill: My advice to anyone is to become very good at something. It doesn’t have to be investment sales, but whatever it is you want to do, become very good at it. If you do, you become known within the industry and among your peers as someone who is the go-to person for that one thing. They recognize that when they need help with that one thing, you are the right person to call. Then your phone rings.
What has kept you so interested in commercial real estate?
Hill: I feel like it gives me the opportunity to constantly improve. There is endless room for growth if that is what you want. I don’t feel like I am working for someone else. It’s like owning your own business. But I also have the support of a big company around me with a lot of resources. The administrative side of the business is taken care of for me. There is so much upside in this business. The ability to be an entrepreneur, that is available to me. That is unique about brokerage. With another job, I might not have that opportunity.
What about challenges? What do you find most challenging about commercial real estate?
Hill: It is very competitive. Finding business is obviously a challenge. You have to earn the trust of your clients. You have to establish that relationship. You are subject to the market a little bit, too. As the market swings, you do have to adjust. We are in a great time now. It’s been a little bit easier to be successful. But as the market swings the other way, it will become more challenging. There will be less business and no fewer people to compete with for that business.
How do you establish that trust with clients?
Hill: You become the expert at something. That helps. If your client needs something that is outside your wheelhouse, it’s important to find someone who can help them. If you are not the right person to provide the best service to your client on a particular matter, you refer that client to the right person or you team up with someone who can provide that best service. It’s easy in our business to become very focused on that next paycheck. The key, though, is to have a big-picture mentality. Longevity is more important than the next paycheck.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Hill: I am married with two kids, so family and children always comes first. I enjoy spending time with my family. I used to be a competitive bicycle racer. My family has taken the place of that for now. But I still like to ride. I like to be outside, and I like to exercise and play golf. I also enjoy traveling, as much as my work obligations allow me to do it.