Garrett Keais has worked in commercial real estate for nearly three decades. During this time, he’s regularly ranked as a top producer and has managed the real estate portfolios of several multi-billion-dollar financial institutions. Today, he is one of the leaders in Detroit’s commercial industry, working as a managing principal with the Southfield, Michigan, office of Cushman & Wakefield.
Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Keais about his career, the evolution of commercial real estate and what it takes to thrive in this competitive industry.
Taking the long path: I got my start in this business in banking in the late ‘80s for Standard Federal Bank. I was doing REO property sales and property management leasing. Then I earned my appraisal license. For the first 10 years of my career, I worked in the financial institution industry. Eventually, I went to work for a life insurance company that had a lot of distressed real estate. We’d do loan work-outs and asset dispositions. I did much of that in Detroit, though I also spent some time in Los Angeles.
Eventually, I ended up at NBD Bank, which is now Chase. I worked in the bank’s trust department handling commercial real estate that fell into trust accounts. I really enjoyed working with commercial real estate. So I decided to go into the brokerage end of the business, which I still really enjoy. It’s such a diverse day when you do commercial real estate. No day is the same.
A people business: I did think a bit about staying with appraisal. But the days felt a little too much the same. There was a little too much number-crunching. What I like most about brokerage is the people. It really is a people business, not a commercial real estate business. Many of my clients have become close friends. Behind every piece of commercial real estate is a person. That is what I really like, the decades of relationships not only with my clients but with the people I work with, too.
The connections matter: As brokers, we are often on separate sides of a deal. But we do have to work together. We are always negotiating with each other. We do have to work together to close a deal. It’s the same with appraisers, bankers, title companies, you are always dealing with the different facets of the commercial real estate industry. There are always people whom you are in contact with. You have to work with all these people if you want to move a deal forward.
Being a people person helps: To succeed in this business, you have to like people. You have to be able to understand people when you are negotiating and dealing with them. Commercial real estate is a service industry. You have to serve your client. Working closely with people, then, is first and foremost. Of course, like with anything else you do, hard work is extremely important, too. You have to put in the hours to make it happen in this business.
Integrity matters, too. You have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning. There is only one Garrett Keais in the world. You need to keep your reputation strong. Integrity is so important if you want to keep the business coming. You need to do what you say you are going to do.
The domino effect: There is a bit of a domino effect in this business. Word spreads. People are always checking up on the other people in this business. It is critical to keep your name in good stead.
Tech changes: Technology has certainly changed our industry. Of course, it’s changed everybody’s. I’m not a doctor who is on call 24/7. I’m not out there saving lives. But with technology and different time zones, we are a global company. People want things quickly. With email and technology where it is today, the hours have gotten a little longer. You can’t shut off the phone as easily as before.
Tech, though, is not the disrupter like you are seeing in other industries. The brokers on the ground with the knowledge and information are still critical to getting deals done. Tech is changing the industry, but you still need the human touch.
A big deal: There are a few deals that I am especially proud of. There is one that springs to mind. We worked on a project in downtown Detroit for what is now known as Ally Detroit Center, a Class-A office tower. It used to be known as One Detroit Center, a million-square-foot office building. Comerica Bank was in there. But the bank decided to move its headquarters to Texas. That took the occupancy of the building down to about 30 percent. The new owners of the building challenged us to lease the building back up.
What was so great about this assignment was that we worked 100 percent as a team. There was the brokerage team, the marketing team, the property management team and the ownership team. We did some nice things together. We had billboards with the building on it. We held some impressive events for brokers, clients and tenants in the building. To make a long story short, despite the tough times in Detroit at the time, we were able to take the occupancy back from 30 percent to close to 70 percent. That led to the sale of the building to Bedrock, owned by Dan Gilbert. Dan Gilbert convinced Ally to move into the building. It was a homerun for everyone. We had such a strong team working on that building, that the whole assignment was really fun. It was a challenge, a lot of hard work. But it was a great success story.
Making a difference in Detroit: I’m born and raised in Detroit. I went to high school here. I am so excited to see what is happening in Detroit today. It is on a great path. We have seen some incredible things during the last 10 years or so. And I think there are more good things to come. I’ve always done business in Detroit. It’s been a big challenge in the past. It’s never easy. It’s always a lot of work. But today Detroit has a great story to tell.
Commercial real estate has played a big part in Detroit’s revival. The movement to urbanism that is happening in the major cities across the country has really helped in Detroit. We had so many beautiful buildings that had sat vacant for so long. Many of them are now being completely renovated. We have new companies coming into Detroit. Google moved into downtown Detroit. Amazon has moved. The future leaders, our young people, are working in these urban settings. It’s an amazing story. The CBD of Detroit is on an incredible comeback. The suburbs are doing well, too. It’s so nice to see.
Dual role: I am part of a team at Cushman & Wakefield helping to build up the Detroit office. Exciting things are happening here. I have taken on a dual role. I am the managing principal of the office and a broker. I do both. It is very rewarding to do this at this stage in my career. I can bring in young people and mentor them, help them learn and grow. That is exciting. To see the next group of real estate leaders coming in, that is rewarding.
Out-of-office hours: When I’m not working, I like to spend time with my family. I also enjoy spending time in Northern Michigan. It is beautiful. The creative side of me enjoys photography. I like to take black-and-white photographs, often of older buildings, maybe from several different angles. I also enjoy martial arts, something I’ve enjoyed for the last 20 years or so. I study Wadu-ryo, a type of Japanese karate style.