George Kohl recently joined developer Sterling Bay Cos. as the firm’s new chief operating officer. Illinois Real Estate Journal spoke to Kohl about what he’s learned during his long career in the commercial real estate industry, which followed a stint as a musician.
Here is some of what he had to say:
Illinois Real Estate Journal: How did you get your start in commercial real estate?
George Kohl: It’s really funny. My background was not really even a business background. I grew up in a working class family. I was really one of the first to have a chance to go to college. My folks, even though they weren’t college educated people, really saw the benefit. I ended up majoring in psychology, did well in school, but when I graduated, I asked myself, “What will I do?” One of my passions through high school and college was music. Actually, I was a base player. At that point in time, a friend of mine who was a year older had had some success writing a tune that got recorded and did well on the national charts. He said, “George, why don’t we put a band together?” So initially out of college, even though I probably should have used that degree right away, I ended up playing music for a few years. What I realized was that, although I love music, that’s a very hard, high risk, pretty crazy business. It got to a point where I realized that I was going to get out of the music business. I went to a friend, Landey Patton, who was a little older and kind of like a mentor or a big brother, and I said, “I’m tired of being poor and hungry. I need to get a real job. What should I do?” As it happened, he was in the commercial real estate industry. He helped me find my first job, and I ultimately got a graduate degree in business.
IREJ: How long have you worked in the real estate business?
Kohl: I’ve been in commercial real estate for just over 30 years. It’s been great. I’ve seen a lot of changes in that timeframe.
IREJ: What are some of the changes you have seen over the years?
Kohl: The business certainly has evolved. It seems that back in those days, it was a little more arbitrary and less organized. People were less focused. You could do a whole bunch of different things. And now I think people are specializing in different aspects of the business. Certainly, the ability to analyze deals got a lot more sophisticated. Technology has enabled people to have better access to information. I remember back in the day when you had a proposal, you’d literally type it. If there was a mistake, you had to use some correction fluid. And I think the general sophistication of people in the business has grown quite a bit. You really need to be skilled at the craft to really serve your clients well and to serve the company you’re working for well.
IREJ: What do you enjoy most about commercial real estate?
Kohl: I’d say really there are two things. One is you’re dealing in something that’s basic and touches everyone’s life. I’ve often thought everybody needs a place to live and a place to work. You’re dealing in a commodity that affects everybody and everyone can relate to. And at the end of the day, it’s the relationships. You build tremendous relationships at so many different levels. There’s a complexity to real estate, and those relationships endure over time.
IREJ: Why do you think you’ve been so successful during your career?
Kohl: Back when I first started out, I didn’t have a business background and I had not taken the requisite finance or business courses. I thought of a number of the deficiencies but I thought that if I commit to work hard, if I commit to really having a service attitude, if I try to make it easy to do business with me and if I respect people, over time that pays off. Those are some of the key elements and you could build a career out of that.
IREJ: When did you realize you had what it takes to be successful in commercial real estate?
Kohl: It’s interesting. Another reason commercial real estate is a great business is that in many ways it’s somewhat unlimited. I started out the first half of my career in brokerage and then about 15 years ago, I moved into more leadership and management roles. In the brokerage realm, early on in the first couple of months, I saw a financial return. Brokers measure how well they’re doing by the commissions they generate. I think in the leadership role, I realized that I was good at navigating complexity and good at setting priorities.
IREJ: What are some of the more challenging parts of working in commercial real estate?
Kohl: Ultimately, you need to be smart in how you deal with things, but you need to be a tenacious person. It’s a demanding business and so I think one of the challenges is that you can’t let down. You have to be the right kind of person. I think all of that boils down to whether you love what you’re doing, even during tough times. It’s very competitive. You sort of are as good as the most recent thing you’ve done in many cases. So I think the biggest challenge is to stay relevant, to maintain the drive to continue to personally improve and to deliver strong results. There are places where you can kind of punch the clock or tread water and this is certainly not the type of business that is kind to people like, but there are great rewards if you’re different.
IREJ: What advice would you have for people who are just starting out in this business?
Kohl: It used to be easier in some ways back in the day when things were less capital constrained, maybe when people were a little less rigorous about things. I think back in the 80s when I was starting, many developers of buildings or people acquiring buildings would have events that gathered brokers and it was easy to build relationships. My first bit of advice is to build relationships. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a young professionals’ organization or an industry organization like BOMA, find a network in your specialty. Start getting to know people. I’d say be a student of the industry. Figure out what area it is that you’re interested in and talk to people at the firm that you’re at or people at other firms. You want to find peer level colleagues so that you can share stories and help each other be better. You have to keep learning. Try to talk to people who are thought leaders or who are innovative and try to learn their secrets. I think it’s about always wanting to be better.
IREJ: What do you look forward to most about the future?
Kohl: I like the opportunity I have now. My career has oscillated between being on the service side and working with owners. After 10 years working for third-party service organizations, I’m very excited to be back on a side where you can be very creative and where you have limitless potential. To be with a firm that’s doing some really interesting, cutting-edge things that are being recognized by the marketplace and to be able to help that occur long into the future, that’s what I’m really excited about. And for me it’s just a nice change up. I guess it depends on how people are wired, but for me there are times when it’s important to shift gears and do something different and this came along at a great time as I look at the next chapter in my career.