The Park Avenue office of Transwestern’s scrappy New York City branch has the feel of a tech startup. A disassembled Ping-Pong table rests inside a conference room. The firm’s principals share office space with their employees. Meetings are sometimes held on the outdoor patio, which overlooks a frenetic Midtown scene. It captures the young, boutique feel that Lindsay Ornstein, 35, and Patrick Robinson, 53, have been aiming for ever since Transwestern—a Texas-based commercial real estate services, investment and development firm—tapped the duo to open up its New York City offices in 2011. Mr. Robinson and Ms. Ornstein, who previously worked together at Staubach before the firm was acquired by Jones Lang LaSalle in 2008, discussed Transwestern’s big steps into the crowded and competitive New York City marketplace.
The Commercial Observer: Is it difficult to start a real estate brokerage services firm today, especially with such a glut of established firms and upstarts like Avison Young in New York City?
Lindsay Ornstein: I think the timing is more important than the competitive set. Opening during a down cycle is optimal. We have displacement in the marketplace, we have people who are uncertain about their future and have been experiencing some degree of unhappiness at their current place, and that is an optimal time to be looking for new talent.
Patrick Robinson: I think that it depends. We would not want to be starting a firm from scratch in a market that is as highly competitive as New York, and there’s already some very good firms here. We’re starting a regional office for an already well-established national firm with a lot of client base and a lot of resources. I think it would be challenging for a company that doesn’t already have a client base or resources here in the United States or internationally to try to compete against. We’ve been around for almost 35 years and have an established reputation all over the country, and broad services and a deep bench. It’s just a matter of expanding into this locale. What we’re doing is hiring local people with experience in this market to join that platform. Never easy, but it certainly [has] a much higher probability of success being part of the Transwestern team. I think it would be brutal to try to start a new-firm startup in this environment and in this market particularly, as competitive as New York is.
You knew each other at Staubach. Would you say Staubach launched in New York in a similar fashion?
Mr. Robinson: Very similar. In 1996, I was the founding principal of [Staubach] and we had a great 10-year run. It was a very similar situation. It was a firm based out of Texas with a similar culture of teamwork and collaboration and transparency. After a great, great run with them, it was time to do something strategic for the shareholders, and we sold the firm to Jones Lang LaSalle. That enterprise came to an end.
Ms. Ornstein: I think that’s part of the reason we’ve had such good initial success, is that Pat’s done this already. It’s a similar culture; he knows how to build a company from scratch.
The track record of that, in the past, we’ve just translated that into the Transwestern platform, which again, is similar, with a broader breadth of services.