Colliers International Pres. Joe Harbert Hopes to Recreate His Success at ESG

In May, Joseph Harbert left brokerage and services firm Cushman & Wakefield after eight years managing the company’s New York City brokerage operations, switching to Colliers International, where he assumed the role of eastern regional president. The move offered Mr. Harbert a higher-level management position and oversight of a broader geography in an ambitious company eager to compete with more established brokerage powers. Mr. Harbert dished with The Commercial Observer about leaving Cushman, Colliers without Mark Jaccom, Howard Lutnick’s aggressive tactics, wooing Howard Grufferman and his relationship with the late Edward Gordon.

What made you want to make the switch to Colliers?
I love C&W, I had a great time there and it’s a great firm, and I was happy to be part of getting them back to being number one and improving their marketshare. But I also felt like I had done what I had come in to do and that it was time to try something different and go somewhere where my skill sets would be really needed. I’ve wanted to do something even larger than a tristate role. At Cushman I was in charge of Boston and Philly for a while; I worked in Chicago and I loved being in those markets. This is a fantastic opportunity that will involve me in overseeing a business that stretches to Virginia and Washington, D.C., and through the tristate region.

What changes will you bring to Colliers?

Boosting our market info will be a focal point here. I’m going to do lot of training, enhancing the market information and disseminating that info. The second thing, there are all kinds of ways of attracting talent and growing it, training and teaching, and we’ll add some things there where it’s applicable. I think of myself as a pretty good manager and I want to enhance some of the managerial practices and procedures from Boston and down to D.C. and Richmond. The things we need here I know how to do—it’s marketing, it’s training, it’s developing talent. Those are the things I will add on.

There was the perception among some competitors that Colliers’ New York predecessor, GVA Williams, was really centered around a group of owners, and that they ran brokerage as more of a side business that made it difficult for the firm to compete at the highest levels of brokerage.

There is a core to this operation that comes from the Cohen and Roos and Carmel families, but that’s a good part of this culture; there’s nothing at all negative about that. It gives you a unique perspective. If you understand how owners think, you deal a lot better at that table than just being a tenant-rep broker. If you look, Michael Cohen is very focused on the brokerage biz, Andy Roos is a top broker here. The notion that that’s negative is just negative selling on the part of competitors and other people.

There is some speculation that C&W could lose marketshare to larger competitors like Jones Lang LaSalle and CBRE, that it’s trapped in a difficult middle market that doomed other firms like Grubb & Ellis. Did that possibility influence your decision to come to Colliers?
I don’t think they’re an in-betweener; they’re pretty big, about $1.5 to $1.8 billion, and there’s a barrier to entry on that—there aren’t that many who could buy that size company. They have their strategic plan in place and they will continue to follow it, they’re very steady. They’ll recruit to fill gaps. I think they’re in a great position. C&W is number one in Westchester and New Jersey and in Manhattan, and that’s an incredible accomplishment. So I don’t know why people would have any concerns about them. Glenn Rufrano is a smart guy and the board is behind him. I think what happens when you get to the big leagues is you get attacked, and there are other firms that would love it if C&W disappeared and they feed the rumor mill.

Why are so many people moving around in the brokerage industry right now? Will it continue?
We’re in an interesting time. Companies get large because clients want services everywhere and people have aspired to be number one, to be the biggest, to put everyone else out. What happens is that some firms become too big. And the bigger you get the more rules and processes you start to have, and the further management gets from its employees. The core of this business are the brokers, and the big firms can lose sight of that. You need to pay attention to your employees. You need to show them that you care and that the company is committed to them and that the company is investing in the things that will make them successful. Companies over time tend not to pay attention to the people at the bottom and the middle and even on the way up, and people feel frustrated by that and it gives the opportunity for other firms to start up and that can be a good thing. So you have the Avison Young’s of the world and us, who would like to be stronger in New York. Of course we‘re not a startup. We have $1.8 billion in revenue.

Do you think you’ll be able to hire some big recruits?
We will where we can. People deserve to be happy and feel good about coming to work and feel supported and if they’re not they become candidates. We’re also not in a 38-million-square-foot leasing year. It’s an average velocity this year. In the busy years the last thing you think about is leaving, you’re too busy making money. You can be unhappy but it’s a second- or third-tier concern. You have to close deals, take care of your family, make some money. The market is not as vibrant and it makes it possible for people to think about making a move.

Howard Lutnick has taken fire for what some say was his heavy-handed approach in buying Grubb & Ellis and pressuring brokers to stick through the acquisition by holding their commissions. Do you think that was justified, or is that exactly the kind of behavior that will make picking up talent easier for you?

Howard is incredibly smart and he’s bringing more Wall Street practices to the table. You can’t fault a company for trying to hold onto employees. I don’t have any negative thoughts about that. He is giving them an opportunity to take advantage of so-called bonuses and invest them in the company stock, but remember that stock has returns on it. But it changes what is traditional in a brokerage operation and it probably needed a lot of explaining and hand-holding and actually selling to the employees why this is a good thing. Instead it happened so quickly they weren’t able to probably explain it properly and perhaps that changed the perception of it. Would I have done it differently? I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone major leave, so over time I think these things will fade.

Will you end up hiring any brokers from Newmark or Grubb & Ellis?
There are still a couple of free agents out there. Howard Grufferman is out there from Grubb. Everyone is recruiting him, he was their top broker for something like three out of the last five years.

Are you talking to him?
I am talking to him. I spoke to him for about an hour and I’m due to talk to him again in 20 minutes.
How did you end up getting the job at Colliers? Did they approach you or did you approach them?
I got a call from [Colliers CEO] Dylan Taylor and he said that he had heard great things about me, which is a great selling line. And he said, I am going to be in town and I would like it if we have a cup of coffee. I didn’t think it was a recruitment call, I just thought he was trying to pick my brain. He’s a smart guy.

Where did you go for coffee? Starbucks?
No it was nicer than Starbucks. It was an Italian place. We had espresso. We wound up talking for an hour. Then we met again for lunch. We didn’t talk about me. I thought he wanted to say hello. In this industry, everyone is always picking each other’s brain to get the inside dope. Finally, he said we have a lot of needs at Colliers and you’re the kind of guy we’d look to and we’d love to talk. I said I am happy at Cushman and am not looking to go anywhere, but he was persistent. He painted a picture of a larger role and he’s a good listener. Some of the most fun I had in life was at Insignia, building their national platform, and he picked up on that and talked to me about Boston and Washington and how it would be an East Coast role and how he needed someone to be his partner and develop the business, and he said I think that guy could be you and if you’re interested I’d love to talk to you or someone you could recommend. And I started thinking about it and realized that maybe I have completed my tasks at C&W and it might be a good opportunity.

Mark Jaccom tried to make Colliers into a powerhouse—where did he go right and wrong and what will you do differently?

Mark is a good salesman. He has energy, a ton of energy, and you’d hate to be competing against him because he’d probably beat you.

Like beat you in terms of competing? Or physically?
Not physically! He accomplished a lot here. So I wish him well and think he will do a great job over at Cresa and build on what he did here. Retail leasing brokerage is a gap for us. At C&W we had the best retail platform and at Colliers we’ll build that. We have gotten a lot of calls from retail people who are looking to land with a brand name.

You were very close with legendary broker and brokerage executive Ed Gordon. What was Ed like, and what did he teach you?
Well first, Ed was scary. He was an intense guy. The first thing he’d ask you after a client meeting was what could we have done better? It could have been a home run of a presentation and he’d want to know why it wasn’t a grand slam. He was an absolute perfectionist and he was a hard worker. There is the other side of Ed Gordon. At critical moments, when you were least expecting it, you would get a note from Ed, typed on little grey note paper by his secretary. But he had written it and he would sign it. It would be something like, ‘I can see how hard you worked on that presentation to the market group,’ or something like that. I still save them. ‘Joe, that was the best overall presentation of the market you’ve done since I met you.’ You never got the hug from Ed but that’s what you got: positive feedback. And when he gave it to you, it felt good.

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