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.