Delving into the intricate and evolving world of commercial real estate, we are privileged to get insights from John Whitney, SIOR from Whitney & Company, Kitchener-Waterloo. A third-generation realtor with deep roots in the Kitchener Waterloo real estate board, John offers a unique perspective on the industry’s transformation, technology’s role, as well as the values that have propelled his successful career. Continue reading to to learn more about the role of mentorship in CRE and how the new generation can set themselves up for success in this industry.
What's your story and how did you get started in the commercial real estate industry?
My family has been involved in the Kitchener Waterloo real estate board for 80 years, so my grandfather, my father, and myself joined after university; I guess I followed in the family footsteps. My grandfather was one of the first SIOR members in Canada, and my father was also president of SIR - the original Society of Industrial Realtors before they added the Office designation. Most of the meetings were in the US, and both my father and grandfather were involved with that.
When you achieve the designation, you feel proud of it, and you want to serve it properly.
Can you explain to our audience how the relationship between Canadian SIORs and US SIORs developed?
What happened back in the day is that people specializing in Office and Industrial were looking for peers to educate themselves, learn from, and share best practices; they found this in the SIR network. My grandfather executed a large deal in Newfoundland and partnered with an SIR member in Hackensack, New Jersey. SIOR is fundamentally about collaboration, born out of a need for such connections.
When did you know that this career was for you?
I had a wonderful geography teacher who motivated me, and I ended up going to university to do a specialization in urban geography. Even though my family was in it already, I never really thought about the commercial real estate business until I completed my honours degree and then I jumped in, in 1975.
Do you remember your first transaction?
We were a small office in Kitchener, Ontario. We had a couple of people who did commercial and some who did residential, and I used to go to the open houses. I sold a few houses early in the game before I got involved with the commercial stuff. I quickly realized that I preferred the commercial side. People in commercial real estate thought more quantitatively than qualitatively. For example, when you’re trying to sell a house, you’ll have clients saying they don’t like the style of the dining room or where the washroom is, whereas a business person would assess based on location and pricing instead of taste. It was a practical decision they were making for their workforce.
How has carrying the designation affected your career?
It’s a differentiator - the people who have the designation are true professionals, and they hold themselves out to be that way. I always felt that to respect the designation, I represented my clients in a way that they deserved. When you achieve the designation, you feel proud of it, and you want to serve it properly.
What is required to maintain a career in commercial real estate - what sacrifices have to be made in order to make it in the business?
If you are truly passionate about it, you’re not making a sacrifice; you’re really just working up to the capabilities that you need to - it’s not easy, it’s hard work and it's about prospecting. We continually learn how we can do things better. I like having good clients and representing them, and when you do that, you get referrals, which is a strong vote of confidence.
What’s the biggest difference between how commercial real estate is done now versus how it was done before?
First, there’s a lot more people than when I got started. There was only a handful that looked after our market; today, there’s perhaps 40 - 50 people. The market is growing too. The sellers and buyers have become more sophisticated. The companies are bigger; in some cases, they are international companies, and not necessarily the local companies that we used to see here. You deal with a CFO instead of a CEO. They now have a lot of requirements that were never articulated before.
How does technology factor into this? Does it make the job easier or does it complicate things?
Certainly, technology has changed things. I learned how to type on a typewriter, so it’s a little different. The future is in these young people who have great computer skills - database skills and search skills. I has made the industry more sophisticated.
There was a time when people hired agents and said, 'Come to the office, here’s a desk, here’s a phone, good luck.' They didn’t help the person get to the next step, and of course, those people didn’t last very long, and there was probably nothing wrong with them; they just weren’t given the opportunity to understand the business.
What does mentoring look like in the industry?
When I was starting up in the business and would collaborate with other companies, there was an expression that a lot of the sales managers would use: 'the dog doesn't hunt,' which translated to mean that a particular individual was never going to make it.
Today, we have a mentoring process where you take a senior agent like myself and bring a junior agent in to work with me. They do the work I wasn't too keen on, while I work on business development. The mentoring process wasn’t strong when I came into the business, but today it’s much stronger. If you bring someone into the business who has good social skills, you can teach that person to hunt.
Kitchener Waterloo has four post-secondary institutions to draw from—wonderful young people coming through school into the business, and they are the most amazing people to teach, so I think the future is very bright for the commercial real estate business."
What causes are you passionate about?
We have a very strong technology ecosystem in the Kitchener Waterloo area. 25 years ago, we built an organization called Communitech. I was chairman for 10 years, and it’s all about communities and helping tech companies grow. We had Blackberry and OpenText, and a lot of companies that expanded in this marketplace and made the region what it is today. There are CEOs and people involved in these types of organizations that I have a lot of respect for. It really is a broad brush of people that you glean a little bit from every time."
Communitech is very much active; it is prospering, and Chris Albinson has returned from Silicon Valley; he’s running Communitech now and brings a whole different flair to it. It’s wonderful organization.
What advice would you give to newcomers to the industry?
It takes hard work; there's nothing easy about this business. You might falter, but you have to get back up. Mentoring should help eliminate some of the pitfalls that newcomers tend to face. There was a time when people hired agents and said ‘Come to the office, here’s a desk, here’s a phone, good luck!‘ They didn’t help them get to the next step, and of course, that person didn’t last very long. There was probably nothing wrong with them; they just weren’t given the opportunity to understand the business.
Now with mentoring, you are working with someone in the heat of the battle; they get to see the business for themselves and glean as much information as they can, which also makes for a very healthy relationship between the agent and the mentoring agent.
John Whitney’s journey through commercial real estate, shaped by familial traditions, adaptability, and a commitment to professionalism, paints a vivid picture of the industry's evolution and future potential. His reflections provide invaluable insights and advice for those aspiring to make their mark in the realm of commercial real estate. With mentors like John guiding the way, the future indeed looks bright for the next generation of real estate professionals.