Humbling moments often come when you least expect them. In the case of Bill Cawley, one such experience happened a few months back. He was showing some office space to a Dallas tenant rep and, as introductions were being made, the youngish broker paused to think. “Cawley Partners,” he said. “Yeah … I think I’ve heard of you guys.”
It wasn’t the kind of reception Cawley was used to. At one time, the 58-year-old was big man on campus in Dallas real estate, with a thriving brokerage operation and millions of square feet of office developments.
The broker’s comments made Cawley realize just how low-profile he had become. His decision in the mid-2000s to “check out” of the business for a while had worked … a little too well. Today—sensing big opportunities in the market, and with his competitive nature reignited—he’s jumping back into the game. But in commercial real estate, it’s not just about who you know, but who knows you.
The good news is, it shouldn’t take long for people to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with the Cawley brand. The real estate exec is aggressively lining up office acquisitions, aiming to add 2 million square feet to the 1 million he already owns. Perhaps even more significant, Cawley has relaunched his leasing and management business.
“It just feels right to get going again,” he says. “The economy is taking off, and I have never felt more confident in my ability to gauge risk and see opportunity.”
Growing up in a small town south of Chicago, Cawley always knew he wanted to work in real estate someday, just like his dad. At 15, he lied about his age to get his first job. After college, he went to work at his father’s firm. He had married at 19 and already had two young children. Neither the job nor the marriage lasted very long, though, and in 1982, Cawley moved to the real estate mecca of Dallas, seeking a fresh start.
Unable to interest one of the big brokerage firms—they were all recruiting Harvard MBAs and IBM professionals at the time—he took a job selling condominiums. Cawley quickly became the company’s top producer, even selling a condo to a “mystery shopper” who had been hired by the firm to help evaluate its sales force.
He went on to work for the Bass family in Fort Worth, then in 1993 launched his own commercial real estate firm, Cawley Associates. Within a year, business was booming. Cawley began to expand, opening offices in California and other markets. And in 1995 he bought Wilcox Cos. from Ray Hunt—a move that allowed him to get into development. Cawley once called it “a case of the minnow eating the whale.”
Not long after, the commercial real estate market in Dallas began to tank. But Cawley would soon confront an even bigger challenge: a horrific accident that nearly cost him his life.
It was July 5, 1997. Cawley was on a guys’ trip to Colorado, trying out a new motorcycle. He became separated from his riding buddies and tried to pass a car on a two-lane road near Aspen. A dangerous game of chicken ensued. Slamming on the brakes to avoid an oncoming car, Cawley was flung over a 30-foot cliff. The impact crushed his right leg and both of his arms. No one stopped to help.
Determined to survive, but unsure that he would, Cawley used his one good leg to slowly thrash his way back up to the road. He was discovered by his friends and flown to a hospital where he went into surgery—for 19 hours.The recovery was slow and difficult, a yearlong process that involved nine more surgeries. Always fiercely independent, Cawley had to learn to depend on others for help, at home and at work. Once a very top-down company, Cawley-Wilcox became much more flat, with other executives stepping up to oversee various parts of the business.
By the early 2000s, things were really taking off. Cawley had a number of new development projects under way, including the 1.1 million-square-foot JPMorgan International Plaza along the Dallas North Tollway. Former CBRE exec Ran Holman joined the company as president, to run the brokerage group.
“In my 25 years in commercial real estate, I have not seen a better salesman,” says Holman, who now oversees North Texas operations for Hines. “Bill and I had a lot of success together. Some of the best times were on the road, making three or four pitches a day. It got to where we could finish each other’s sentences. Occasionally, I would throw in some big words, and he would counter by changing his storytelling to throw me off my cadence.
“We won more than our fair share, and I think a lot of that was because of chemistry and Bill’s innate closing ability,” Holman says. “He’s a guy who doesn’t take his eyes off the ball. If you believe this business is art and science, Bill hangs out on the art side.”
Learning to Let Go
As time went on, however, Cawley became less enamored with work, especially on the brokerage side. The accident had changed him. He was no longer consumed with business. He “way over-married” in 1999, and wanted to spend more time at his Willow Bend home with Keely and their twins, Hunter and Kailee, who were born in 2003.
There were other conflicts.
“Bill is a natural leader, but not a natural manager, which is not atypical for a salesman,” Holman says. “The challenges that he faced as his company grew stemmed from him being a player and a coach. I believe it was hard for him to let go of either role, as he was always his own top producer.”
When Holman left the company in 2007, Cawley says it was a wake-up call.
“I had watched others stay with their companies too long and become a little bitter,” he says. “My business stopped growing because I wasn’t focused on it. When Ran left, I realized it was time to sell the business. If I didn’t, it was going to die.”
He sold his brokerage company in 2008 to two of his top execs, John Conger and Tom Sutherland, who now operate their company as CASE Commercial Real Estate Partners. Cawley focused on his personal life and investments, most of which were in other markets.
Today he’s targeting opportunistic buys in Dallas and throughout Texas. First up is One Hanover, a 200,000-square-foot office building off the tollway—and, ironically, Cawley’s first development project. The deal should close in September; three or four other acquisitions are in the works.
===“In my 25 years in commercial real estate, I have not seen a better salesman,” says Holman.!==
Cawley is exclusively targeting office assets of about 150,000 square feet and 50 percent leased. “I got somewhat sidetracked in the last cycle, where I invested in several other asset classes,” he says. “But when there was a problem, I didn’t have the answer. I decided I was never going to put myself in that position again. With an office building, I know what to do and how to do it. So today, I am buying office buildings—and that’s it.”
He’s also looking for a development site in Fort Worth—he still owns Wilcox Development—and is ramping up Cawley Partners, his brokerage concern. The group now leases and manages Cawley’s holdings—assets that were previously handled by CASE—and will take third-party work on, too.
“CASE was doing a great job, but I wanted to be more involved with the tenants, and I felt the only way to do that was to get back into the management and leasing business,” Cawley says. “I also think we’re pretty good at it.”
He had to wait until his non-compete with CASE expired, and says he gave Conger and company a year’s notice. “It hurts them,” Cawley acknowledges, “but I think John understands why I’m doing it. Not everything has been smooth, but everything has been rational. We’ve worked to maintain our relationship; we really care about each other. He didn’t like it, but he understood it.”
Cawley says he intends to keep his revived organization “lean and flat.” He has about a dozen employees—including Brian Neitzel, who serves as president, and longtime Cawley colleague Todd Ashbrook, chief operating officer. He’s also working on visibility.
“Getting out there and letting people know what we’re doing and what we’re about will help attract talent,” Cawley says. “The main thing for me is, I’m just grateful. Dallas has a great business climate. I’m grateful to be healthy and excited about where we’re headed. It’s fun again.”