A Seismic Shift: How Millennials Are Changing DFW Real Estate

From left: Alex John, Jim Knight, Colin Fitzgibbons, and Chris Hipps
From left: Alex John, Jim Knight, Colin Fitzgibbons, and Chris Hipps

Commercial real estate in North Texas is being transformed. And not just by corporate relocations, new developments, and the region’s population and job growth. The industry is seeing a seismic shift in its workforce, with baby boomers making way for Generation X and the millennials.

I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on this topic for The Real Estate Council, at the organization’s annual breakfast. Held at the Omni Dallas Hotel, it featured two veteran industry executives—Chris Hipps, managing director of CBRE, and Jim Knight, executive vice president and chief development officer at Bury; and two emerging leaders—Colin Fitzgibbons, vice president of KDC, and Alex John Jr., vice president at HKS Inc.

It was a lively and fascinating conversation. Here’s a recap:

Q. Let’s kick things off by having you each tell us a little bit about your current role, and how and why you got into the business.

Chris Hipps: I was at SMU, which has a tremendous real estate program. I was in the business program and elected to major in real estate. A lot of people who had gone ahead of me and graduated were in the real estate business, and with their experiences and stories, I decided to pursue that career path. I secured an internship between my junior and senior year, and that allowed me an instant job when I graduated.

Alex John: I’m a vice president at HKS, with a focus on the hospitality studio. I’ve been there about 11 years and am a senior designer. Growing up in my family, it was either construction or military service. My father had a small construction company and I would always tag along with him. One day I asked him why he did the things he did and he explained to he had to follow the architect’s drawings. So that planted a seed in me.

Jim Knight: I’m executive vice president of Bury. I oversee our North Texas operations and help manage activities across the United States. I’ve been with the company for 24 years; we’re now roughly 400 people across the nation. I got my start in the industry when I was 18 years old, and have been in it for a total of 35 years. My father was a lawyer, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be an engineer or architect or someone who designed something. One of my mentors told me most technical people can’t properly articulate what’s really important; they speak like technicians. So if you can learn how to be a business person and make people feel comfortable and understand what they do, you can do something special. Because most engineers can’t walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. So that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Colin Fitzgibbons: I started out in journalism. But as it turns out, you really have to love what you do, and you really have to be in the top 1 percent to really make any money at it. And, I didn’t love it, so I decided to get into real estate, where you really only need to be in the top half to be successful. My dad was in real estate, so that’s how I ended up here.

Q. For the emerging leaders, Colin and Alex, what has surprised you the most, so far in your career?

Fitzgibbons: One thing that stands out is how helpful people have been—not just through a mentorship program or The Real Estate Council, but just people being willing to have a cup of coffee with me and share their words of wisdom. I grew up here, but I worked in New York for a while before I moved back to go to SMU for business school. And I was just amazed by how willing people were here in Dallas to take a meeting with me and hear me out and give me some advice.

John: For me, in transitioning from the academic to professional setting, I had assumptions of what I thought my architectural career would be. I thought success was going to be most dictated by talent—my talent and the talent of my peers. What I discounted was the importance of listening, diligence, and effort. I’ve since found those to be the motivating forces for my entire career. With listening, you learn thing through life examples versus life experience. And diligence and hard work helps you implement those lessons.

Q. Jim and Chris, what do you wish you would have known when you were first starting out?

Knight: There are a few things I’ve learned over the years. The first is, never do anything for the money. If you do it for the money, you will lose. You have to do it because you have the drive and fire and passion for what you’re doing. Second, you have to participate in the community. If you just go out and do your job every day and just take from the community and never give anything back, you’re not making the community better. You have to fertilize the fields in which you farm. And third, you have to be a servant. Do your work with a servant’s mentality and be willing to be humble about it. If you do these things, you’ll be successful.

Hipps: When I hear the question it makes me think about disappointments that perhaps I could have prepared for better, but I don’t think there’s anything I could have known that would have changed things. That being said, I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments that have redirected my thinking. Some of those have been industry shifts, the ups and downs of the business. As much as anything else, I’ve always told myself to continue to ask a lot of questions, to continue to network, and to look forward and plan ahead.

Q. Demographic shifts are affecting the workforce, but they’re also affecting the workplace. What are you seeing out there?

Fitzgibbons: Tenants want to be close to amenities—and that’s not just millennials, that’s everybody. So we’re doing denser projects, not just in infill locations in downtown or Uptown but creating urban environments in suburban locations, to give people as many amenities as possible. More companies are willing to spend the money to provide amenities, which helps with recruiting and retention.

Hipps: Two years ago, CBRE went to an unassigned desk platform we call “Workplace 360.” What we’ve found through our workplace management group is that millennials demand basic flexibility. There needs to be headsets at every desk, get rid of the desktop—only laptops, adjustable-height desks, ergonomic chairs, touch-down points, the ability to work virtual.

Looking back, a lot of people credit the millennials with creating this workplace we’re now deploying, going from what has historically been open plan to unassigned desks with a lot of amenities. But it all started in the 1990s when accounting firms that had varying occupancy started “hoteling.” Then technology companies injected the workplace with a lot of different amenities. What millennials have really done is accelerated the pace by which people are incorporating all of these things into the workspace. The movement has spread throughout all industries.

With respect to the culture we’re creating operationally, we have a tremendous amount of networking opportunities, we’ve got CBRE University, which is dedicated to learning, monitorships, and other programs all geared toward the future. We’re charged with creating a legacy of leaders to carry on. To guide and support them is very important, from a leadership perspective.

John: We’ve had to change the way we recruit talent and what we do to keep people. Recruiting millennials is different from recruiting people of previous generations. We offer a number of different outlets, and strongly focus on people who are 28 on down to interns, college students who are going to be prospective employees in the very near future. For example, we offer an exchange program whereby we send employees from Dallas and other other offices to Shanghai, to London, to Mexico City, for three months, and then they come back. We have a “1% solution” program, where you spend 1 percent of your entire year’s time doing something that enriches you personally, enriches the firm, or enriches the community as a whole. We have beer Fridays, things like that, and do many other things to help with retention. When you find talented people, you have to do what you can to keep them.

Knight: Millennials are really interesting. They have to be good technically at what they do. We have to teach them to be good leaders. It’s not something we’re teaching in schools right now. We’re experiencing a lack of leaders across the entire country, in Corporate America in general. They want to give—probably more than the two generations that came before, and they want to make a difference. But we have to teach these great minds to be leaders. Millennials are smart, and they want to make the world a better place. They have the fire and the passion, but they need someone to show them how to do it.

Q. There seems to be a lost generation in real estate, with Gen-Xers getting into technology or energy or other careers when real estate was experiencing a downturn. But now, real estate is seeing a resurgence again. What does this mean for the industry?

John: What you’ve said is spot on. The economic downturn led to the loss of, well … me—people with eight to 12 years of experience. Technology has also played a role. A job that back in the past required four or five people started requiring only two or three people. All of those things condensed the size of the pool of the next generation of leaders. So when you apply that to today’s environment, we are having to identify young leaders, groom them, shape them, and probably accelerate them into a position they, five or 10 years ago would have scraped or clawed to get that opportunity.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. To millennials, the world is smaller, and everything is more clear, in terms of where they see themselves. With that clarity, they want to move faster. The old saying in architecture is that you don’t get good until you’re 50. That’s not true anymore. It’s really 35 or 40, and you start your next career after that.

Hipps: Managers like me and my peers have learned that millennials require a lot of face time. This particular generation wants to be validated. They want their work validated, they want their work habits validated, they want to be counseled in terms of their career path—how quickly am I going to get there, and when is my next pay raise? And that’s OK. They’re just asking questions that I was too shy to ask—that my whole generation was too shy to ask. People of my generation had a lot more loyalty; we weren’t so quick to change jobs. Millennials are asking questions that are very relevant and deserve answers—even the tough answers, like, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in this business.”

John: I think you also have to identify the people who want to stay in the profession and find ways to help them. What I’m finding is, a year to two years in, a young person will come to me and ask how they can take six months off or a year off, because they want to travel. They’re a year to two years into their careers! In my head I’m thinking, I would have never thought to had that thought, much less ask the question! So, at first it was a bit of a shock, but then they explained why they wanted to do it. It’s coming from their inquisitive nature. I told them they could maybe cycle out while the summer interns come in, and then possibly come back, but I couldn’t guarantee it. I didn’t shut them down. One went, and he often sends us photos of his journeys. Where he ends up, I have no idea. But he showed up at our Christmas party this year, and will be back in four months.

Q. That’s awesome. So, let’s close with this question: Why is now a time to get into commercial real estate, and what’s the single best piece of advice you have for young professionals entering the industry?

Fitzgibbons: We’re still in a good market. 2015 will probably turn out to be a peak, but that doesn’t mean 2016 will be an off year by any stretch.

Q. I was at an event the other day where Herb Weitzman said, “Just because you’re up high, it doesn’t mean you’re on a cliff!” I thought that was a good way to put it.

Knight: We’ll have a downturn in front of us, whether its a year from now or two years from now. But guess what: We’re one of the biggest communities in the United States and we’re seeing a tremendous growth in population; there are going to be opportunities. My advice is to focus on two things. First, you don’t get ahead in this business by job-hopping. Find a company that has a great culture and where you believe in their leadership, and then outlast the suckers. It’s going to happen. People are going to pull the ripcord as soon as the economy gets weakened. They’ll get nervous. You’ve got to slug through it and stay the course. It’s not the short-term success that people appreciate in this business, it’s the long-term commitment to success. The other thing is, most people aren’t willing to outwork you. If you are willing to outwork, out-sacrifice, out-commit, you will win.

John: Dallas is growing. The economic outlook many diminish, but in a city that’s growing, that means more people to energize and galvanize a city. Keep a focus on the long-term and remember that it’s all relationship-driven. Everything in real estate is geared around relationships.

Hipps: I’ve done business in a lot of the big cities across the country. Hands-down, this city has the highest concentration of accomplished real estate professionals of any market. It’s an extremely competitive environment. But it’s also a very collegial industry. And it’s an exciting time to be in Dallas. This city is growing up. To be a part of real estate in this city, with the urbanization that’s going on, the changes in lifestyle, the product—now’s the time to get in. You’ll be getting in on the ground floor of something very special.


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