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CRE Opinion

Sam Kartalis: Reflections on 50 Years in Commercial Real Estate

Here's how the industry has changed—and stayed the same—in the past five decades.
By |
University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Libraries Special Collections

I landed at Love Field Airport in July 1972 from Caracas, Venezuela, where I had been working for Westinghouse Electric Corp. After three glorious years in paradise, a corporate relocation brought me to Dallas. This was my first time west of the Mississippi.

The cabin door opened directly onto the runway, and I recoiled from the intense summer heat. Caracas was tropical but not hot!  Welcome to Dallas.

My first course of business in Dallas, after acclimating, was to find land for Westinghouse elevator division’s new regional office/warehouse. Henry S. Miller Co. approached me during my research and asked for the opportunity. I was impressed by their brokers, who were about my age and seemed to be doing very well financially. They drove expensive Lincoln Continentals with the fake tire on the trunk lid, wore $500 suits and animal skin shoes, and took me to upscale lunches and dinners. I, on the other hand, had a green 4-door Chevrolet company car and wore cheap suits and shoes. What was I doing wrong?

They got the business and did it well. Before long, their brokers set out to convince me to leave Westinghouse and join their team. Mr. Henry S. Miller, Jr., a very soft-spoken and impressive individual, and Herb Weitzman said they needed help with their fast-growing retail group made up of independent contractors who had a disdain for rules and the need to eat what they killed to survive. As their new manager, I was hired to introduce a modicum of organization and herd the wild cats without stifling their innate sales ability.

This was my introduction into Dallas-Fort Worth’s commercial real estate business in 1974.

The company experienced tremendous growth over the next few years, powered by some of the best salesmen and leaders I have ever known, including Herb Weitzman, Henry Miller, and Vance Miller. Our truly gifted men and women were paid on a commission-only basis. It is said that only 3% of the working population can survive this way, and they were among that elite group.  As Vance Miller used to say, “Give the eagles room to fly!”

Our success caught the attention of several corporate public firms, and Grubb & Ellis bought the company. The entrepreneurial spirit was quickly replaced by typical public corporate bureaucracy.  As a result of the change in character, a mass exodus ensued over the next few years as many of the successful entrepreneurs left the firm to start their own companies, which are still active and thriving today. A few of those include Robert Grunnah, Vance Miller, Roger Staubach, David Claasen, Steve Shafer, Mike Hopkins, Herb Weitzman, David Dunning, and myself, along with others I apologize for not naming here. That was a huge loss of talent, but times change.

After almost 50 years in the business, I am now looking back in my rear-view mirror at the changes that have occurred in the industry; there are many!

Brokers now drive expensive foreign cars with a smattering of Cadillacs and Lincolns reserved for the elderly crowd.

Men’s clothing has moved from suits and ties to expensive designer jeans, casual shirts, and soft-soled comfortable shoes.

Where commercial real estate was essentially a “good ole boys club” back then, women started breaking down the barriers in the 1980s and are now well-represented and as successful as their male counterparts.  They also still dress as if they just came off a fashion runway!

We have survived at least five periods of economic “corrections” since the 1970s, each negatively affecting our financial statements. The depression that began in January 2008 (some call it a major recession) caused two of our major clients to walk away from $600,000 each in escrow monies from two separate deals. It was a tough three years before we rebounded from that disaster.

Burnout from the pandemic has pushed the seven-day work week I was introduced to at Henry S. Miller into a new practice currently referred to as “Quiet Quitting,” where tighter boundaries are set between work and personal hours.

The Dallas-Fort Worth market, which had previously been dominated by Henry S. Miller Cos., opened to competitors like Coldwell Banker that introduced the welcome practice of charging leasing fees due in cash upon closing rather than collecting them as rents were deferred until paid — instant cash!

Commercial real estate evolved into a mix of larger public corporations and smaller private ones with independent contractors. Thankfully, the smaller entrepreneurial shops are still going strong.

Henry S. Miller Co. was reintroduced to the market in 1994 after name restrictions burned off when Robert Grunnah and I partnered with Vance to continue the tradition of “giving the eagles room to fly!”

After Vance died, Robert Grunnah, Greg Trout, John St. Clair, Tom Grunnah, Ben McCutchin, and I formed Novus Realty Group. Moody Younger and Kathy Permenter bought our company and rolled it into Younger Partners, which has turned out to be a great assemblage with a good fit of personalities.  This is still an entrepreneurial company in the mold of the original Henry S. Miller Co., which brokers, manages, develops, and owns commercial real estate.  There will always be entrepreneurs!

The transformation in our industry over the past 50 years is difficult to describe in a few paragraphs. Our once close, friendly competitive community has grown into a powerhouse mega market. Many of the greats have passed, but many are still going strong.

Dallas-Fort Worth and Texas continue to be a hotbed for commercial properties, which attracts foreign investors from all over the world. I now refer to our great state and metropolitan area as a working paradise and safe haven for many.

Sam Kartalis is an executive managing director at Younger Partners and has leased, developed, and managed more than 10 million square feet of commercial property in his career.

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