For this installment of our Expert Insights series, we sat down with Ken Ashley, executive director at Cushman & Wakefield Atlanta. Ashley’s passion for making the complex simple is also a strength that comes through in his realistically optimistic perspective on how the Atlanta office market is likely to come out of these challenging times.
Ashley draws on his experience of more than 25 years of successfully adapting business strategy into both cost-cutting and profit-boosting real estate solutions, as well as perfecting common-sense strategies to deliver client-oriented results. Below, he shares insights on what common sense might dictate that we can expect in commercial real estate at large — as well as approaches to office space, in particular — going forward. We also delve into which key aspects have served as Atlanta’s cornerstones of recovery during previous downturns — and will likely boost the city’s business potential even higher in the future.
Q: What are your thoughts on the CRE market in the U.S. today, in terms of trends and challenges in the context of the current pandemic?
Ashley: “The world’s largest work-from-home experiment will not eliminate the need for office. It will only change how and why we have such a space. Flexible work location is very 2020 and will be with us for the foreseeable future. We will now work in a dynamic workplace and real estate leaders will partner with HR, IT and finance to support workers wherever they are. When COVID-19 is defeated, we do need offices for communication, collaboration and culture. All three are hard to establish in an exclusively video-meeting world.”
Q: What would you say stands out about the Atlanta office market?
Ashley: “You mean in other than the sweet tea and our passion for football? Atlanta is, in many respects, the perfect ecosystem for a business. We have incredible transportation infrastructure, including our airport, a very diverse talent base and some of the best educational institutions anywhere, thanks to the Hope scholarship. Office space in Atlanta is very affordable compared to many other cities. And the restaurants — so many great options are available in our many communities. Finally, the Beltline [series of hard-surface trails] really brings many communities together. Companies choose Atlanta to grow their businesses and for the great lifestyle.”
Q: What are your thoughts on possibilities for the future of the industry?
Ashley: “I’ve been through two major downturns before. Our industry will be fine and will shine coming out of the other side of COVID-19. With the combination of deep specialization and incredible advances in technology, real estate service providers will add huge value to clients. It would be hard to live without commercial real estate going forward — how would an investor or end user develop such a knowledge base and why would they want to spend the money? Real estate has become much like medicine or law — the consumer outsources to the specialist.”
Q: Are there any safety measures and policies that you think might or should be adopted into best practices for commercial real estate going forward, beyond this pandemic?
Ashley: “Prior to COVID-19, I despised the densification movement. I used to call it ‘density with dignity’ as a tongue-in-cheek gesture. We will spread out, we will wash our hands, but we will come back together. I do believe that we will finally take indoor air quality seriously, and that is a good thing. At the end of the day, once COVID-19 is done, we will get back to hugs and handshakes. We have not changed as a species in the nine months since the pandemic began.”
Q: How do you feel the evolution of online marketing has changed the CRE industry?
Ashley: “Oh, its huge. I can remember rubbing dots on maps and now I can travel from the Forbidden City to the Titanic on Google Earth. The ability to quickly and concisely convey information is epically better. Also, the notion that we can market directly to corporate executives through their personal social media is a game-changer.”
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and why you chose a career in commercial real estate?
Ashley: “I have a degree in sales and sales management from the University of Georgia. You don’t raise your hand in third grade and say, ‘I want to be a tenant rep!’ You have to find this profession through a friend or mentor. But, when you do, the scales will fall from your eyes: No cap on income and the ability to control your own schedule is amazing. To this day, I love the ‘attaboy’ far more than a commission check. Serving clients is a joy, and when they accomplish their goals and get their own recognition, I am the happiest guy on planet Earth.
“I am married to Karen for 28 years. We have four great kids and two lazy pugs. I am the luckiest guy I know.”
Q: From your experience, what would you say is an absolute must for anyone looking to enter the CRE industry?
Ashley: “If you are going to be a broker, a steely eyed understanding of risk. I know I wake up unemployed every morning and I have to continually earn the trust of my clients. Also, this is the only business I know in which you can ‘fail up.’ In business development efforts, the more you get to know, the closer you are to the next yes. Finally, hustle is indeed a strategy — hard work and smart work are both winning strategies in brokerage, both today and always.”
Q: Are there any additional insights that you would like to share with us?
Ashley: “Yes. Marketing is what they think about you before you walk in the room. It’s your brand. Sales is speaking with the intent to convince. Both are keys to success. Marketing — including social media — helps establish ‘social proof’ that you are the real deal. But, even with the best marketing, you must be able to speak with confidence in the sales setting. Here are four keys to success:
- Become a true expert in your niche. Know every owner, deal, capital stack and landlord in a chosen submarket, for example.
- Identify who your real customer is and contact them on a long-term, low-pressure basis. Relationships and trust take time to develop.
- Call them before they call you. When someone has entrusted you with their deal, you have a sacred duty to put their interest first. Let them know what is going on.
- Develop tactical listening skills. Listening is hard work! But, those who listen deeply and remember what they are hearing have a distinct advantage. Prospects generally assume you know what you are doing. What they really care about is what you know about them, and what you can remember.
Best of luck! The water is warm in commercial real estate. Come on in!”