Willard Says...

March 23, 2017

Then And Now

By Jonathan Zimmerman

The other day, a youngster who recently started in the real estate industry asked me about the most significant differences in the commercial real estate business today as compared to the time I first began in 1996. Those getting started today know only about the immediacy of emails on cell phones and easily-organized Gmail address books without a clue as to how it really used to be.

Over the past 20 years, the industry has evolved quite a bit and fortunately, (mostly) for the better. Here are some of the biggest differences between then and now that I could think of:

1) Cell phones – I vividly recall waiting in the lobby of buildings for hours upon hours trying to track down brokers running late for showings. I would bother the security guard every 5 minutes and use the land line phone at the security desk to call the broker’s office, knowing full well that they were probably out on the tour and not going to hear my message until they returned. I had to invent a “20 Minute Rule” where I would wait 20 minutes, call, wait another 10 minutes and then leave if no one showed up (inevitably, the tour would always show up the second I returned to my office).

2) Computers – Remarkably, I did not have a computer of my own until my third year in the business. I actually had a secretary who prepared all of my proposals. Of course, all documents were saved on floppy disks and everything was printed out and filed away.

3) Internet – It is such a luxury today to research prospective tenants by performing a Google search. Back in the day, I was limited to the Sullivan’s Law Directory, industry trade publications, the Yellow Pages and good old fashion door-to-door canvassing.

4) Communication – You want to communicate with someone? Pick up the phone and call! No email or texting was utilized 21 years ago. Everything was done over the phone or in person. Either listen to your answering machine or voice mail (a revolutionary feature back then) or sift through your mountain of pink message sheets and spend hours returning calls. Out for the day in meetings and need to check messages? Go find the nearest pay phone and hope you have proper change in your pocket.

5) Mail –
Before the days of email, getting the mail delivery every day was a big deal. CoStar didn’t exist, so receiving an updated copy of Black’s Guide or the Metro Chicago Office Guide was a monumental day in my office. We would study each page, examining the revised vacancy lists, change in occupancy rates and asking rents and new leasing agency assignments. Also exciting was opening up the endless number of flyers and promotional materials. This is the one thing that I miss, since so much is done over email today.

6) Marketing – With computers and email just starting to become mainstream, proposals and marketing materials were either mailed or sent over the ever-popular fax machine. There was always quite a bit of unnecessary angst wondering if the fax was received and if the cover sheet was sufficiently informative. I spent hours each month in front of the fax machine sending blast faxes to brokerage firms stating on the cover to “please distribute to all brokers.” I wonder how many firms actually did that.

7) Paper –File cabinets and paper everywhere. No significant electronic data storage was available, so we would have to keep piles and piles of paper records. Going to sign a lease? Print and sign 3 hard copies. One of the buildings I represented at the time actually used a pre-printed lease form and typewriter to make changes to the document.

8) Customer Relationship Management – My CRM for many years was an elaborate system utilizing color coded 4″ x 6″ index cards stored inside shoeboxes. Every broker and tenant I came across from canvassing had a card and all interactions were properly documented. It was the most cumbersome method of recordkeeping ever, but it somehow worked. I still have all of my cards today and they take up an entire drawer in my file cabinet. I have not looked at these in years, but cannot bring myself to dispose of them due to all of the time put into maintenance.

9) Floor plans – Need a space plan? Pull out the roll of 1/8-inch scaled blue prints. I wasted an incredible amount of time trying to figure out how to fit the blueprints on the copy machine so the plans would photocopy in a manner that looked only somewhat professional. Scissors, scotch tape and white out were key components of this operation.

10) Office Hours – Getting bogged down with all of these menial tasks mentioned above created a need to work longer hours and physically be present in the office. I was sitting at my desk just about every Saturday trying to catch up on tasks so I could devote business hours to prospecting. While the time commitment to the job can still be overwhelming today, it is so nice to have the option of working from home or another place remotely.

It’s easy to say that today we live in a much more technologically dependant society and the real estate industry has followed suit. To me, the net result is that we are able to function in a much more efficient manner across the board. As far as we have come, I shudder to think how different things will be 20 years from today. Look for my follow up blog on your mini projection screen glasses then.