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Minneapolis Blog

Built to Last

September 26, 2017 | by Thomas Sexton

Almost 30 years ago, I got an interesting offer to start something new. My colleague Bill Tobin was starting a new real estate practice. His vision was simple: start a corporate real estate firm that represents the end customers — the tenants and buyers — not the landlords and developers. He had a hunch that clients were looking for vendor that saw real estate as a partnership, not a chance to make a quick sale. I was 29 years old and had been working in real estate for a few years. I was interested in seeing where this could go.

Three decades later, Tobin Real Estate Company has become Cresa. We have 30 employees and serve customers all over the world from our Minneapolis office. But even as we’ve grown and evolved our business — and helped our clients grow theirs — the core fundamentals of our work have stayed the same.

Focus on Customer Service

From the very beginning, our firm was focused on three traits you don’t hear about much in real estate: trust, integrity and teamwork. People noticed the difference, and we quickly earned a reputation for great customer service.

One early decision that made a difference was our hiring strategy. Most firms hire sales-driven brokers who are focused on one thing: the commission. Instead, we looked for people with a track record of providing great service for their clients, in fields like property management and consulting, not just sales. We decided that no one would work for commission, and we’d create a team atmosphere to collaborate and deliver for the customer.

That intentional, customer-focused structure has paid off. A 2015 survey of the corporate real estate industry by Watkins Research Group asked hundreds of customers about their experience working with Cresa and 22 of our competitors. Frankly, we blew everyone else out of the water. When asked whether they’d recommend Cresa to a peer, 83.5% said yes, giving Cresa the highest client advocacy score by more than 50 points. Only 5 firms got a positive score, and the next-highest score after Cresa was 33.3%.

Cresa also got the highest scores for “adds to the bottom line” and “strong client orientation.” Again, the results weren’t even close.

One of the reasons we get such high marks? We’ve disrupted the traditional brokerage model to get rid of conflicts of interest. Here’s an example: You’re looking to rent office space for your company. Your broker suggests a building whose owner she also represents. Because of that conflict of interest, the deal is broken from the start. You want maximum flexibility and the best possible lease terms. The broker wants minimum flexibility and the longest possible lease. So, the fee structure is driven by what the landlord wants, not what the customer wants.

Instead, we look at our firm as a consultancy. We want to provide the same level of service that our clients expect from their attorney or accountant. That means working together to find the best solution for the customer.

Doing the Right Thing

Our company motto has always been “do the right thing.” That carries through to how we treat our employees. When we started the firm, Bill and I knew we wanted to emphasize work/life balance. We both came from environments where we worked around the clock and traveled constantly. We knew we wanted to inject more balance — to allow ourselves and our team to coach their kids’ sports teams and participate fully in community and family life. Over the years, we’ve held firm to that goal, even when it means coaching people on how to cut back on the 24/7 work cycle and stop working so much.

We’ve built a culture that celebrates the whole person — including their life outside of work. As a result, our firm has strong gender diversity compared to our competitors: half of our principals are female, and that pattern continues throughout the company. We’ve also encouraged our employees to contribute their time to the greater community, and many on the Cresa team volunteer with community groups, including Share Our Strength, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Rotary Club, Boy Scouts of America and Lower St. Croix Valley Community Foundation.

Growing with Our Customers

We’ve grown over the years, adding new services to support our customers’ steady growth. In fact, more than 80% of our annual growth comes from our existing client base. That’s a direct function of our customer service, and it shows the strength of the Twin Cities business community.

It was our clients’ growth that led us to join forces with Cresa, a national alliance of tenant advocates, in 1993. We were working with several major clients that were expanding around the country and the world, and we needed a platform to serve them beyond the Minneapolis market. We chose to team up with a four other independent tenant representation firms around the country to form Cresa. Together, Cresa’s 53 offices make up the largest tenant representation firm in North America.

Our customers like that they still have one point of contact, in downtown Minneapolis, but with the added advantage of local experts in markets around the country. Almost all of our clients are based in the Midwest, but we help them build a real estate strategy with locations around the world.

I’m proud of what we’ve built at Cresa, and I can’t wait to see what the next decades bring.