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Commercial real estate agents go from callous to collegial

As a neophyte commercial real estate broker eight years ago, Kenny Anderson got used to the who's-this-new-punk sneers from fellow real estate pros.

The business of leasing and selling offices and shopping centers in Tampa Bay was so lucrative that brokers weren't above driving an elbow into the ribs.

But in the lousy real estate market, something's happened on the way to foreclosure court. Brokers have discovered brotherhood.

At a recent "commercial property pitch session," hosted by the Florida Gulf Coast Commercial Association of Realtors, Anderson and about 30 fellow Realtors shared coffee from big cardboard boxes and bagels cut into quarters to make them go further.

"People are going back to basics — they're talking to each other," says Steve Silverman, a broker with Tampa Commercial Real Estate who invited Anderson to the Wednesday morning get-together at an abandoned Ethan Allen on S Dale Mabry Highway.

The monthly sessions have the feel of a 12-step program. Each person stands up, issues a brief bio and pitches a couple of properties he or she's trying to lease or sell. There's always a chance another agent has that perfect tenant up his sleeve.

"I'm Kenny Anderson," Anderson announces as he rises from a foldup chair. "It's been four years since I've been here."

• • •

Rows of chairs fill the former wing of the Ethan Allen showroom this year. The brokers shake hands, exchange business cards and sip coffee amid hooks stripped of wall hangings and track lighting illuminating wall-to-wall carpet stained from years of customers' soles.

This is Silverman's building to lease. He stands and delivers his pitch. A couple of years ago you'd be lucky to get 10 brokers to show up. Today 30 attend.

"Eighty thousand cars a day come past this property," he says from his soapbox. "We've had interest from a health club and food distributorship."

Tampa broker Jim Barnett speaks of the sorry state of commercial real estate. Barnett's selling a nine-unit apartment complex owned by the bank on Madeira Beach.

He had the perfect buyer lined up. The man was paying cash. The closing date was set. Then the buyer died. Now the deal's dead, too.

The crowd groans in sympathy.

"It's that kind of year," Barnett says.

Anderson's trying to market an office loft above Hattrick's bar and grill in downtown Tampa. He makes a plea: "We're negotiable on rent."

These days every property seems negotiable and every broker agreeable. In the heady days of 2006, listing agents were more stingy about sharing commissions. Some larger firms — no one wants to risk bad blood by naming names for print — didn't share at all.

These days, Anderson says, it's not unusual for a listing agent to hand 70 percent to a competitor, keeping only 30 percent for himself. Anything to get this mule of a market trudging forward.

• • •

After an hour of pitching deals to colleagues and competitors, the coffee begins to run dry. It's 9:30 a.m. People disperse one by one in their Ford Excursions, Mercedeses and Volvos.

They're off to slog through the worst commercial real estate climate in decades. But their breast pockets are full of fresh business cards.

Anderson heads off to his office on Himes Avenue, close to Tampa's West Shore business district. The coffee-and-camaraderie session wasn't a waste.

"You have fewer people walking around with a snotty attitude," he says. "You get more respect these days."

James Thorner can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3313.

Commercial real estate agents go from callous to collegial 11/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 8:53pm]
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