David Arwady and Kristin Frohn
by Dan Rafter
John Latessa’s long commercial real estate career got its start the summer nearly three decades ago that this veteran broker spent as an assistant for a lawn-care company.
That summer, Latessa, who is now managing director for the Detroit office of CBRE, was pulling the weeds and mowing the lawn of a successful Michigan developer. Latessa himself was on his way to his undergraduate studies at Michigan State University. He admits that the size of the developer’s home and the sprawl of its grounds did not escape his attention.
Latessa was leaving work one day when he ran into the developer. Latessa asked the man what he did for a living, what career allowed him to purchase and live in such an amazing home.
“When I found out he worked in real estate, I asked him the big question: ‘What do I need to study to begin my own career in real estate?'” Latessa said.
The developer told Latessa to study finance at Michigan State. Latessa did, and while he did he took on an internship at a boutique real estate firm. Latessa discovered that he had a passion for the real estate industry. He wanted the chance to earn a good living, of course. But he also enjoyed working in the world of real estate.
As soon as Latessa he graduated, he went to work in the field.
That was in 1989. And Latessa hasn’t looked back since.
“I’ve done brokerage, construction and corporate services. It’s all been great,” Latessa said. “I’ve enjoyed it all.”
A long, successful career
What has kept Latessa in the business for 25 years? It’s that no day is ever a boring one.
“Every day is a different day,” Latessa said. “Our business has changed. From 1989 to 2009 to what it will be in 2019, everything continues to change dramatically. It is a very fluid career. You get to do a number of different things on any given day. That probably piques my interest the most.”
Being interested in a career is not the same thing as being successful in it. Latessa, unquestionably, is successful, leading the busy Detroit office of CBRE.
What formula has he followed to reach this position? According to Latessa, there’s no secret. It’s about hard work, studying his market, providing top service to his clients and being honest.
“People have to trust you if you’re going to be successful in this career,” Latessa said. “Many of them are putting multi-million-dollar decisions in your hands. You have to do everything you can for them.”
Latessa places value on consistency, too. He says that the best sales people in commercial real estate are those who provide top service every day of their careers.
“They have a cadence about them. They are reliable,” Latessa said. “They are always doing what they can day in and day out to be successful. You must have that if you want to succeed in this business. You have to deliver and execute, and you have to do it on a consistent basis. You have to be a constant scholar of your craft.”
Latessa started his career with CBRE in 2008. Today, he oversees the company’s operations in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky.
The many years of experience that Latessa has earned has helped him in this role. CBRE, after all, offers a wide range of services. It just so happens, that Latessa has handled most of these duties, too, during his long career in commercial real estate.
“We do investment sales, debt and equity finance, project management, traditional real estate, all the things that I’ve touched on during my career,” Latessa said. “CBRE is often thought of as corporate America’s real estate department. I feel fortunate that my career did help prepare me for this position. I’d like to tell you that it was a well-crafted plan to end up here. But it wasn’t. It just sort of evolved.”
Earlier in his real estate career, Latessa handled project management duties at the Renaissance Center, the iconic group of seven interconnected skyscrapers rising from downtown Detroit. Latessa was still there when General Motors purchased the center to serve as its world headquarters.
General Motors brought in real estate company Hines to handle the management duties of the center. Hines officials asked Latessa if he would stay at the newly renamed GM Renaissance Center to continue his property-management work. Latessa accepted Hines’ offer, taking a position with the company at the same time.
Almost 13 years later — long after Latessa had moved on to other real estate pursuits and positions — CBRE had taken on listing and property-management duties at the Renaissance Center for GM. To Latessa, the opportunity to again manage and lease with GM here represents another opportunity to make an impact in Detroit.
“Being someone who was born and raised in Detroit, someone who has only lived in Michigan, having the chance to work with this iconic office building again is truly inspiring,” Latessa said. “I have a quip about this: My career has either come full circle or it’s gone nowhere. I haven’t figured out which it is. But, the chance to start at the Renaissance Center with GM and then come back many years later to help it grow again, that stands out to me as an exciting opportunity.”
Latessa says that he’s happy to be working in the city of Detroit today, and not just on the Renaissance Center project. The entire city is in the middle of what Latessa says is a comeback story.
The city’s bankruptcy filing grabbed headlines across the country, most of them negative. But that move was a necessary one to send Detroit into recovery mode, Latessa said.
Today, investors are sinking their dollars into Detroit. And these investors are spread across the globe.
“The interest in Detroit is coming from around the world,” Latessa said. “There is a lot of pent-up demand here. There has been Chinese investment. There has been investment from Germany and Canada, all across the globe. You go through bankruptcy and that is harsh. But that gets you to ground-zero. There is nowhere to go from there but up. Many of the investors are taking that approach. They see a brighter future in Detroit, and they’re willing to invest in that future.”
While Latessa has enjoyed a particularly successful real estate career, it’s not one that has come challenge-free. Succeeding in commercial real estate is never easy, and Latessa, like all CRE professionals, has had to overcome plenty of hurdles.
The biggest? It can be difficult to keep up with the constant changes in the industry.
“This is an adaptable business. It’s very fluid,” Latessa said. “You have to keep pace with everything from technology to the basic way we go about our business. Clients’ demands are constantly changing. The demands from corporate America 15 years ago on real estate providers are vastly different than what they are today.”
CRE pros must constantly think of new ways to create value for their clients. This can prove difficult. Even those pros who consistently deliver top service might find their clients taking them for granted.
“At the early stages, it’s easy to do some things for clients that have an especially high impact,” Latessa said. “But as time goes on, at some point it becomes harder to show clients how you are adding value to them, how you are making their businesses more efficient. What else can you do to show your clients that you are adding value?”
For Latessa, adding value means helping clients learn about and qualify for economic incentives. It means helping them understand in which markets the labor force is best suited for their growth plans.
Basically, it means providing them with the information and tools they need to boost their companies’ odds of success.
“You have to do whatever you can to help your clients meet their goals,” Latessa said. “You have to constantly evolve and adapt to stay relevant in this industry.”
Real estate, of course, is just one of Latessa’s passions. He’s also committed to his family. He’s been married 20 years to his wife, Lisa. Both he and Lisa spend plenty of time at their 16-year-old son’s tennis matches and 14-year-old daughter’s volleyball games.
It’s important for even the busiest of real estate pros to not miss these key family events, Latessa said.
“You start to realize as your kids get older how fast time can move,” Latessa said. “You realize that you have to spend every moment you can with your kids. You have to go to every event of theirs that you can. The passage of time is what we have to keep an eye on. That’s where this business can be helpful. We work in an environment with people who are both older and younger. You can see life through the lens of someone who’s been there and done that and then from the perspective of that young person fresh out of college who’s ready to tackle the world. You get a broad perspective that’s helpful as you live your own life.”