by Dan Rafter
Jay Olshonsky, president of NAI Global, has worked in commercial real estate for more than three decades. And as he leads an organization with 375 offices, he’s constantly finding new challenges to overcome. Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Olshonsky about his real estate career, what he enjoys most about his industry and the changes coming to the business.
How did you get your start in commercial real estate?
It was more of a need than an attraction. I graduated from college in 1982. In 1982 the economy was not very stable. Interest rates were at 18 percent or 19 percent at the time. The unemployment rate was high. People were not hiring college graduates at the time. Like most people who graduated from college and couldn’t find a job, I moved home, which happened to be Washington, D.C. at the time.
My mother was working for a real estate developer in D.C. I had done some odd jobs for that developer. Eventually, I had a meeting with him. He asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about commercial real estate?’ I said that I hadn’t. I did say that I had taken principles of real estate in college, and he told me that was probably all I needed to know. But he did set me up with some appointments with real estate companies. I landed three interviews and three job offers. I didn’t realize at the time that my mother was working for one of the most prominent real estate developers in DC at that time. His name carried a lot of weight, enough to get me those job offers. In June of 1982 I got into the commercial real estate business. I’m still here.
What has kept you in the business so long?
I enjoy that it is a very diverse people-facing job. It can be a desk job. It can be based in a small town or you can be operating with a global footprint. You can be an owner or a user. You can be working on a store or with a technology company. But no matter what you are doing, it is a job where you get out in front of people. I like the change and the diversity. I like meeting with the different individuals that you get a chance to run across.
Why have you been so successful in this business?
I have spent most of my career in the D.C. and Baltimore market. I’ve spent close to 26 of them in this market. Staying in one market and really working at it does help. The second big thing is that I moved into running brokerage offices and service companies fulltime when I was very young. I was 33 and running a big office for CBRE when I was 33. I was managing brokers at a small firm outside of D.C. when I was just 27. The ability to manage people and run things at a very young age has helped me. You might not know what you are doing at first, but you do develop a vast amount of experience. It all builds upon itself. Of course, you also need to put in a lot of hard work and get a little bit of luck. This is not a 9-to-5 business. It’s more like a 24/7 business. The people who are tremendously successful are very much people who are working all the time or thinking all the time. That separates the good from the great.
How do you handle those long hours?
I come from a background where hard work is the norm. There are aspects of enjoying what you do, of course, that makes anything easier. But there is a lot of work in any industry that is repetitive but necessary. It is work that you have to do but don’t necessarily like doing. I understand that this work has to be done. You just have to figure out the most efficient way to plow through that mundane work.
It reminds me of a story that I like to tell. When I was 19 I ran into a guy who was running a dump truck. He’d come to sites and clean up the construction waste. I remember seeing him one day. A 12-foot pile of construction debris was sitting there. I watched him take every piece of lumber, old tools and everything else and throw it into his truck until the site was empty. I asked him how often he did this. He said he worked six days a week and made $100 every time he filled up his dump truck. He told me he did this five times a day. That adds up. It wasn’t a fortune. But it did allow him to send two kids to Ivy League colleges. A lot of time, succeeding is as simple as putting in the work.
What do you find most challenging about the commercial real estate business?
The most challenging thing about any business – and this is not unique to commercial real estate – is that most people don’t like change. Getting people, whether in the banking business, travel business or commercial real estate business, to understand that change is a constant is a huge challenge. The number-one thing that I complain about in this business is that people don’t understand that the world is changing right beneath them. You can moan and complain about it or you can embrace the change, work with it and make it more valuable to what you are doing.
How prevalent is this resistance to change in commercial real estate?
Real estate in general is more of an old-school business. I hear a lot of people say that they wish the business worked like it did in 1980. But it’s not 1980. I am more inclined to wonder what the business is going to be like in 2017 instead of worrying about what it was like last week. I don’t think that people in the commercial real estate business change quickly enough.
On a more personal note, what do you like to do when you’re not working?
That’s fairly easy. I live in New York City. My wife and I have been married for 30-plus years. Our children are grown. I have a 25-year-old daughter and a 28-year-old son. My wife and I live in Manhattan the way a tourist would live in New York City. We take advantage of all the reasons one would visit New York City. If we want to go a restaurant, we walk to a restaurant. We love just walking around the city and exploring new neighborhoods. I am very much into both 19th Century and 20th Century modern art, too. Being in a place like Manhattan, where you have so many amazing art museums, gives you the chance to enjoy so much modern art in one day.
I do travel extensively for my business, too. When I am in new places, I try to see something that the tourists don’t know about. I was in Oklahoma City last week. When someone asked me where I wanted to eat, I said take me to a place I don’t know about, a place that only you know about. He took me out to the Oklahoma City stockyards and I had one of the best steak dinners I’ve had in my life. And it cost $20 instead of $60.
I also like to visit my adult children. Being close to them and being close to family is wonderful. I always say that if you live in Manhattan – or any city like London or Chicago – if you are bored, you are boring. You are not taking advantage of what your city has to offer.