The commercial real estate industry lost a lion this week. Bill Lee died April 5, surrounded by family. We are deeply saddened by our loss but grateful that Bill suffers no more and is with the Lord.
Many of you knew Bill, transacted deals with him and had great respect for his business prowess. In honor of the life Bill led and the impact he had on our business, I revived a column I wrote in 2019 in his honor. Rest well, my friend!
While at a real estate summit in Las Vegas a few years ago, I re-connected with Bill. It was so great to see Bill and spend some time with him. Bill, unfortunately, had been absent from recent summits. And while I missed him, the cool thing was, it felt as though we talked weekly. Bill was legendary, but how did he become a legend? My thoughts …
Bill observed a problem. He was the top guy at Grubb and Ellis before Nixon was a crook. He was the most competitive guy I’d ever met. But, Bill realized that intra-office competition was wreaking havoc on the greater good of the office.
He tells it like this. “I had a 30,000-square-foot listing. A competitor in the cube next to me had a 30,000-square-foot occupant requirement. I didn’t tell him about my listing because I didn’t want him to get part of the fee. The culture of the office dictated that approach.”
Bill later realized the “company” suffered and created a platform that used profit-sharing and rewarded cooperation while still encouraging competition. This was heady stuff, folks. Talk about disrupting the way in which commercial real estate is brokered. WOW!
Bill had the courage to change. Great, there was a problem. Now, Bill had to convince some fellow brokers that change was the key to their collective future. Getting brokers to change anything is tantamount to separating conjoined twins.
But, Bill, ever the persuader, convinced a small band of brothers to follow him into the cooperative abyss. John Matus, John Sullivan, Mel Koich, Larry O’Brien, John Vogt, Tom Casey, Dennis Highland, Len Santoro, Bart Pitzer, and Bill’s college friend, Al Fabiano, heeded the siren call and left the building.
Bill had a tireless vision. One of the other old-timers and I were marveling at how those 11 guys, in an executive suite in El Toro, created a company that now boasts 65 global offices, close to 1,200 agents, billions in revenue, an international presence, coast to coast visibility, and the best place in the world to transact commercial real estate. Period!
I asked Bill if he ever, in his wildest dreams, believed the company would someday be this big. He looked at me rather puzzled and said, “Of course! Once we got your Orange office opened, I knew we were on our way to becoming an international company.” Talk about tireless vision.
Bill got out of the way. At a certain point, Bill realized that for Lee & Associates to grow, he needed to step away and let the eaglet fly. Knowing Bill as I do, this was warranted but was the toughest thing for him to accomplish.
Bill along with Craig Coppola, a recent William J. Lee lifetime achievement winner, authored a book titled Chasing Excellence, Real Life Stories from the Streets. It is available online and in book stores.
So, want to become a legend? Just do those four things. Simple, right?
Allen C. Buchanan, SIOR, is a principal with Lee & Associates Commercial Real Estate Services in Orange. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 714.564.7104.
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