Looking back 25 years, Cushman & Wakefield | Commercial Advisors was founded with a heartbeat for Memphis growth; and now through Community Advisors the company is giving forward through a focused community initiative.
When Larry Jensen co-founded his commercial real estate brokerage and advisory firm in the early 1990s, he set a course to build community service into his company’s mission.
“We’ve been very successful in Memphis. We’ve been blessed, if you will, in Memphis,” said Jensen, president and CEO of Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors – formerly known as Commercial Tennessee. “And it seems like part of your obligation is to love the city that you’re in and care about not just what you can get out of it, but also what you can give back.”
And so, when real estate professional Greg Spillyards approached Jensen in 2014 with a vision for providing full-service real estate brokerage and valuation services to underserved areas of the city, Jensen looked at him and said, “I’ve been wanting to do this for years.”
The result was Community Advisors, a community-focused arm of Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors that aims to help revitalize underserved and blighted areas of the Mid-South. Community Advisors is unique in several ways, but one of those is the way it was founded. It started with a personal reckoning.
“I worked for 10 years in third-party commercial real estate brokerage and asset management,” said Spillyards, now Community Advisors’ senior vice president. “In 2007 I was put on a project which involved the redevelopment of about 2 million square feet along Brooks Road. And one of the requirements was that I have my office at Brooks Road. I almost didn’t take the assignment because of that requirement. I was in my class-A office, which was really nice, and to think about going to a commercial quarter that was known for criminal activity and prostitution just wasn’t that appealing.”
But Spillyards thought about it, and in fact couldn’t stop thinking about it. After much deliberation and some soul-searching conversations with his wife, he decided it would be “ridiculous” not to take the job.
“It was a great opportunity and it was right in the wheelhouse of what I’d wanted to do since I was in elementary school, which is redevelop vacated, blighted properties.”
The project changed a lot of things for Spillyards – and ultimately for his future employer. Spillyards started the project in 2007 and over a year and a half helped to pump about $12 million into the development and related capital improvements. He partnered with an architecture firm to do a rebranding of the property and park.
“What we discovered is that when you bring attention to an area that’s been forgotten by most of the city, the city takes notice and will actually return to the property,” Spillyards said. “I saw this thing come back to life. Something that had been left as a ghost town was active again.”
Something changed inside Spillyards, too. He wanted to help make similar positive changes happen in other communities around Memphis. He left commercial real estate for four years to attend seminary. When he re-entered the market, it was 2014 and he sat down with Jensen and “stumbled through an articulation of what I was wanting to do.”
Spillyards’ plans lined up with Jensen’s desire to go beyond the community involvement and financial commitment Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors had already undertaken in the greater Memphis area. From the outset, Jensen had committed to doing more than giving financially to nonprofit organizations. He made sure a representative of his company was also involved in a hands-on way, as a board member or volunteer.
“Bigger picture, we’d made a commitment to give money, which is one thing, but we’ve always probably more importantly encouraged our people to find things they’re passionate about,” Jensen said. “To find a place where you can give of your time, your talent and your resources, and we’ll come alongside and join you in that. I think people get more out of life if they give.”
Indeed, Spillyards said, Jensen “never wanted it to be just about money.”
“He wanted crafted, hands-on involvement with the organizations,” Spillyards said. “(Community Advisors) brought that original vision to fulfillment.
Laura Fenton, Director of Marketing & Research with Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors, always envisioned working for a philanthropic driven company. For her, the company’s community-minded mission is a perfect fit.
“Our company culture starts with our values of FC3, which stands for Family first, respect for Co-Workers, care for our Clients, and a commitment to our Community. The leadership in our office understand that your career is one facet of your life, and it is important as employees to support one another in community volunteerism, non-profit board leadership, and personal or family issues and celebrations. We are the hands which make the community a better place through our service. I agree wholeheartedly with the values and appreciate being in an environment which encourages each of us to be our best selves and strive for excellence in everything we do.”
Jensen said the company works to create an environment that fosters employees’ individual interests, particularly when it comes to volunteering. Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors’ staff members work with a range of nonprofits, from Boy Scouts of America to Shelby Farms Park to Streets Ministries.
“In real estate you’re always working on the next transaction and it’s always sort of focused on the new and the glitz, and we just felt like from the Community Advisors perspective, what can we do to help with the talent, resources and time we have as an organization?” Jensen said. “How can we serve?”
Spillyards, when he jump-started Community Advisors two and half years ago, first worked with Porter Leath to help the organization create a high-level education center for children birth through pre-K. The result is a Longview Heights facility that is already beginning to change the face of that community.
“We’re basically a nonprofit working within a for-profit model,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we get paid on these projects. I can keep my focus on what the impact is going to be.”
That, too, fits with the vision Jensen had for his company’s community service work.
“I really had been thinking about how do we take what we have as a company and apply the same resources and talent that we’d apply in 38119, how can we apply that in 38109?” Jensen said. “To make sure we really are giving to the community in a meaningful way.”
For Fenton, Cushman Wakefield | Commercial Advisors’ community focus led to her involvement in a different type of project that’s designed to shed a light on positive development in and around Memphis.
“One of the recent projects that I’ve worked on that is really community-focused is our online interactive map called 901 REnews,” Fenton said.
It’s blossomed into a comprehensive online map that offers a compilation of current development projects in and around Memphis. At publication time, 901Renews.com was tracking the development status of 282 projects throughout the Greater Memphis region.
“One of our major goals is to communicate all of the great things that are going on in Memphis,” Fenton said. “There’s new stuff every day, every week but we wanted to create a place where people who are in the city or out of the city but interested in Memphis can look and see what’s going on, development-wise. The information is accessible; we share it regularly with nonprofits.”
The idea is to help nonprofits and others see real estate development happening in real time to make it easier to spot opportunities for current or future projects.
As for Community Advisors, it’s been involved in communities ranging from Soulsville to Riverview-Kansas, and others. Areas with existing assets can particularly benefit from the organization’s services, Spillyards said.
“Some of those assets have started to percolate, to be brought back to life,” he said. “And a handful of assets that have not been repurposed, it’s almost like they’re pieces of a puzzle that need to be identified and solved.”
For example, Riverview has a strong faith community and a thriving charter school. But family housing near the school is scarce. The idea, for Community Advisors, is that developing or redeveloping a major asset in a community like Riverview breeds continued development and involvement by others. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm.
“We want to focus on these neighborhoods, but it’s going to take a roundtable approach,” Spillyards said. “We bring the commercial aspect to the conversation, but you need the educational piece, the faith community piece, the housing piece. Now it’s how can we partner with housing developers, how can we put a cohesive plan together? We’re hearing more and more from the mayor’s office about establishing a process that can be replicated over and over again. We want to be the commercial voice, the economic development voice in those conversations.”
That’s the goal. In the meantime, Community Advisors is putting its resources and talent to work in the areas where projects present themselves.
“In a perfect world it would be great to pick one area and just focus block by block, street by street in that neighborhood,” he said. “The challenge is that we have particular organizations coming to us as clients, and those clients are driving the neighborhoods that we’re focused on.”
Jensen and Spillyards’ shared mission is to let their everyday work in real estate not only inform, but heighten and advance their ability to make a difference by giving back.
“Our clients have made us really good at what we do, and now we want to be givers, not just takers,” Spillyards said. “We really think of ourselves as an organization of family, not just employees. The families here live, work, play and serve in Memphis. So we need to be good stewards of the city we live in. Being in real estate, we’re on the leading edge of stewardship.”
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