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Origin Stories: Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw On How Character And Mentors Formed His Career


This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Jeff Shaw can triage an office deal as well as a wound.

Shaw, CEO of Bridge Commercial Real Estate, has a pedigree for the business. His father, Buddy Shaw, was one of Atlanta's first office tenant representatives, working for John Portman as the iconic developer had just finished Peachtree Center and was trying to lease it up.

But for a time, Shaw, 50, decided to forge his own path as part of an ambulance crew while studying at Hampden-Sydney College and as a counselor at Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta (now Children's Healthcare of Atlanta).

But when he decided to join the commercial real estate industry, Shaw relied on mentors he could not only learn from but respect. Today he counts himself as a mentor to many of the younger generation of CRE pros out there.

Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw while raising money for cancer awareness and treatment.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Shaw: Commercial real estate has been a part of my entire life. I worked as a teenager in construction at my grandfather Bob Allison’s company, Allison Smith Electrical Co. I also worked with my father, Buddy Shaw, who was one of the first office tenant representative brokers in Atlanta.

In the 1960s, my father worked for John Portman leasing their newest development, Peachtree Center. As a teenager, my father would hire me to cold call companies and drop off flyers to tenants for his listed subleases. I’d ride MARTA downtown, struggle to find the right building and was often chased out of offices for soliciting prospects.

One summer in the 1980s, I remember paying a really awesome guy named Terrance who was experiencing homelessness to help me find The Grant, Flatiron and Hurt Buildings, among others. I heard about fascinating transactions with large companies, did construction on major office developments, met early Atlanta CRE leaders and looked out into the horizon admiring the incredible views from soaring skyscrapers.

CRE truly provided my father the ability to be there for my mom and brothers, provide for our family, and find his purpose in a long career. He taught me about integrity, hard work and to never compromise yourself for success.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Shaw: My first full-time job in CRE was at Cushman & Wakefield — my first choice after interviewing with six different brokerage firms. I wanted to get started at a firm with passionate people, where I could find a mentor to pass on wisdom and expose me to opportunities with resources.

[Retired Cushman & Wakefield Executive Vice President] Mike Elting took a chance on me, even though I bombed the interview. I partnered with [JLL Director] Keene Reese and [Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director] Sam Hollis, who quickly taught me that hard work didn’t always pay.

My first year was tough. I had a $20K draw and learned quickly that all of those splits, including a cut to Uncle Sam, didn’t leave much for Ramen noodles and La Parilla with a coupon. It was the encouragement of good mentors and old friends like [Cushman & Wakefield Senior Director] John Ferguson and [Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director] Ken Ashley that encouraged me through long hours of cold calling while learning strategy and terminology.

There are dozens of people from partners, attorneys and contractors who cared enough to help me hone my skills and learn from failure — not to mention an exceptionally patient wife who had a salary job at Ernst & Young that helped us as newlyweds with a new mortgage and a baby on the way.

Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw and his family.

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?

Shaw: I had good real estate fundamentals from mostly independent study, networking and interning with my father, but didn’t have formal training as a junior broker until the early 1990s. It’s kind of funny how being willing to go straight commission allows for a little flexibility if you have some passion.

There’s not much risk on the brokerage firm, especially with a draw.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Shaw: Well, the ability to see the future would have been awesome, but I guess it’s the scars, mistakes and failures that ultimately make leaders successful. Plus good mentors who took the time to help you succeed. It would have been great to have had a master’s degree in real estate rather than an internship and a real estate license.

But even though my path took longer, trial by fire and hands-on experience ultimately gave me the tools and training I needed to be successful.

Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?

Shaw: I had an unusual start: I actually thought I was going to be a doctor. In college, I was an EMT and was a squad leader responding to car accidents, suicides, heart attacks, prison fights, frat accidents, even baby deliveries. Not your average path to CRE.

I was a psychology major and my first job was actually at Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center as a behavior specialist and counselor. This experience gave me a solid perspective on what is important in life and where your priorities should be.

It’s interesting how much psychology plays a role in success in real estate. Relationships are key, so understanding yourself, your blind spots, strengths and weaknesses are critical. At Bridge, we focus on using leadership awareness training that helps our leaders know themselves and how best to work with others.

I’m also involved with leadership development companies to provide similar analytics and training to other business leaders in Atlanta. Whether you’re negotiating with a screamer or a pleasant professional, leading others or trying to advance in a career, much of success is tied to the psychology of negotiation. The most successful office brokers negotiate ethically with a sincere desire to create a respectful process and a mutually beneficial conclusion for their clients.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?

Shaw: I was told that after 18 months in the business that I would want to quit, but to keep going anyway. I’ve repeated that warning hundreds of times to new brokers. I believe [Cushman & Wakefield Senior Director] John Ferguson first gave me that advice about 4 miles into a jog on Cochise Road near The Lovett School, where we both went.

I so wanted to quit. Straight commission can be really tough, but the great thing about CRE is the longer you are in the industry, the more your book of business increases alongside your experience. After that time period, much of the deal process is learned and you start to see repeat business.

Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw and company colleagues.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Shaw: Our industry has had its ups and downs. I watched my friends’ parents in real estate make money and lose money. I witnessed many people struggle with success. Money can do bad things to people.

I watched successful brokers lose their families from poor decisions, or excessively drink in the office, or make fools of themselves at company events. In an industry where financial success can be huge one year and gone the next, I learned quickly to budget and save.

From the outside looking in, I can see how and why the industry in the 1990s and 2000s had a pretty bad reputation. It struggled with inclusion, diversity and pride, but I’ve seen a shift in Atlanta to the better in the last decade. Much of the small pockets of bad leadership have been replaced with exceptional leaders who possess great character.

There has been more focus on life balance, family, quality leadership, inclusion and faith. Of course, no company or individual is perfect. However, there is now stronger awareness of the weaknesses in our industry and there has been real action to change … and it’s working.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?

Shaw: Other than my father, who was my best moral compass on how to be a good broker and human being, I had more of an army of individuals that helped me at different points in my career. Surrounding yourself with people both younger and older who make you stronger and wiser is really a better definition of my experience with mentorship.

In almost all of those moments where I needed help or guidance, support came from swinging by someone’s office to talk without an appointment. Impromptu meetings, chance encounters or kind mentors reaching out to just check on me at just the right time — like Keene Reese, Sam Hollis, [retired TriMont Real Estate Advisors Senior Vice President] Bob Daffer, Mike Elting, [The Strategic Group partner] Steve Rothschild, Ken Ashley and so many more — remind me of the importance of companies having a physical office space.

With the current push to work from home, I worry about the next generation having the same opportunities for building critical relationships.

[Bridge Investment Group Chief Investment Officer] John Ward has also been an exceptional business partner and friend over the years. Hindsight is a beautiful thing because it allows you to really see the forks in the road that seemed so painful at the time but resulted in such an amazing journey.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Shaw: There are several that come to mind. Never compromise your integrity or ethics for anything or anybody. If you screw up, own your mistake and fix it. Treat others like you would like to be treated.

There is nothing wrong with confidence, so speak assertively like you are right, but always listen like you are wrong. If you are a person who struggles with empathy, work to improve this.

And lastly, if you are feeling rudderless and lost, there are a lot of people and resources that can help. This applies to your job, family and self. I firmly believe that each of us has a purpose and path in our lives. If it feels like you have pushed your way off of it, then seek help. The longer I am in this business, the more stories I hear about people who hit bottom, survived it and are now thriving.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Shaw: The wonderful thing about real estate is that there are so many ways to leverage your skills and personality. There are different categories — land, office, retail, industrial — and different roles — analyst, accounting, design, construction, asset management, fund management, leasing, property management, engineering, client services, lending and investment sales.

It’s smart to do your homework upfront to save time. If you are a numbers person, then perhaps asset management is for you. If you love sales, perhaps leasing and marketing.

Some require more advanced training, so be sure to do your research and work the CRE network. Real estate is an industry full of people eager to meet you, give advice and even mentor you. Take advantage of it. Build your personal capital! Think about how to do internships, self-promote, network and use LinkedIn to help yourself stand out.

I’ve seen thousands of résumés and Bridge has hired thousands of people across the country and can attest that the extra effort goes a long way.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Shaw: Bridge makes a big effort to reach out to schools to promote all forms of real estate. This was a big problem historically and is still an issue today. When I was in school, nobody was aware of the opportunities in CRE — then if you layer in the further needs for inclusion and diversity, the industry still has a lot of work to do. I had some awareness because of my family, but it would have been great to have had a stronger focus earlier.

I worked at C&W, CBRE and JLL prior to co-founding my own firm in 2004. I’ve been blessed to serve as a partner at Bridge Investment Group with $20.2B in assets under management and the CEO of our amazing office operating company. I certainly would have loved to have had an easier road to success with less recessions and difficulties, but ultimately it was the harder road that created the opportunities I have today.

I can only hope that I can pay it forward by encouraging others considering or growing a career in this industry like so many did for me.