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The New Closers: Why Cushman & Wakefield's Brian Duffy Is One To Watch

Launching a successful commercial real estate career requires a hefty dose of personal initiative, along with a bit of luck, but mentorship may have been the most significant factor that helped Brian Duffy flourish as a rising star tenant rep at Cushman & Wakefield.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Brian Duffy

“You need those things in tandem to have a success story,” he said.

The luck came from playing football for the University of Chicago almost a decade ago, when as a freshman Duffy met the team captain who three years later would recruit him for a summer internship at DTZ, even though Duffy was considering a career in finance.

“Within two weeks of taking that internship, I realized this was it,” he said.

A job in finance had begun to look like a way to stay chained to a desk, Duffy said, but the life of a tenant rep seemed different.

“It’s all about getting in front of people, and hitting the streets.”  

Duffy joined a DTZ team led by Chris Wood just eight days after graduating college in 2014, and became part of Cushman & Wakefield after the companies merged the following year. He has been with Wood ever since, and along with Jordan Decker and Adam McCostlin, racked up some impressive numbers, having taken part in more than 100 lease transactions with a total value of more than $350M.

He credits Wood’s policy of bringing even the youngest team members into key meetings with teaching him how to interact with clients and solve their problems.

“I got to understand what keeps clients up at night,” he said.

“You need a good mentor, and Chris took him under his wing, and in their mannerisms, the two are very similar,” said Mike Stacy, Cushman & Wakefield managing director and Chicago brokerage lead. “Brian is the first one in the office, and the last one out, and that’s not because he just wants to be seen, he’s a hustler.”

“He’s also very humble, with a good sense of humor, and a great deal of his success comes from his ability to team up and partner with others,” he added.  

Still, becoming a tenant rep also involves a lot of grunt work, and Duffy did his share in those first years.

He estimates 90 hours per week was normal at the start, with most weekday mornings and afternoons spent on phone calls and visiting prospective clients, traveling around to properties and attracting new business, with plenty of additional time in the evenings and on weekends devoted to analyzing lease transactions.

“If you are at your desk all day, you probably weren’t very productive,” Duffy said.

When he began handling his own clients, it involved a lot of 800 SF leases, sometimes scattered across several tertiary markets, each with a unique set of rules and regulations, all of which Duffy had to learn.   

That grind led to a high attrition rate, with himself and only a few other reps remaining from the more than one dozen associates who joined the firm at roughly the same time, he said.

“If you can get through the first two or three years of tenant representation, you’re going to be good.”

Brian Duffy and his family

Things have settled down a bit now that he is five years in.

“It still involves long hours, but it’s a different kind of work,” he said. “I am no longer a junior broker trying to drum up new business.”

This year he reached one goal by riding shotgun with Wood on a new global headquarters lease for USG Corp., a Chicago-based building supplies company, and one of the firm’s long-standing clients.

“It was far more in-depth than doing a lease for a 50-person sales office,” Duffy said.

USG ended up signing a 10-year lease extension for 220K SF at 550 West Adams St., but before that, the Cushman team and Duffy conducted an exhaustive study on whether the firm should relocate to a new submarket, including the option of anchoring one of the Central Business District’s new office developments.

“It was a huge learning experience for me, because it meant working with a client in a much deeper way than typically seen,” Duffy said.

USG also began simultaneously working through a merger with Germany-based Knauf, a move that would also transform it from a public company into a private one, all factors the Cushman team members had to keep in mind as they analyzed the impact of any new lease on the bottom line and on the ability to recruit and retain workers. 

One of Duffy’s long-term goals is to lead his own team on lease negotiations for clients of USG’s scale.

“I’m a few gray hairs short, but that’s the ambition of any tenant rep.”

Along with his colleague Andy Heymann, Duffy also attracted notice from higher-ups in Cushman & Wakefield through creativity. The pair saw the firm was a leader in the law practice sector, and in 2016 realized there could be an invaluable resource for these clients: a database tracking just when these leases were set to expire, along with precisely what kind of real estate attorneys were using.  

They started collecting information, and the proprietary database now includes about 15,000 data points on the roughly 300 Chicago law firms with 10 attorneys or more, including square footage occupied, lease expiration dates, attorney counts, practice specialties, number of offices and more.

“Every law firm will tell you their competition is similarly sized firms practicing the same type of law,” Duffy said, and not only can Cushman & Wakefield now show prospective clients exactly what their competition is doing, the database has given brokers a real window on their real estate needs.   

Many brokers bring questions to researchers and wait to hear answers, Stacy said, but creating the legal database illustrates a quality that makes Duffy special.

“He’ll sit down with our researchers and explore what he wants to know,” Stacy said.

Even though the new database was such a hit that Duffy and Heymann were asked to help Cushman & Wakefield brokers in eight other markets create their own, Duffy remains modest about the accomplishment.

“I am still an up-and-comer, and try to prove myself every day.”

Learn about other rising stars in our national New Closers series here.