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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Savills' Kelly Givens

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This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

Skills and knowledge, not titles or money, are what drive Kelly Givens.

As vice chairman of New York-based Savills, based in the firm's Orange County office, and a member of the Corporate Services Group, Givens is responsible for transactional strategies centered on workplace and facility requirements across the nation. He helps clients with their workforce and workplace needs and to forecast the real estate requirements necessary to support that demand.

In the past five years, Givens has been directly involved in the design and procurement of more than $3B of design, construction and development services, according to Savills officials.

But prior to his senior title, Givens has had an eclectic work experience.

He has worked as an architect, underwriter, developer, development manager, construction manager, leasing agent, analyst and even at a Hunt’s tomato factory, where he was responsible for monitoring the paste level.

This kind of work experience led to Givens being who he is, someone who is not afraid to learn and try new things.

Savills Studley Vice Chairman Kelly Givens with mom
Savills Vice Chairman Kelly Givens with his mom

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?

My role may change depending on the specific client situation and need, but basically I say I help companies define their workforce and workplace needs, and predict the real estate requirements necessary to support that demand over time. I have often described my role as an “occupier demand engineer” that translates human resource and workspace needs into specific real estate requirements. I then transact and manage these requirements on behalf of my clients.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?

Givens: I would likely teach real estate development or a related topic at the collegiate level. My other interest is in custom homes. I started my professional career as a housing architect, and have always enjoyed the detail and scale of these types of projects.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Givens: I have been lucky in that I sought a career in architecture while still in high school and secured my first commission, which happened to be a hay barn, at age 16. 

Then I was fortunate to have various design and drafting jobs throughout my school years that helped solidify my career direction. However, one summer I was enticed by the lure of more money and took a union labor job at a local Hunt’s tomato product factory. My sole responsibility was to sit at a tomato paste vat and monitor the paste level. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was much more suited to a job that engaged my creative and analytic skills, rather than being highly paid to perform one singular task. The time spent staring at that vat, however, allowed me the time to craft the dream of a career designing and constructing buildings. Sometimes a less-than-ideal job leads you to the right path.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Givens: As I progressed in my career path there were a few notable opportunities. As a young architect I worked for an architectural firm hired by the Irvine Co., Orange County’s pre-eminent real estate development company, to plan and design homes for the Irvine Ranch. In the mid-1980s, the savings and loan industry was making a big impact in real estate by creating access to nonrecourse debt for new developments. This unique market condition led me to secure and underwrite the first of several loans to develop office buildings in and around Southern California and launched my development career. In the early 2000s, the opportunity to represent MySpace in securing their new headquarters in Playa Vista was a great jumping-off point for me in my role as a tenant specialist.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Givens: I have honestly never looked at failure as an outcome or event rather than as an essential part of the process or solution. As a young architect I learned that the creative process involves continuous testing of various solutions or ideas, which eventually lead you to the acceptable creation of place. Failure only happens if you stop the process. One of my design professors in college posted a quote from Albert Einstein in the classroom which read, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything NEW!”

Kelly Givens at a children’s charity event just outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina
Kelly Givens at a children’s charity event just outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the commercial real estate industry, what would it be?

Givens: I would love to see the industry provide more structured training programs and job recruitment opportunities for college students and future real estate professionals. The one constant in real estate is change, and we need to do better at training and diversifying the talent pool coming into the industry.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Givens: Mostly things related to people not doing what they say they will do. The real estate industry relies on communication and dialogue for opportunities and agreements to come together. If these communications become unreliable, it becomes increasingly difficult to get things done.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Givens: I have had several very impactful ones beginning with my father who set the standard for working hard and treating people in the right way. In the development business it was John Parker, a legendary figure in Southern California brokerage who later started a full-service development company focused on office and industrial real estate. Mr. Parker appreciated my background in architecture and design and gave me the opportunity to learn all aspects of the development business. With his guidance, I was able to get on-the-job training as a development manager, construction manager, leasing agent, analyst and tenant improvement coordinator. He was a true visionary and a great teacher.

Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?

Givens: The best advice I got earlier in my career was to pursue skills and knowledge, not titles or money, and success would follow. This advice led me to reject several promotions in favor of lateral moves that offered the opportunity to learn another job function or discipline in construction or development. Eventually, I was able to leverage this gained diversity in my role as a real estate adviser.

The worst advice I received was to limit the amount of partners I have so that I could maximize my individual return. I have found the opposite to be true. Great partners with similar incentives increase the probability of success and give you the ability to leverage your time so that the net result is far beyond what you could have accomplished alone.

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Givens: I am not an extravagant person so heating our indoor pool year-round or taking a weekday to play golf (usually with clients) feels like an indulgence to me.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Givens: For me this is much more about the place than the food. When I left architecture for a career in development I found I really missed the drawing side of the business. Savills' annual Winter Trips for company leadership and top producers takes us to amazing places around the globe. This allowed me to not only experience exciting and exotic places, but also renewed my desire to sketch and draw while on these trips. The patio deck at the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina, Sicily, is a great spot with a memorable view of the cascading hillside and Mount Etna in the background. Additionally as memorable is Ristorante Stella in the harbor plaza of the seaside town of Portofino, Italy.

Savills' Kelly Givens shows off a sketch.
Savills' Kelly Givens shows off a sketch at the Grand Timeo Hotel in Taormina, Sicily.

Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?

Givens: The same thing we tell our kids: When you want to make an important point with someone, DON’T send a text or email, deliver the message in person. So my advice for the president, which I assume is not news to him, would be to dramatically reduce his Twitter use and communicate more in person.

Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Givens: Borrowing $30M to develop my first office project as I did not have anywhere near that level of collateral at that point in my life. However, we believed in the project and the underwriter must have recognized the value as well to take a chance on me and my partners. 

Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit in your hometown? 

Givens: That would be my great-Uncle Cy’s barbershop in the small town of Kimberly, Idaho. You can show up at any time, grab a cup of coffee and sit a spell. Within the hour you’ll have the lowdown on politics, sports and any local gossip you’re intrepid enough to discuss.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Givens: Not much as I am a very accomplished sleeper. The one thing that could interfere with my slumber, however, would be thinking about my kids and their efforts to find their place in the world.

Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?

Givens: Two of my favorite passions are providing career mentoring to young people and helping to create a best-in-class real estate program at my alma mater, Cal Poly University. I grew up understanding that my focus in life would generally follow a path of “Learn, Earn and Return.” This philosophy certainly drove my quest for knowledge early in my career, and I have had some great projects and opportunities that yielded significant returns. While I am not done learning or earning, I am very focused on the returning phase of my path, and making an impact and difference particularly in the lives of young people.

CORRECTION, APRIL 2, 11:18 A.M. PT: A previous version of this article was not clear that Givens is a vice chairman for Savills based out of the firm's Orange County office. The story has been updated.