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JLL Americas CEO Greg O'Brien On Diversity, Expansion And Technology

Greg O’Brien seems to organize his thoughts and ideas into groups of three. It’s unclear if JLL’s CEO of the Americas does this consciously, or if it just works out that way, but of the myriad of things Bisnow learned sitting down with Greg in his DC office recently, many of them came in threes.

JLL Americas CEO Greg O'Brien, snapped in his Washington, DC office

Reporting directly to global CEO Colin Dyer, Greg's been charged with helping JLL grow 15% to 20% every year, and there are three ways to do that, he says: increasing productivity, hiring more people, and mergers and acquisitions. And lately, M&A has been the avenue through which JLL has been growing most.

“You’re always looking at three ways to grow,” Greg tells us. “At different points in the cycle, there are better opportunities to grow in different ways. This just happens to be a good time, for us and the firms we are acquiring , to be thinking about strategic M&A.”

Over the past week alone, JLL has announced its acquisition of San Antonio’s Travis Commercial, Dallas-based workplace tech firm BRG, NYC consulting firm Merritt & Harris and a $330M deal for UK-based Integral, a facilities management platform. Going back further than a week would include too many deals to list in this space.

Greg says that, so far, all of the M&A the firm has done has worked, and that’s because most of the discussions before the deals go down are centered around people and culture. He’s read more than his share of books on how M&As fail, and chemistry is the most likely culprit.

“We don’t feel that we have major, glaring gaps,” he says, “but there are good opportunities to find  smaller, midsize companies that fit in well and fit our culture.”  

Greg was named Americas CEO in January 2014, after several years leading the markets group in the Americas following JLL’s 2008 acquisition of The Staubach Co, where he was CEO. We snapped him in 2007, below, after he was promoted to Roger Staubach's seat. On June 29, he and Joe Stettinius, the Americas chief executive for Cushman & Wakefield, will share the stage at Bisnow’s DC State of the Market Part 2

Greg O'Brien, snapped in 2007 when he was CEO of The Staubach Co

No broad conversation about real estate these days goes very far without discussing technology, and when it comes to JLL’s platform, Greg says there are three ways to boost its capability: partner, like JLL has done with VTS and Hightower; acquire, like JLL did in December with facilities management software Corrigo; or build it yourself, like JLL has done in DC with HiRise, a tech platform pairing small office users with small office spaces.

HiRise launched last year, the brainchild of SVP Andy O’Brien, and it represents a way for JLL to have a part in deals that are inefficiently small for even junior associates to work on.

“I think the first online disruption to come in our industry will be on smaller leases that are inefficient for our core brokerage model,” Greg says. “HiRise is a great innovation and an incubator for us, learning what to do, attacking the small end of the market and providing service to owners and tenants. The velocities have been small, and we’ve kept it here in DC to prove out the beta, but we’ll do more with that as we drive forward.”

JLL doesn’t just want to be the best real estate company in the world, it also wants to be the best real estate technology company in the world. To that end, JLL spends more than $100M annually on IT and technology, Greg says, and many years that number is significantly higher.

Technology is one of the pillars of JLL’s identity, Greg says. In fact, it’s one of—you guessed it—three pillars that make JLL what it is, along with the commitment to broad-spectrum growth and diversity.

The chairman of JLL’s board is a woman, and 36% of its board are women, admirable numbers for any company, especially so for real estate, which has infamously lagged behind in non-white men in the upper ranks. But JLL’s efforts to promote diverse candidates don’t end there.

“We recently went out for a couple of positions that sit on our senior executive committee and, for two of them, I only would accept a diverse slate,” Greg says. “We’ve found that we get better outcomes for clients when we put diverse teams together.”

The groups of three don’t end internally for Greg. After the mergers of DTZ, Cassidy Turley and Cushman & Wakefield was consummated last year, the combined C&W is now part of a three-headed monster on top of the brokerage world, along with JLL and CBRE.

But Greg doesn’t necessarily view it through that lens. Just like Joe Stettinius told us last week, the commercial real estate services industry still has plenty of room for the biggest players to gobble up more market share.

“We still feel there’s real upside for share, period,” he says. “In a consolidating industry, typically, the top two or three players might be at 50% to 60%, I don’t think that’s where we are today. There’s still room to be an aggregator, but also just to let what you have grow organically.”