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Weekend Interview: Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group Principal James Pitts

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

When James Pitts founded Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group last year, he focused on staffing his new corporate real estate services firm with seasoned minority and Black professionals with the aim to become one of the largest minority-led enterprises in the U.S. Pitts is based in Atlanta but is now licensed in 22 states and has offices in Detroit; Dallas; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Denver; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia.

Pitts has had a storied career in commercial real estate, with 26 years spent working for such names as JLL and Grubb & Ellis. Even before that, Pitts — an engineer by trade — worked for Motorola and headed up workplace strategies with Johnson Controls Global Workplace Solutions in his earlier career.

The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

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Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group principal James Pitts

Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said the “time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Where is the blood today?

Pitts: We are at an inflection point right now. With the Fed trying to contain inflation by raising interest rates and the uncertainty facing Europe with the Russia-Ukraine War and the effect on food and energy costs, we are in choppy waters. Additionally, for a second time this year, the People’s Bank of China announced it would reduce the amount of foreign currency banks need to hold to potentially reduce the weakening pressure on the yuan, which has tumbled to two-year lows against the U.S. dollar in the last few weeks.

In U.S. domestic commercial real estate markets, there is uncertainty around office assets as occupiers are trying to understand where the “new normal” will settle in a post-Covid world. There’s a lot of shadow vacant/sublease space in the market that is not in plain view. Amazon is pulling back on its industrial footprint. FedEx just announced that it sees a slowdown in its business heading into the holiday season. Housing is cooling rapidly, which means whoever bought recently may be upside down. The next six to 12 months will be very interesting.

A bright spot is what’s happening around EVs with the influx of companies and investment in technology and infrastructure. That will be a growth industry as the effects of climate change continue to make it clear that our current mode of energy use is not sustainable.

So, for now, it’s better to watch and wait for opportunity than to enter the market and become a casualty that others benefit from.

You can quote me on this: “If there’s blood in the streets, don’t go out too early and add yours to it.”

Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right about it?

Pitts: Companies sometimes view Tier 2 relationships for diverse/small CRE firms as a more beneficial opportunity than it is. Unless the client and Tier 1 partner fully and thoughtfully engage, it becomes a check-the-box exercise with the Tier 2 partner potentially receiving less desirable projects and working three times as hard for the same dollar as the Tier 1 partner. That arrangement doesn’t drive the expansion of the Tier 2 partner’s business or the transformation of the CRE industry into a more inclusive environment.

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James Pitts, principal with Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group, along with his wife, Anne Marie.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?

Pitts: That’s a hard one. I have been in real estate so long, it’s hard to think outside of it. I had the chance to play professional basketball in Europe after college but chose to work as an engineer, and then played basketball for three or four hours six days a week for the next 20-plus years for free, so maybe I should have gone to Europe. I absolutely love music of all types, except classical, and used to DJ large '70s parties, which was a hoot. But my enduring passion is travel and meeting new people, so if I could do anything, it would be working as a travel photographer and getting paid to travel and engage with people all over the world.

Bisnow: If you could make one change to the industry, what would it be?

Pitts: Challenge the perception that selecting the largest global firms is always the safest and best choice for CRE decision-makers. What matters ultimately is the quality of the team that you are working with. 

Bisnow: What is one thing you would do differently from early in your career?

Pitts: How many bites does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? One, invest in real estate sooner. Two, go into business sooner. Three, talk to wealthy people about how they create generational wealth sooner.

Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth mentoring and who is simply not a good fit?

Pitts: First, are they willing to reach out and ask for coaching? Second, are they willing to listen and follow coaching, or are they just looking for confirmation of their current decision-making process? Third, are they willing to return the favor to someone else and pass it on?

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Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group principal James Pitts and members of his former youth soccer team in Georgia at a 2022 state championship soccer game.

Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the metaverse? Does it have any relevance for CRE?

Pitts: In my opinion, the metaverse is great for gaming, leisure and learning. I have an investment in a metaverse company. I do think that people with vested interests to sell the next thing may at times overextend the utility of the metaverse.

Maybe I just don’t get it, but I would rather be in Valencia, Spain, drinking real wine, eating amazing meals and walking the streets, feeling the cool winds from the Mediterranean Sea swirling about than to wear a headset in my living room that needs to be recharged every few hours. As Chris Rock said, you can drive a car with your feet instead of your hands, but why would you?

Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting impacts of the pandemic on CRE?

Pitts: The unexamined expectation and requirement for people to come into the office to work has been peeled away in some instances. Now that people have experienced working from anywhere and living a blended life with result-oriented work outcomes, it may be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Bisnow: As you know, there is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Pitts: Right now, the focus seems to be on entry-to-mid-level positions and not C-suite-level changes. Greenwood CRE by its nature and design addresses that issue. This conversation has been going on for 20-plus years, and there seems to still be little advancement in this area. Once people are truly willing to make that change, it will transform rapidly. Until then — it’s a circular conversation — we will back this way again.

Bisnow: So, this is the weekend interview. What’s your typical weekend routine?

Pitts: Up until three years ago, every weekend was spent driving to travel soccer games all over Georgia as the coach of a top team in Georgia. After retiring from soccer, I work most weekends to get ahead of the next week. Before work, I get in a couple of workouts and a short and long run on Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

When I get the chance, we head up to Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga or Asheville, North Carolina, in our Airstream camper, sit out under the stars, unplug for a couple of days and, if lucky, watch a soccer game or two on my iPad.