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Origin Stories: Ken Ashley On What's To Love About Tenant Rep Work

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

Ken Ashley's path to a real estate career took a few zigs and zags. He was a  university police officer, a part-time firefighter, a cash register salesman and a chief financial officer. In between all that, he found spare time to develop a passion for chasing tornadoes.

But in 1996, Ashley discovered his professional calling as a commercial real estate broker. Ashley, an executive director in Cushman & Wakefield's Atlanta office, said he fell in love with being a broker as a way to glean the business strategies of his clients, especially given how commercial real estate typically is the second-biggest cost after talent for most companies.

“Tenant rep is a complex job layered with compensation risk, but when the stars align, this is a wonderful career with great financial rewards and ultimate schedule flexibility,” Ashley said in an email.

Cushman & Wakefield executive directors Sam Hollis and Ken Ashley at Porsche North America's headquarters.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE? 

Ashley: I worked as CFO of a small family business that hired Lynn Carden [now an associate broker with I.J. Kapplin] as the tenant rep. I watched her work and fell in love with the process you go through to solve real estate problems. I later met with Brad Smith [now a TPA Group principal] when he was in tenant rep and he talked about what a great business real estate is. I was hooked.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE? 

Ashley: Mike Elting hired me at Cushman & Wakefield, which was my first choice. I was (and am) thrilled to work at the company. I started as an industrial broker cold-calling Fulton Industrial.

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

Ashley: Earning the CoreNet Master of Corporate Real Estate has really helped me to understand what corporate executives are going through during the real estate process. I teach the CoreNet Advanced Lease Analysis class and really enjoy meeting students in my class. Both CCIM and SIOR have excellent courses as well. I learned general business skills at the University of Georgia. My post-college coursework is all around specific real estate training.

Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director Ken Ashley with his daughter Meghan, 20, his son Jonathan, 23, and his wife, Karen, at a University of Georgia football game in 2019.

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

Ashley: I wish I started with the ability to carefully manage time and delegate. The 80/20 principle is very important to success in this business. A tenant rep has to be extremely careful with time and focus on the highest payback activities.

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

Ashley: I started my career at NCR selling ATMs and teller equipment to community banks. NCR had wonderful sales training. At my dad’s request, I left NCR after two years and joined his landscape architecture firm as CFO. I worked for him for about two-and-a-half years before discovering that an amazing career could be had in commercial real estate.

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? 

Ashley: Yes! I walked into Mike Elting’s office to quit after eight months and he talked me into staying. He is a great leader, and I will forever remember him saying, “Ken, why don’t you hang around just a little while longer and see if you can be successful?” I hit a deal two weeks later and never looked back.

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

Ashley: Twenty-five years ago, we had almost no technology and the training was the “blacksmith” method, which means you learned by working under someone senior. Today, I cannot imagine delivering services without the wonderful tech tools we have. The major firms have also gotten smart about training and realize that a well-educated tenant rep is just a necessity in today’s competitive marketplace.

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

Ashley: [Cushman & Wakefield Managing Director] Ray Stache was my first senior partner and mentor. He taught me much and remains a great friend to this very day. My business partner and friend [Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director] Sam Hollis has also been a great source of wisdom. We’ve worked together 23 years — longer than some marriages.

Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director Ken Ashley and Emerge Real Estate Services Managing Broker Palmer Bayless hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2018.

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

Ashley: As my dad used to say, “Keep plenty of hay in the barn.”

What he meant was: Don’t get crazy after a large commission check or an especially good year and spend all your money. Eliminate debt or at least keep it under control. Being financially conservative makes for a very good night’s sleep.

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

Ashley: That you can “hide” behind being busy. Answering emails and handling administrative tasks are necessary in our business, but they will not move the needle in terms of your success.

Talking to business executives and developing relationships can be hard at the beginning of your career, but this skill set is essential. Also, servant leadership never goes out of style.

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

Ashley: I would have started in commercial real estate sooner. I started as a tenant rep when I was 28, which is almost too late in life. Once you get married and start having kids, it's many times difficult to take on the income risk of this profession. That being said, I love my profession and sometimes can’t believe how fortunate I am to have found the thing I am meant to do.