Origin Stories: Newmark Vice Chairman Bill Hill On Depending On An Eclectic CRE 'Cast Of Characters'
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Bill Hill is a people person, and that serves him well in commercial real estate. The D.C.-based Newmark vice chairman, who specializes in real estate deals involving the federal government, has relied on networking throughout his nearly 20-year career because, as he put it, one needs a “cast of characters” they can trust around them. In CRE, that cast is eclectic — though not as diverse as it should be, he said — and he encourages people he mentors to broaden their network outside of their expertise.
Fresh off getting a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke University, Hill entered commercial real estate in 2002 — there was no other industry he wanted to be in, he said.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Hill: I was introduced to the world of real estate by my grandfather — a principal investor (as well as a school principal) — he invested in both land and properties. I would help him with various jobs and real estate assignments.
I eventually learned more about commercial real estate in college; however, since there was no set curriculum, I began initiating my own conversations with people in the industry and what I learned piqued my interest.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Hill: My first job in commercial real estate (and out of college) was at Spaulding & Slye Colliers in an office not far from where I am right now in Washington, D.C. I’ve been in the same business niche representing leasing to federal agencies and departments ever since. I started my career as part of a brokerage team in the same practice on the federal side, and to this day — in my role with Newmark — I still work with many of the individuals in the industry with whom I first started my career.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Hill: I studied mechanical engineering and material sciences at Duke, and there was an undergraduate business program that offered a "Markets and Management" certificate; there was no undergraduate business degree at the time.
However, engineering — the study of systems — as well as business and commercial real estate, all require critical thinking. I believe the skill sets and discipline I gained from my engineering education gave my first employers insight into how I think. In my line of work, no day or assignment is exactly alike, so my background has provided me with a valuable foundation for addressing the unique challenges that arise with different clients.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Hill: I’ve always been a people person, though an important realization was the importance of expanding my network beyond those who share my interests or those I am accustomed to being around, as it is incredibly valuable and would have been helpful early on in business development and sales.
Advice I give to professionals whom I mentor is to align with organizations outside of what you’re familiar with because it naturally increases the time you spend growing your network. That’s something I wish I would have done out of the gate.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?
Hill: Commercial real estate was my first and has been my only career. Coming out of college, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
I worked on a patent during my last year at Duke and immediately after graduation, but commercial real estate was my first job — it’s where I wanted to be. When I graduated, I made my way up and down the East Coast talking to different commercial real estate firms in Atlanta, parts of Florida and Raleigh-Durham. In fact, I had been in Atlanta just having met with a firm when I received a call late in the day (about 7 or 8 p.m.) from the person who would eventually end up hiring me, and he asked if we could meet for coffee in the morning. I said “yes,” changed my plans to go out to dinner and joined him for coffee in the morning. I’m glad I took that meeting.
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?
Hill: I think every new commercial real estate broker gets to a point where you’re taking on a lot, learning the inner workings of commercial real estate as well as the language of the industry — in my case, additional government jargon — and that can certainly be overwhelming. Though I have never thought about quitting.
I was several years into my career when my father passed, and he was my best friend and largest source of inspiration, so at that time, I had to redirect my focus and think about why I was doing what I was doing. As a young man in my early 20s, it made me reassess where I wanted to be not just career-wise, but personally, to make him proud.
Another initial and challenging hurdle was the homogenous nature of the commercial real estate industry and not seeing too much of anyone who looks like me. That has changed since, but not as much as I'd like.
Everyone in this business faces challenges, but those challenges need to be faced head-on with hard work and resiliency, or it can be very difficult to succeed.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Hill: When it comes to the need for diversity, the industry has changed and improved a bit, but not as much as it can, or should. That’s an issue that I dedicate a great deal of time to and that is very important to me.
In addition, the ways in which we consume and convey information have changed immensely through technology. It’s fundamentally altered how we provide services to clients and how we gather information.
I run a national practice, and even the ability to reach out and connect with people today without needing to hop on a plane or in the car — even though, as a people person, I like that face-to-face time — I think that’s been the biggest change agent in our industry. That will be what changes our industry going forward at the fastest rate. When we talk about technology, it’s not just confined to what’s within our industry. Autonomous vehicles, and all of these external change agents, pose the potential to transform commercial real estate faster than any one thing within the industry itself.
When clients expect to receive information and when we expect information to be received at the firm — it’s all getting faster. The pandemic impacted how we work, and while we were already never really disconnected, last year accelerated the transition to continuous connection. Now we almost expect to be “on” all the time, and that’s something we’ll all have to monitor for our mental health. As it relates to doing business, I’ve witnessed among colleagues and clients that we're never really detached from our professional lives, and I think that will continue until some other event interrupts the trend.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Hill: I have had several mentors. My father and grandfather were my biggest inspirations, along with my family in general.
The person that called me for a coffee and ended up hiring me in my first commercial real estate job — Bill Magner — is someone inside the industry whom I reach out to often. Another person I consider a mentor is Michael Bennett, the executive vice president of strategy at Evans & Chambers Technology, a former chief information officer at BAE Systems Inc., and an independent technology consultant. While his work is not within commercial real estate per se, when it comes to business, and life in general, he’s someone whom I respect and value.
I also have a counsel of colleagues and friends in the industry to whom I can always ask a question, brainstorm or simply talk about how we’re doing. Those exchanges have proven to be very beneficial for me.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Hill: A key lesson has been to make sure you have a cast of characters around you that you can trust and that represent you well. When push comes to shove, people are who they show themselves to be. I have had the experience of giving someone the benefit of the doubt after they'd already shown me who they really were — and sometimes you put blinders on to complete a job or assignment — but take people at face value. That’s an important lesson I learned early on.
If someone demonstrates poor character, take that for what it is; trust your judgment and don't expect something different from someone than what they've shown you.
It is incredibly important to me to surround myself with people I enjoy being around and working with, and vice versa. Around my office, we talk about leading by being positive, being energetic and having contagious personalities and work ethics — that kind of attitude makes others want to work with you. Within every business and within our industry — which is full of eclectic personalities — you need to make an effort to align yourself with positive people.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Hill: If “no” bothers you or if you need constant professional validation, this might not be the industry for you. We work in a true meritocracy, so you may not always receive feedback on or validation for the work you have done. However, there are few things more rewarding than executing a transaction with your team that started out as long-shot idea.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Hill: I would probably take more risks at the onset of my career. It’s easy to say that now, right?
When you first begin your career, you have your head down, trying to just do everything right. If I did it again, I would look more outside of myself. I wouldn't be so concerned about being one of only a few people who looked like me in the industry. I'd take more risk early on with what I thought I could handle and where I envisioned myself.
Many times, you enter an unfamiliar territory and you want to follow a path that someone has set out for you; however, sometimes you expedite your journey by taking early risks and bolder assignments, for which you may not even realize you’re ready. Though I believe in the steps I have taken and the work I have done and continue to do and I’m happy with the trajectory of my career — and excited for the future.