Origin Stories: URBN Playground Co-Founder Jeremy Brutus On Diving Head-First Into Amenities
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Jeremy Brutus had every intention of becoming a lawyer, but a lifeguarding gig drew him into real estate, and he dropped his LSAT study books and dove right in.
He first dipped his toes into real estate while lifeguarding at the Peninsula Hotel in New York and seeing what amenities and service did for customer experiences. He branched into other hospitality roles, and serving as head of amenities for Jack Parker Corp., overseeing rebranding and redesign of residential buildings, clinched his love for the broader CRE industry.
Now Brutus helps run URBN Playground, an amenity management and consultancy firm he co-founded with Amy Blitz in 2016.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Brutus: I was introduced to commercial real estate and the world of amenities through the Jack Parker Corp. more than 20 years ago. There, I was the division head of amenities overseeing rebranding and redesign of residential buildings in New York City, and I found the experience totally fascinating — all the variances between hotel, commercial and residential real estate made every day exciting and different. It convinced me to stop studying for the LSAT and abandon my original plan of heading to law school. It was inspiring to be part of the amenity revolution from its earliest days. Now, with URBN Playground, we are driving the evolution of amenity services in commercial properties as well as residential and hospitality. Sticking with CRE was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Brutus: My first job in hospitality was as a lifeguard for a management firm at the Peninsula Hotel in NYC. I made minimum wage while in college, which was $4.25 per hour. I was incredibly happy to be working, and the job afforded me the opportunity to complete college work in the evening while working during the day and mornings. But ultimately it was the relationships I had with the spa’s members and guests that made the difference — I still remember their names and personas. This sparked my passion for hospitality, service and building community, which continues to be the mission we pursue day-in and day-out at URBN Playground, through delivering amenity management, design and consulting services that focus on the human touch and creating moments of connection for our residents. When we launched URBN Playground, I even got to go back to these roots, putting in some lifeguarding shifts at the first building we signed before we had the budget for full staffing.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Brutus: My background is in political science. I was heading to law school and everyone told me it would be a practical base to attain. That said, customer service and making a difference with and in people’s lives has always been at my core and still is. One of the most impactful work experiences I’ve had was at Peninsula Hotel, where I learned that details are what matter. At the Peninsula, the forks and knives are placed on the table with measured perfection (literally with a ruler at their Hong Kong property). This level of attention to detail may seem over-the-top to some, but a message was communicated through every single breakfast served at those tables. To guests, the message was: “We will go out of our way and strive towards a self-defined perfection, ultimately to ensure you feel a certain way.” To the service staff, the message was: “There is no margin for error in striving for perfection.” This perspective lent importance to what we did and made the smallest of tasks feel very important.
These lessons stuck with me throughout my career and were certainly formative in the launching of our holistic, 360-degree amenity consultancy, URBN Playground. We bring the “hardware” (the design, layout, outfitting and space) of a building together with the “software” (the service that exists within the spaces), and we see it as a complete whole, aiming to deliver an excellent customer experience with every interaction. This is an unconventional approach in a fragmented industry with many different service providers.
Over the years my diverse experiences have translated into a cross-functional skill set, with the ability to relate to lots of different people.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Brutus: A finance background. At 20, I was really pretty naïve about the business acumen needed to operate hospitality and real estate portfolios. I learned on the job through my experiences in hospitality and real estate both in the U.S. and in Saudi Arabia. Today, business and a strong customer focus are at the core of our amenity modeling for hotels, commercial real estate and residential. Amenities, more than any other aspect of CRE, had been a laggard when it came to business modeling. URBN is changing that in varied methods and approaches to the day-to-day business. Long gone are the days of real estate developers funding a large staff indefinitely. As a design, operations or technology partner, we seek to maximize opportunities for our clients.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn to succeed here?
Brutus: I started on the hospitality side, with hotels like Peninsula and Le Meridien. Early in my career I met inspiring people like Annbeth Eschbach, founder of Exhale Spas and who has now founded Kind Body, and Julia Sutton, COO of Exhale Spa. I learned so much from these two amazing women about business and people while working at the Peninsula Hotel.
Working in hospitality has informed everything I’ve done in CRE. In CRE, there is a constant rush to have the latest and trendiest amenities, from urban staples such as swimming pools, fitness centers and business lounges to more recent, trendy options such as creator studios, infrared saunas and salt rooms.
Yet amid all these investments into amenity space, another crucial yet often overlooked amenity is neglected — the service that occurs within these spaces. With Covid-19, you see the importance of service underscored even further. For instance, it could be something as simple as increasing package room capacity to deal with increased deliveries to ensuring proper physical distancing by requiring users to book gym time and limiting headcount via an app.
Service is what takes an environment from simply being “space” to being a “place.”
At URBN Playground, my partner, Amy Blitz, and I are regularly asked what kinds of new amenities renters, residents and guests are looking for. Without hesitation, the first answer on our lips is usually service. We believe that the person looking at a new or existing rental or condo is choosing a lifestyle, rather than a cold, hard unit of space or built-up area.
Coming from the world of high-touch hospitality has enabled us to stand apart from other service providers through our relentless focus on luxury service.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry was not for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Brutus: I do — I was working for another amenity firm prior to starting URBN Playground and recall sitting on a beach in California watching a sunset with a friend. We had left the normal post-convention meet-and-greets to grab a beer on the beach and take in a Cali sunset. During the conversation, I realized I needed more than my sales role was offering. Bringing in client relationships wasn’t enough; it needed to be matched with delivering value and service in a holistic way. I resigned from my position and a year later started URBN Playground to do just that.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Brutus: I was genuinely excited by the varied aspects of the industry — every day was different, and that kept it interesting. I am still as fascinated by the various projects we have and the extent we go to differentiate them from each other — it is totally joyful!
Recently, in the first week of December 2020, a CRE developer rang us for some fitness center analytics, something we honed in on during our pre-development consulting. They wanted it by the end of the day, and I recall being so excited about delivering the requested data. Our head of design and our team came together, and a few hours later we shared the deliverable. So, to answer the question, I’m as excited and enthusiastic as the day I started.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Brutus: I have had a few mentors who have helped shaped the way I think, and I am very grateful. Knowledge and experience passed on is a real gift; it helped us grow URBN Playground in four-and-a-half years to over 50 properties managed in NYC. In the past year, we’ve grown out of the tri-state area to six other states. It is invaluable to my growth and to our customer experience.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Brutus: Make a difference every day you go to work or in life. And it was kindly.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Brutus: To be creative, to avoid the status quo and complacency. It is easy to sink into the day-to-day operations, but finding creative solutions to simple everyday problems within property management is what keeps me going. For example, looking at inventory and looking at complicated problems with fresh eyes, like package rooms. The package room is an amazing amenity if one thinks about it differently. What other areas and aspects of the residential development does every building resident use on a regular basis? There is lots of opportunity there. It’s often the most unsexy amenities (think the package room) that have the most untapped potential. Often, what customers want is simply to have the basic things done excellently.
The opportunity is available to all buildings, no matter how big or small, how old or modern. Even if a building lacks a lounge or game room, service is an amenity that everyone can provide. It is about creating people-driven interactions that are unique, memorable, positive and personal. Service can be engineered with the right planning and organization, and delivered with intensity and passion.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Brutus: Not a thing, even the hard years. It’s all been a gift!