Will Friend, Transformative CEO Of Bisnow, Passes Away At 33
Will Friend, who led Bisnow Media to global status in the commercial real estate industry and became one of its most influential leaders, died unexpectedly Sunday near his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was 33.
Friend was the CEO of the company for the last seven years, overseeing its growth to include 650 annual digital and live events in 50 international territories, 11 million news readers and more than 250 employees across the U.S., Canada, the UK and Ireland. During his tenure, Friend transformed the company from a local events business into a multichannel data, events, news and intelligence platform for the multitrillion-dollar commercial real estate market.
He guided Bisnow through the pandemic, which severely disrupted the live events side of the business, and helped inspire the company’s entrepreneurial spirit that allowed it to thrive at its greatest moment of uncertainty.
“What made Will special was his innate ability to inspire and motivate people — to raise people higher than they thought possible,” Bisnow Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer Gregg Mayer said in a statement. “That is the culture he fostered at Bisnow and, ultimately, that will be his lasting legacy.”
Friend was hired at Bisnow in 2010 fresh out of college, starting first as an intern crashing at the chief operating officer’s apartment before taking on roles in recruiting, events and sales. His work ethic propelled him quickly to the top of the organization, first being named COO in 2013 before taking over as CEO in 2015 when he was 27.
Friend also led the 2016 sale of Bisnow from family ownership to private equity firm Wicks Group, propelling the company to international growth, and he pushed to develop an award-winning newsroom pursuing journalism of the highest standards. He led an organizational pivot to digital events amid a pandemic, retained the company’s core leaders during the Great Resignation and staunchly pushed the commercial real estate industry forward on diversity.
“Will was a trusted partner, executive and a friend. He approached every opportunity and challenge with extreme confidence and optimism which was infectious to everyone surrounding him,” Wicks Group Managing Partner Daniel Kortick said in a statement. “We mourn the loss of such a quality human being and we will miss Will and all that he brought to the world.”
Friends and former colleagues marveled at Friend’s ability and willingness to take on new challenges — whether or not he was ready. He demonstrated that tenacity at an early age.
After being born in the UK to English parents and living there until he was 15, when he traveled to the U.S. to visit a friend, he was determined that he was going to live in the States.
“I just fell in love with America,” Friend said in 2019 on The Fort podcast. “I could feel the American dream. It’s hard to truly appreciate what that feels like until you’ve lived somewhere else. Anything is possible in America, and it’s important to never take that for granted.”
He said his parents wouldn’t allow him to move, but he eventually convinced them and worked out a transfer with his English secondary school to St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. It was there that he started his entrepreneurial streak, launching a nonalcoholic party and events company after seeing his classmates' binge drinking and drunk driving after high school dances.
It was through that endeavor that he met Austin Bisnow, the son of Bisnow Media founder Mark Bisnow. The Bisnow family immediately took a liking to his entrepreneurial spirit.
“With his British accent, charismatic style and flair for life, he cut a different figure from others his age, which made him so memorable,” Mark Bisnow said Tuesday.
After graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he sent a letter to Mark Bisnow’s wife, Margot, asking for a job. Except, Mark Bisnow recalled, Friend had accidentally attached a previous version of the letter he had sent to a friend to ask for feedback.
“While to some this might have seemed embarrassing, actually my wife took it exactly the opposite way,” Mark Bisnow said. “She was struck at how this young man had taken so much extra effort to compose his letter, and she took it as an admirable mark of diligence and preparation. She loved it, and she loved him, and forwarded the letter to our then-COO, Ryan Begelman.”
Begelman interviewed Friend in Dallas while there attending a Bisnow event, and during the meeting at a local restaurant, Begelman recalled a man who was young, but with surprisingly full command of the dining room — he knew the hostess, the maitre d’ and the servers and had complete knowledge of everything on the menu. He also had Begelman’s attention.
“I didn’t know who was interviewing who, but I fell in love with him immediately,” he told Bisnow this week. “I asked him to drop everything, risk his career and move to D.C. He came, thank goodness, and stayed at my apartment for the weekend — and then didn’t leave for a year.”
Friend recalled that the interview process lasted more than a week — and he negotiated “free rent” in exchange for a job paying $26K.
“We had 10 people, give or take,” Friend said on the podcast of his first impression of the company. “Nobody really knew what was going on, but there was energy, there were some great characters, and I just loved life, and it was evident that everybody there did, too. And so I just thought, ‘I’ll give this a go.’"
Begelman said he took the air mattress at his Dupont Circle home and gave Friend his bedroom. In those early years working side by side, Begelman said Will rapidly gained experience by simultaneously managing the sales team, the events team, recruiting, HR and even accounting.
“We would lose a department head and he would take it on and we would say, ’Will, that’s too much,’” Begelman said. “And he’d say he had it under control — and he did. And, look, I think I am pretty good, but Will wasn’t even breaking a sweat. It still boggles my mind.”
The two developed a partnership that took Bisnow to even greater heights, culminating in 2016 when the Wicks Group purchased the business for an estimated $50M.
“Selling a $50M company, he did that, and he was not qualified to do that,” said Michael Ponticelli, a vice president at Bisnow and one of its earliest employees. “That was the thing about Will, he was constantly an underdog, taking on these responsibilities and roles that were far beyond what his age or experience or CV would predict to take him on. He was absolutely an underdog and found himself punching above his weight and running these deals.”
William Alexander Goodwin Friend was born in London, England, on July 9, 1988, to Tony and Antoinette Friend. He attended Garden House School before enrolling at the prestigious Harrow School, an all-boys boarding school that counts Winston Churchill among its famous alumni. Friend was prone to quoting Churchill around the office, and named a conference room in Bisnow’s New York City Financial District headquarters after him.
Friend’s thirst for new experiences led him to pursue a life of adventure outside the office. He loved flying planes and secured his pilot’s license. He was passionate about bikes and motorcycles, especially his Yamaha YZF-R6, and was prone to go on scuba diving trips in Mauritius with his brothers, John and Tom. He competed in two Ironman races, one half-Ironman and ran a marathon.
He was most passionate about his family, especially his wife. He married Bevin Prince, an actress on One Tree Hill and a SoulCycle instructor, in 2016, and the two moved to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, when the pandemic hit to be closer to her family. The two launched a local fitness business together in their new town, although Friend was traveling to different Bisnow offices and events as often as he could.
As he settled into his personal life, he grew into his role as chief executive. He launched new products, focusing heavily on data-driven decision-making and delivering return on investment for Bisnow’s clients. He led the company’s first acquisition when Bisnow purchased commercial real estate jobs network SelectLeaders. But the pandemic was his biggest test.
A large portion of Bisnow’s revenue came from live events in March 2020, all of which were canceled for months on end. Within a week, Friend and Bisnow’s leadership team conceived of a pivot to digital events and staged the first one before the month ended.
“His finest hour was going into Covid. He wasn’t a webinar specialist or digital events specialist. What he had, which is so incredibly rare in life, is he had the right soul, the right spirit and the right heart to lead us through Covid,” Ponticelli said. “It simply could not have been anyone else.”
This year, Friend was focused on launching a data business arm and positioning the company for its next phase of growth, surrounded by a team of senior leaders he personally hired and recruited. His energy and passion — and his ability to connect with and show care for those around him — continues to drive the company forward and left a lasting impression on all who interacted with him.
“He had such a vivid personality and was so full of life and can-do energy, it’s truly impossible to believe he’s not here anymore,” Mark Bisnow said. “I expect him to come bursting into the room any minute with some new idea or plan, and then laughing and very effectively arguing as we dissect it.”
“I’ve had probably a thousand employees across all of my companies over the years and he was my best,” said Begelman, now an executive and life coach in New York. “He was a dream and he will be deeply missed.”
“We will all miss him immensely,” Mayer said. “His vision for the company and life overall is unwavering: care about those around you and how you make them better, practice extreme ownership in every way possible and fight each day for new levels of excellence even if they seem unattainable.”
Funeral and memorial services are still pending. Donations can be directed to the GoFundMe page established in Friend's memory.