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Origin Stories: W. Allen Morris' Early CRE Exposure Put Him On The 'Fast Track' To A Career In The Industry

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

By 8, he was going on building inspections. By 18, he had a real estate license. He was 28 when he bought out his father to run the family business.

When W. Allen Morris took over from his father, the founder of Florida-based development and investment firm Allen Morris Co., as chairman and CEO, he had experienced a bit of every department within the company. 

Morris' love affair with commercial real estate wasn't always at the fore: At one point, he thought he had found his calling in the seminary. At the beginning of his career, he was disillusioned by the dishonesty he encountered in CRE.

But 40 years later, after being fast-tracked for a career in the industry he grew up in, he said he is glad for that initial impression because it spurred him to "build a team of honest, professional brokers."

W. Allen Morris and his wife, June, beam during a cruise in an antique car.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Morris: Around the dinner table growing up, from my father. He would take me to construction sites to inspect the rebar and concrete pours when I was 8 years old and inspect buildings with him after hurricanes.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Morris: I got my real estate license when I was 18 years old after I graduated from high school. After college at Georgia Tech, I worked in every department in The Allen Morris Co., starting in the accounting department doing building cash flow projections with big green spreadsheets and a pencil and a very big eraser. There was no such thing as small or personal computers in 1975. [The] pocket calculator only came out in 1972. I also worked in our bank and went on the board when I was 21 years old and worked in every part of the bank. That helped me understand the needs and concerns of our lenders.

Allen Morris poses for a photo with his airplane.

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

Morris: I knew that everyone in the company knew more than I did and had more experience than I did. I figured the way to earn their respect was to study harder and know everything they knew and more, as fast as I could. I worked long hours and late nights. I remember getting to Friday, when others were celebrating, I was frustrated that I had not gotten everything done that I felt I must by the end of the week. I often worked all night Friday night to catch up and occasionally would pass my father early Saturday morning on the road as he was coming into the office on Saturday morning. I was trained as a workaholic!

Because I was on a fast track and my father wanted to retire, I went fast. I became the youngest broker, then CCIM, then CPM, then SIOR, then CRE. These are great professional designations and great real estate education! I felt like I had to learn it all. 

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

Morris: I would have liked to be a CPA and lawyer!

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

Morris: I planned to go to seminary and to go into the ministry. I came to believe that this was my calling.

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?

Morris: I bought the company from my father on a friendly leveraged buyout when I was 28 years old and became the president and CEO, thinking I knew what I was doing. I soon realized I had been tricked. When you get tired and you want to quit but you own the company, there is nobody to whom you can turn in your resignation!

Allen Morris

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

Morris: I was disgusted by the low level of professionalism and low level of honesty I saw in brokers but happy that it created an opportunity for us to build a team of honest, professional brokers. 

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

Morris: My father. He wanted our company to be known as the place (maybe the only place) a client could come and be told the whole truth and be treated fairly.

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

Morris: Do your homework. Think of every angle. Don’t get caught unprepared. My father was an expert in finding the one error in my analysis or presentation.

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

Morris: Learn about more than your specialty so you can understand the big picture of real estate value and the different ways to create value — but then become the best expert in your market and your specialty. 

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

Morris: I would have specialized in creating value in development and long-term ownership of property rather than the time I diverted into brokerage. It was fun, but you lose what you make to taxes.