Beyond The Bio: Bisnow's 16 Questions With Cresa CEO Jim Underhill
This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.
Jim Underhill, formerly Cushman & Wakefield CEO of Americas, joined Cresa’s board of directors in 2015 and became CEO six months later with the goal of doubling the firm’s size. Prior to joining Cushman & Wakefield, Underhill launched The Staubach Co. Northeast and sold it to JLL in 2008.
Founded in 1993, Cresa is the world’s largest tenant-only commercial real estate firm with more than 50 offices across North America and another 17 around the world.
Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?
Underhill: We help companies determine how to best use real estate to achieve their larger business goals. Working only with occupiers of space for the past 30 years, we can help organizations with everything from strategy through to implementation of a real estate plan. Today we are the largest pure tenant adviser in the world, but our clients are asking us to do more for them in more places — my job is to make sure we continue to evolve to be the most trusted and respected firm in our space.
Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?
Underhill: I’d likely be a coach. I love putting teams together, building camaraderie around shared goals, developing a culture of winning, but also being the best people we can be. Fortunately that’s a lot of what my job is today.
Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?
Underhill: I had some pretty unusual summer jobs at an early age, including being a clam digger, working on a fishing boat, house painter — but the only time I really didn’t enjoy myself was when I found myself in a big company where I just didn’t think I was having an impact, at least not to the level I wanted. I like entrepreneurial environments.
Bisnow: What was your first big deal?
Underhill: MCI’s world HQ build-to-suit in D.C. I was the lead in representing them on a trophy project on Pennsylvania Ave., just down from the White House. It was MCI’s most significant real estate deal ever, and naturally one that got us much recognition as well.
Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?
Underhill: Maybe not failure, but regret would be cutting a friends and family vacation short so I could come back to compete for a significant assignment. Of course we didn’t get it. A great lesson on work-life balance.
Bisnow: How do you define “making it”?
Underhill: When our children pass on comments made to them by others in the industry that they respect me and think I’m a good guy. Maybe they’re just being nice to my kids, but I’ll take it.
Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?
Underhill: Someone not taking responsibility, or pointing fingers at others.
Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?
Underhill: I’d have to say my father. He worked hard, created a great family environment, and was pretty humble about his achievements.
Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?
Underhill: Worst was probably “it’s all about the numbers.” While the numbers are always important, there is so much else behind a good decision or building a great company that the numbers just don’t reveal. And best would have to be the old “do the right thing.” It helps declutter a lot of decisions if you just focus on that.
Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?
Underhill: Cheetos and good tequila, not necessarily together.
Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?
Underhill: It’s a moving target for me. Today it's Martins Tavern in Georgetown for the coziness and holiday ambiance. In the summer no doubt it's Docs in Oxford, Maryland — go by boat — beer, crabs, music, all is right in the world sort of place to be with friends.
Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?
Underhill: If nothing else, please act presidential.
Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Underhill: I was a partner with Trammell Crow Co. in Dallas, the largest developer in the country at the time, and left to start up The Staubach Co. in DC with a fiancé who wasn’t looking to move. Fortunately it all worked out.
Bisnow: Whose work do you most admire?
Underhill: I have great respect for all those who put their lives on the line for our safety and freedom, and who are teaching our children without much reward. There are real economic inequities between what they all do and how our society compensates them.
Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?
Underhill: From a work perspective it’s that we’re not moving fast enough, even though I believe we are one of the most entrepreneurial firms in our industry. Got to keep the pedal down given the innovation occurring around us every day.
Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?
Underhill: Being outdoors and active — I recharge when I’m hiking, fishing, biking, kayaking. It’s a good day when I drop at the end of it.