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Origin Stories: IPA's Joseph French On Teaching Himself The Art Of Negotiation

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

Joseph French is a senior director of the National Retail Group at Institutional Property Advisors, a Marcus & Millichap company. He started his career in office leasing in Manhattan — though he was told he wouldn’t succeed in the industry as a Black man. He persevered and moved into retail brokerage.

He now focuses on shopping centers and has been involved in the sale of over $1B of property over the course of his career. He told Bisnow about tough lessons, working through the worst of the financial crisis and the warning he gives to young people of color entering the industry.

Institutional Property Advisors broker Joseph French

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

French: In the early 1980s, I had a photography gallery in SoHo. A friend who I had not seen in many years came in for a visit one day. The last time I had seen him he was selling vacuum cleaners door to door. That day he made a rather large purchase, and as I was helping him load it into his brand-new BMW, I asked him what he was doing for a living these days. His response: office leasing in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, I joined his company, C.S. Brown Inc. as an associate in office leasing. Although my friend had doubts that I would succeed in this business because I was Black, he gave me a chance nonetheless. This was my very first job in real estate.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

French: Consequently I did succeed at office leasing, successful enough to purchase a brownstone in Manhattan, get married and start a family. I soon learned, however, that office leasing was not a job I truly enjoyed.

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

French: I went back to school and got a postgraduate degree from NYU in real estate. This is where I discovered the world of retail real estate. I also got my CCIM designation. While of course learning much about the principles and ins and outs of retail real estate, the one skill I had to self-teach was the art of negotiation.

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

French: It is that one skill that I had wish I had better understanding of going into this business, but I did learn that it is a skill learned and honed over time.

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

French: Two of my previous occupations had been a concert promoter and an art gallery owner. I learned the basics of negotiation from working with agents, artists and customers. While there were definitely similar strategies, there were nuanced differences as well. The stakes were higher, and the clients were often more skilled than me at negotiation!

Institutional Property Advisors broker Joseph French

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?

French: Each negotiated lease and each sale gave me increased confidence to stay on the path I was on. As an entrepreneur with a family to support, failing was not an option. Yes, there were times when I wanted to quit, but again, not an option. During the recession of 2008 for instance, business had fallen off a cliff, but sheer will and determination helped me keep the business afloat and make it through that forgettable period.

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

French: Office leasing was exciting at first, given all the potential money to be made. I soon realized though it was a very cutthroat business with everyone gunning for your commissions and thereby not allowing you to trust anyone. Investment sales, which I have been doing for the last 20 years, is what I truly enjoy doing, having made many trusted friends in the business, and many people rich!

Institutional Property Advisors broker Joseph French

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

French: I did not have a singular mentor per se, but I did have several people open the door for me to give a young Black man a chance. This allowed me to become successful and I am forever grateful to those who had faith in my abilities.

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

French: I warn young people of color that the business is not necessarily racist, but that many of the people in the industry have family and friendship ties to the industry. People want to do deals with people they relate to. Consequently, you cannot just be good, you have to be great.

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

French: The only thing I would change in my career in investment sales would be to have begun that career sooner!