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My New Normal: Sares Regis Group of Northern California Commercial Division President Jeff Birdwell

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Jeff Birdwell's new normal, almost all of his division's construction has stopped, yet the commercial division president of Sares Regis Group of Northern California still has his hands full. 

When he isn't videoconferencing with the 50 or so employees in SRGNC's commercial division, Birdwell has 20 or so animals at home to keep him busy, along with hikes, horseback riding and teaching a course at Stanford's graduate school of engineering.

Though Birdwell, who has been with Sares Regis since 1987, said he is surprised by how productive his own company has stayed through virtual interaction, he doesn't think there is any replacement for the type of environments SRGNC builds for companies like Google, Adobe and Nvidia Corp.

He will join San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at Bisnow's Navigating Uncertainty, Planning Ahead & Supporting San Jose webinar on Wednesday, April 15. 

Ahead of that, we caught up with Birdwell to learn about how life has changed under the Bay Area's shelter-in-place orders.

Sares Regis Group of Northern California Commercial Division President Jeff Birdwell

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life.

Birdwell: My work life remains wildly productive. I’m amazed at how our Commercial team at Sares Regis Group has rallied — all 50 of our folks are still operating at a very high level. I love our Monday morning Zoom staff meetings where all 50 of us get together and review the 26 projects we have underway, which total over 8M SF and are valued at more than $8.5B.

I’m very heartened by the level of productivity we’ve been able to maintain. There is some degree of inefficiency, but there’s still a high level of functionality and productivity that astounds me.

Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the homefront?

Birdwell: I’ve adjusted spectacularly so far. We care for more than 20 animals, including seven chickens, four horses, two dogs and six newborn puppies from our golden lab named Lily, and a few other animals that we feed every morning and care for. It’s crazy joyful to get to have that as an aspect of our lives during this time. I feel especially grateful to be out with the animals and in nature and still highly connected to work.

I’m also gearing up to start teaching my “Introduction to Real Estate Development” class at Stanford that I’ve been teaching for 25 years in the graduate school of engineering. We hosted our first office hours today with students from around the world from Cairo to Stanford. I really enjoyed being able to answer direct, personal questions from them in a way that hadn’t been previously possible.

We’re having our first class this week with 30 students and I’m excited about teaching virtually. My TA and I have put a lot of energy into doing things creatively for this class. For the local students, we’re planning on taking them on weekly hikes in small groups, and I’ve opened up a lot of additional one-on-one access. I think we’ve got a shot at making the class even better this year despite it being virtual.

Despite this current challenge we’re all facing, I look at it as an opportunity to be creative and push boundaries.

Sares Regis Group of Northern California Commercial Division President Jeff Birdwell

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Birdwell: Of the 8M SF that we have under development, over half of it was under construction before this began, and all of the construction activity has now stopped, save for a few public works-related projects.

So, thousands of on-site workers are not able to come to work. We do have skeleton crews at the sites to maintain safety and security, but the field side has stopped. We’re also generally able to receive materials on our sites that are still being fabricated all over the world. There are currently five or six ships on the water right now that were able to leave factories in China and Europe that will dock in either Oakland or Los Angeles and deliver the materials to our Bay Area projects. Our teams on-site are able to receive those materials and store them. We’ve not seen a significant supply chain interruption as of yet, which is reassuring.

I’m finding that there are still amazing opportunities for us to catch up, clean up, get organized and prepare to quickly restart construction when the time comes. So, there’s really been no diminution in intensity or work effort from the 50 people on my team who manage these 26 projects, and that’s very reassuring to me. We’re still fully employed, vibrant and adapting. I feel very encouraged and look forward to the time when we can redeploy the field teams. There will be a lot of energy that will go into managing that restart where we can miss as little time and re-engage as quickly as possible.

Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?

Birdwell: My heart goes out to those in other industries that cannot be as productive or actively employed right now. I’m not seeing that internally at Sares Regis, but we’re seeing what the community is facing and have engaged our charitable foundation to respond to these hardships and help community businesses, as well as provide donations to help on the education, homelessness and domestic abuse fronts, all of which are in need right now.

Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?

Birdwell: I’ve always seen a link between creativity, being outdoors and making things and being wildly inspired and productive at work. I’ve always found the balance between horseback riding, or hiking, or working in our wood shop or metal shop and creating things as adding a level of special inspiration to my life and those around me.

I hike or horseback ride almost every day now, in small groups of two to four (being very careful about social distancing). The other day I was on a hike with an architect friend and she told me that she was getting back into doing puzzles that she had when she was a young woman. One was a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle called a Soma cube, which I also had as a child. I came back that afternoon and built a couple of Soma cubes in the wood shop out of a block of maple I had in the garage. They’re really interesting pieces. I’m also in the wood shop and metal shop a lot welding sculptures and things, trying to look for activities that excite and inspire me.

I think the idea of us reconnecting over board games, jigsaw puzzles or other creative activities in a thoughtful way is really fun. I’m really focusing on creative inquiry and action and staying off the TV.

Some of Jeff Birdwell's new colleagues.

Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?

Birdwell: I think it’s too early to tell what effect the COVID-19 measures will have on the world of commercial real estate development. I’m grateful that we’re staying engaged and productive, though I do believe that when we return to some level of normalcy, getting back to personal contact with others will lead to spectacular productivity and outcomes in tech and Bay Area business.

I don’t think that we’ll have to continue to work from home in the same way. We will be better at it, but it will be face-to-face and personal interaction that will yield the spectacular ideas and productivity that Silicon Valley has become famous for.

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Birdwell: I want to believe that it won’t and that it will pass and return to normalcy. I hope that these kinds of events happen every 60 to 100 years or more. I do think that preparedness was clearly a shortfall going into this, and that we’ll be far better prepared moving forward in future instances when it comes to testing, mask availability and other things.

But I want to believe that this is not a new regular pattern, but something that happens once in a generation or less. Once this has passed, I don’t want us to live in fear that this is the world we now live in and that things have fundamentally changed.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?

Birdwell: Through my interactions with either my students at Stanford or my colleagues, I see every day that a lot of good will come out of this. I certainly don’t want to minimize the horrible tragedies that are happening right now, but I think through every challenge, there’s an opportunity for great things to happen that are unexpected and unpredicted.

I see this every day in things that I do, whether it’s creative projects or talking with friends. There’s just a ton of good that will come of this. I can’t say exactly what it is yet, but I’m getting daily glimpses of it and I remain more optimistic than ever. I am an optimist by nature, but tragedy does bring out the best in us, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to find, seek out and actualize that positivity in this difficult time.

Hear from Sares Regis Group of Northern California Commercial Division President Jeff Birdwell and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at Bisnow's Navigating Uncertainty, Planning Ahead & Supporting San Jose webinar on Wednesday, April 15.