CRE's Next Generation: Witko Group Founder Ericka Witkowski
This series asks rising stars in commercial real estate about their thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry, including inequality, climate change and technology.
For a 29-year-old who walked away from a steady job at one of real estate’s biggest companies to start her own boutique firm during the middle of a pandemic, Ericka Witkowski sounds remarkably calm.
“I had a book of business, and I knew I wanted to do things a little differently. It just felt right,” Witkowski told Bisnow via phone. She was getting ready to send out offer letters for her first hires.
Growing up with a Korean mom and a Polish-American dad who was in the military, Witkowski spent her formative years between Syracuse, New York, Tampa, Florida, and Seoul.
“Every time we moved, I loved looking at the different neighborhoods,” she said.
That curiosity led Witkowski to the real estate program at Florida State University since she knew she wanted to move to Miami when she graduated. “It reminded me of Seoul ... such a young city, all the cranes in the sky,” she said.
A professor recommended she reach out to Donna Abood, founding partner of Colliers International South Florida. While on spring break her junior year, Witkowski invited Abood to coffee, which led to an internship and then a job.
At Colliers, Witkowski learned the ropes of retail, industrial, office and investment sales, eventually specializing in agency leasing and tenant representation. The firm was acquired by Avison Young in 2014.
In 2017, she joined Cushman & Wakefield as director of office leasing, where she represented owners and investors including Market Street Real Estate Partners and Related Group, helping transact $186.5M in business. That includes South Florida’s largest office lease of 2019: Lennar Corp.’s 156K SF HQ. She’s on the board of directors at Camillus House, which offers services for the poor and homeless, and co-chairs its Young Leaders board.
“Five years ago, Miami was definitely not on the map for a lot of people, but that’s changing every year,” Witkowski said. “When I moved here, there was kind of a brain drain.”
Coding academies like Wyncode and Ironhack sprung up and a tech scene burgeoned. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Lyft and Spotify all have offices in Miami, as do startups like TaxFyle and Papa. In fact, the city has one of the nation's highest startup densities.
“When we were touring with the tech companies, it was clear that what’s important to a law firm is not important to them," Witkowski said. "They don’t want to be in a Class-A tower that’s 50 stories high. They’re thinking: Where can their employees have high ceilings, lots of lights, walk from their house, walk to get a bite to eat, and maybe scooter to the next place?” Neighborhoods like Wynwood were perfect.
Miami has also seen an influx of residents from the Northeast, including Witkowski’s own friends, she said. “It’s a huge value play for them when people from New York can get a two-bedroom apartment for the price [of] a studio in New York, and a better lifestyle,” she said.
Compared to advances that were happening in residential brokerage, though, Witkowski felt CRE could use a little disruption. The industry seemed resistant to new technologies and new ways of marketing. At big firms, there's a ladder to get approvals on tasks.
When the coronavirus began to spread throughout the U.S. Witkoski noticed CRE executives still debating whether to halt in-person tours, while her counterparts in the residential arena had already measured properties, loaded up 3D tours on Matterport and shared them with clients.
There was also the culture: Event panels full of men. Real estate conferences where sexy models are hired to walk around. The 100%-commission, eat-what-you-kill compensation structure that makes it hard to break in. A lot of female colleagues who’d started at the same time as Witkowski had gotten out of the business.
“Females are not getting invited to the same golf outings as the guys,” Witkowski said.
This spring and summer, as news stories focused on social injustices, Witkowski decided to stop merely thinking about her ideal company and start building it. Her firm will be a nimble operation that handles both tenant and landlord representation and offer consulting for developers on everything from site selection to financial modeling.
She has people on retainer to handle marketing and certain day-to-day operations. Outsourcing tasks lets her choose different people for different projects to get the best fit. She has one person handling social media and another focusing on data, analyzing “what the metrics are to get our information in front of a different audience than a typical broker e-blast list.”
Witkowski has an office space in South Miami, but will soon open in Coconut Grove. Going forward, she's excited to see how her generation tackles challenges by being agile and adaptive, especially considering how they grew up with tech. Though climate change is a big issue for her generation and her city, she's confident they'll find fixes through infrastructure. For now, she's watching how the office market, especially in downtown and Brickell, will adapt post-pandemic, particularly after current leases expire.
“It’s an interesting time to take it as a challenge,” she said, laughing. “I’m not worried about it. The market will always correct itself."
Once she's more established, Witkowski hopes to start a mentoring and training program for people straight out of college, with associates getting paid while they learn during their first year on the job. She sees that as key to bringing diversity to the ranks.
Witkowski paraphrased a quote from Michelle Obama: “We have to live in the world as it is, but we can work to make it as great as it should be.”