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My New Normal: Butters Director And NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford

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.

Darcie Lunsford has two important roles: She is executive vice president and director of office leasing at Butters Realty & Management, a 30-year-old real estate firm, and the current president of NAIOP Florida. In the latter role, she represents the commercial real estate industry at the state level, fighting for legislative changes. This year, for instance, she sought to roll back state sales tax on commercial rents, and argued that internet retailers should be taxed the same way as brick-and-mortar ones. 

My New Normal: Butters Director And NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford
NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford at her home office during the coronavirus pandemic.

We caught up with Lunsford, who was editor of the South Florida Business Journal before sliding into a commercial real estate role, as she cranked on deals during the coronavirus with her Shih Tzu, Gus Henry, by her side.

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Lunsford: I am a stubborn creature of habit, so I was not willing to let COVID-19 rob me of the comfort of routine. I stuck to a schedule, closely mirroring my regular work life. I did imbibe in certain time-rich indulgences since I didn’t have to gussy up and commute to the office each day.

I slept until 6:05 a.m. and pushed my workout to 8 a.m. Normally, I am up at 4:45 a.m. and at the gym by 6 a.m. I was sitting in my home office most mornings by 9 a.m. I would break only to make lunch for myself and my husband and then eat at my desk, which is what I do at the office when I don’t have meetings or events. I worked most days right up until 5:30 p.m.

While my daily new deal flow came to a grinding halt, my duties as president of NAIOP Florida, the commercial real estate development association, heated up as the organization delved into the impact of the crisis, the sweeping CARES Act and other federal initiatives designed to combat an economic collapse. On the local chapter level, NAIOP South Florida also quickly pulled together and rolled out “Navigating the Market.”

This virtual program series connected us all as an industry and provided real-time expert insights on what was happening in the various CRE market sectors. Within a few weeks, we had successfully planned and executed eight virtual programs using the Zoom platform with more than 100 participants on many of the calls. So thankfully, I easily filled up my weekdays with a hectic pace of work-related activity.

On the weekends, I binge-watched Homeland on Showtime and ate lots of carbs. I also worked a lot with my husband in the yard. The Lunsford yard has never looked so good.

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?

Lunsford: I am back at the office full-time now. But I didn’t jump back in with both feet at first. I eased back over a couple of weeks, mostly to overcome the simple psychological effects of being afraid to even leave my house for seven weeks. Now, I am back to normal and have a sensible outlook on being safe and smart while also supporting our economy. We need to get back to some level of normalized business activity.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally? 

Lunsford: I am still sticking pretty close to work and home for now and have not ventured out to nonessential places or activities. I am showing office spaces, but we are strictly following all CDC guidelines and rocking masks. I suspect my first truly recreational outing may involve trip to the mall to splurge shop for a luxury fashion item to mark surviving the pandemic. I am an old-school shopper and love the bricks-and-mortar retail experience.

Bisnow: How will you manage the homefront as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Lunsford: I plan to return to my normal office schedule so long as it remains safe to do so.

My New Normal: Butters Director And NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford
NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford leads a Zoom meeting with about 100 participants.

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

Lunsford: During the pandemic, I had a handful of deals that I was able to keep going, but most new leases were put in deep freeze as we all waited to fully understand how bad, how deep and how long the virus would have our nation in its grip. About two weeks ago, the phones started to ring for office space. Showings have been surprisingly steady. Some of it is pent-up demand from firms with near-term lease expirations, looking to test market pricing or upgrade locations. But there is also a flurry of activity from businesses that are doing well or countercyclical ones seizing on pandemic-driven disruption. If this is a one-shock event, then the South Florida office market — at least based on early anecdotal indicators — may only get a glancing blow. I am encouraged, but only time will tell.

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Lunsford: It was not something that I did or embraced on a regular basis other than in relationship to the geography of where I happened to be showing office space or having a client meeting. I didn’t think it was the most effective way to build strong work alliances and highly productive, sector-dominating teams. I still don’t. It was novel at first, not getting out of my workout clothes for weeks on end, having lunch at home and being in my favorite porch swing precisely at 5:30 each evening for a pinot grigio with my husband. But after week three or so, it started to feel isolating. I missed the energy created by connecting with my teammates, clients, tenants and professional colleagues. Physical real estate is about places, but getting deals done is about people.

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Lunsford: I had never been on a Zoom call before the pandemic. Now we use Zoom to connect for everything, even if we would have once opted for a standard conference call pre-COVID-19. I really have enjoyed seeing my professional sphere in their natural habitat. It has been a novel, albeit unwanted, experiment that has helped me to understand folks on a deeper level. I am a definitely a videoconference convert, but it still doesn’t replace the power of in-person meetings and connections.

My New Normal: Butters Director And NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford
NAIOP Florida President Darcie Lunsford at home with her Shih Tzu.

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

Lunsford: I think that it will impact the way we look at office design and functionality. Densely populated workplaces will be less attractive to employees. I think the trend toward big, open shared, communal design will be less desirable in the short-term, but long-term I think this design philosophy endures. I don’t buy into the school of thought that just because we learned the hard way we can work remotely that all of sudden now everyone will want to do it permanently. I am not convinced that as a society we are more productive and creative in isolation. People are social animals. It is hard to build a corporate culture, seed a unified message, develop a shared business viewpoint, mentor people, groom new leaders and feed creative collaboration when everyone is at home, eating bonbons in stretchy pants, making appointments to video chat. This model on a large-scale basis simply is not conducive to the historically innovative environments that has built American business exceptionalism.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now? 

Lunsford: On a business level, I believe that disruption always equals opportunity if you look for it. On a personal level, I hope we can embrace collectively as the human race the teaching moments from this shared experience and then have the courage to act on them.

CORRECTION, June 3, 11:10 a.m. EST: This story originally misstated Lunsford's title. She is the current president of NAIOP Florida and immediate past president of NAIOP South Florida.