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May 2005
Something to Crow About
By Ellison Clary

      When he was ready for a major career change, Chip Olsen was fortunate to find a firm making a major emphasis change, especially in his adopted hometown of Charlotte. In a trial run, he signed on with Trammell Crow Company (TCC) in 2003. After three months, both Olsen and TCC were pleased, so they formalized the relationship. Olsen went to work selling corporate services to utilities across the United States.

When an opportunity opened up in late 2004 to lead the Charlotte office, Olsen offered his services. TCC accepted and made him area director of the newly formed Mid-South business unit.

Olsen was sure of the fit. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering, he had worked 18 years in the energy industry, and was tired of helping design and build power plants for companies such as Cogentrix Energy Inc. in Charlotte, where he served as vice president from 1999 to 2003. He gravitated to the real estate development part of utility work, finally deciding his passion was in real estate services.

The economy validated that inclination when the recession of 2001-03 hit and utilities found that they had overbuilt their power-generating capacity. In 2003, Olsen spent his last six months at Cogentrix networking in Charlotte’s real estate community.

“I kept coming back to Trammell Crow,” he remembers.

Trammell Crow Company, the Dallas-based global real estate firm, was diversifying its United States focus. The company was placing increased emphasis on selling and delivering corporate real estate services, such as transaction management, facilities management and project management.

The recession was affecting TCC, just as it was the utility industry.

The demand for new high-rise office space virtually dried up; the company lost $5.2 million in 2001. But with the emphasis on corporate real estate services taking hold., the company made $16.9 million in 2002; net income rose to $21.1 million for 2002 and $39.1 for 2003.

TCC wanted to accomplish the same change of emphasis in Charlotte, where it had operated successfully on a local level since the late 1970s, but mainly as a broker and developer.

Olsen readily accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Charlotte office to be based primarily on corporate services. Nearly six months into his tour as area director, Olsen smiles as he clicks off a handful of major “wins,” contracts with new corporate services clients.

“Since November, we’ve won business with Wachovia, Duke Energy, Sonic Automotive and Royal & SunAlliance, plus the relocation of a manufacturer I can’t name yet,” Olsen says. “Five wins in a few months is significant.”

Admittedly, the business segments Olsen and his team have snapped up are relatively small. But he explains why that’s OK: “We want to get a foot in the door with good corporate clients and perform.”

Olsen’s team is managing the sign changeover for 150 offices of SouthTrust, the Alabama-based bank bought by Wachovia. “It’s risky and it’s challenging,” he says. “You’ve got to go into these retail centers on Friday night and be out by Monday morning, with zero customer interface. We’re doing a heck of a job. They know it.” Because of that, Olsen hopes to grab more Wachovia business down the road.

“With Duke Energy, the same thing,” Olsen says. The utility is consolidating its center city Charlotte offices from four buildings into two. “We’re dealing with senior management. If you make a mistake, someone’s job is on the line. Duke told us, ‘Thank you for making us look so good.’”

 

Leveraging Size to Deliver Service

Why does it make sense for companies such as Wachovia and Duke Energy to hire TCC for corporate services as disparate as landscaping and accounting?

“It’s an outsourcing function,” Olsen responds. “We can leverage our scale and expertise. We operate in almost every city across the United States that has any size.”

Worldwide, TCC employs more than 6,400 people, 3,100 of which manage more than 170 million square feet through corporate services.

“Think about how many janitorial contracts we have, not just in Charlotte, not just in the Carolinas, but throughout the entire country,” Olsen says. “We can take national janitorial firms and leverage the amount of work they do for us by driving their prices down, enhancing quality and passing that on to the client.”

Another advantage is the investment TCC has made in technology, Olsen says. “Because of our size, we have the resources to design and deploy software applications that are beyond the means of most other companies. These technology applications help us drive down costs, which again saves money for our clients.”

Much of what Olsen is accomplishing is based on teamwork, he says, but that wasn’t a concept the Charlotte office was accustomed to as recently as last year. Because it had concentrated on development projects, it had collected people more comfortable operating on an individual basis.

Certainly, they had been successful. The TCC Charlotte office had developed such iconic center city structures as the IJL Financial Center and The Hearst Tower, which houses TCC on its 40th floor.

But Charlotte development, mirroring that in the country at large, has slowed in the past three to four years, Olsen says, and shifted more to residential and retail.

In pursuing his charge to foster teamwork, Olsen had a model. Headquartered in Charlotte under the direction of Curt Grantham, a senior managing director and member of the company Operating Committee, is one of TCC’s premier corporate accounts, Bank of America. The TCC account team of more than 900 professionals, 169 of which are located in Charlotte, provides a full complement of transaction, project management and buildings management services to Bank of America’s owned and occupied facilities east of the Mississippi.

The only way to serve such an account is through team effort, Olsen says, and he has modeled his operation after the regional business Grantham oversees.

Olsen watched as TCC consolidated its offices in the Carolinas and Tennessee into its Mid-South Region under Charlotte management in 2004. When he took over the 35 employees in the Charlotte, Raleigh, Memphis and Nashville offices, his mantra was teamwork.

The Charlotte office also houses about 50 TCC associates who work on other accounts, such as EDS and Cisco, but answer to leaders in other locations. They also participate on various team efforts.

One teamwork example Olsen cites involved Bonsal American’s Charlotte corporate office which needed to sell some properties that weren’t attracting interest because they were in remote areas. The Industrial Team of TCC’s Charlotte office soon started turning up qualified offers.

“I view the Charlotte office of Trammell Crow as our national real estate resource,” says David Maske, Bonsal American president. “They have always been successful while delivering what they promise.”

 

Culture Shift

Olsen vows the culture shift for Charlotte and the Mid-South Region is set. “We have a core team today that we’d all go into the fox hole with together,” he says. “What it took to accomplish our recent wins showed we can do more as a team than as an individual.”

That’s more in line with Trammell Crow nationwide, Olsen says. The eponymous firm was founded in Dallas in 1948 by Trammell Crow, who insisted on no separate offices for anyone, including himself. On the 40th floor of the Hearst Tower, Olsen’s desk is in the middle of 14,000 square feet, surrounded by co-workers.

For 18 years before joining TCC, Olsen says he’d enjoyed having his own office. Gradually, he adapted. Now he often finds himself standing with three or four associates discussing details of a pending deal.

“Unlike any other real estate office that I know, there is a spirit that you have to help everyone achieve their goals,” says John Culbertson, senior vice president of industrial and office real estate. “We have an open office plan, so it is a common event for someone in our office to overhear you during a call and later respond, ‘You know, I heard what you said and I think that I can help.’ There is a belief here that you have to help the other brokers in the office in order to succeed; it’s a simple concept, which makes work interesting and translates to benefits for the client.”

Culbertson’s view is shared by Thomas O’Brien, senior vice president, global services. “In the constantly changing environment of corporate real estate, the breadth and depth of Trammell Crow Company’s people resources in Charlotte provide a competitive advantage for our clients. While I am a relative newcomer to the Trammell Crow organization, I have been pleased and energized to find the team ethic in favor of the best interest of the client to be unique for real estate service providers.”

That mindset helped the Charlotte office convince the Royal & SunAlliance executives based here that TCC could handle a vast array of services for the dramatically downsizing insurance company.

“There were eight guys working on the Royal contract because it’s everything; it’s property management, project management, transactions, lease administration,” Olsen says. “We can deliver huge savings for a corporation that is feeling tremendous pressure to cut costs.”

Again, teamwork won the business. “We leveraged resources from other accounts who were ex-Royal employees. They understood the system and the way Royal operated,” Olsen says.

TCC pins growth hopes on its sea change, emphasizing corporate services. Currently, Olsen says, corporate services has surpassed development as the company’s top business line.

“We will continue to participate in the development business in the future as opportunities present themselves, but in the interim, there’s corporate business here in Charlotte that we’re very good at – and I’m driving that shift to focus on that business,” Olsen says.

Asked to look five years into the future, the native of Long Island, New York, who married his high school sweetheart Linda, replies he can see seven years ahead. That’s when his youngest daughter finishes high school.

“In seven years,” he vows, “this office will be the leading real estate company in Charlotte in all areas: transactions, projects, facilities management and property management. We ought to be doing four to five times the business we’re doing today from a revenue standpoint.”

The fast growth brings about the most frustrating part of the job for Olsen. “Right now,” he says, “we’ve landed a lot of contracts and we’re growing quickly. There’s just not enough time in the day for me personally.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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