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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 23, 2021 1 year ago

Small Firm, Big Differences

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Plaza Advisors has succeeded in selling Gulf Coast retail centers through experience — and a willingness to limit screen time
by: Kevin McQuaid Commercial Real Estate Editor

Plaza Advisors’ President and Founder Jim Michalak sees some pretty stark differences between his boutique commercial real estate brokerage firm and the competition, and his own modus operandi and others.

Take Google Earth, for instance. 

“I think the difference between myself and other brokers in the retail sector who work on the sell side, primarily, comes down to Google Earth,” says Michalak, who formed Plaza Advisors in 2006.

COURTESY PHOTO — Jim Michalak is the president and founder of Tampa-based Plaza Advisors, a commercial real estate brokerage firm.

“Not all brokers, but a lot of them now, they just want to look at properties through Google Earth, on their computers,” he adds.

“Don’t get me wrong: I love Google Earth. But by looking exclusively at a screen they can miss the big picture. When I drive out to a property, I can see what residential communities are nearby, what the traffic flows are, what other centers impact their business. That’s why I always drive properties.”

That formula, along with decades of experience and a belief that the client — not the commission — matters most, has been a winner for Michalak.

Last year, even as COVID-19 ravaged community shopping centers’ business and analysts proclaimed that the one-two punch of the Internet and the pandemic would bring about the long-forecast retail apocalypse, Plaza Advisors sold five properties — from Plant City to Naples.

In 2019, the company brokered the sale of seven other centers, ranging from Bradenton to St. Petersburg and Temple Terrace, for more than $100 million collectively.

So far this year Michalak says he and Vice President Keith Nurre have a trio of centers under contract of sale, which will generate more than $40 million when they close.

“I don’t have to do really big volume the way some of the larger, national brokerage houses do,” Michalak says. “That allows us to work the deals we have harder.”

Michalak knows all about the national brokerage firms. Prior to starting Plaza Advisors in 2006, he spent more than a decade at CBRE Group and Cushman & Wakefield.

It was at the latter firm that he fully shifted his focus from office and industrial deals to retail and established a retail services platform. It was also while at Cushman & Wakefield that Michalak recognized the importance of developing detailed and analytic offering proposals for properties.

Michalak, a Detroit native who moved to Florida in his teens, has been in the real estate business since the mid-1980s. He got his start in Dallas, in land sales, but brokerage was slow going at first. He spent his first 17 months without doing a single deal.

In 1989, he moved back to Florida to be closer to family.

“I recognized that retail was strong, and I came to learn that the Tampa MSA has more grocery-anchored shopping centers than any other market in the country,” he says.

Even so, when he first began he had to build his own databases, using a personal camera and a notebook while driving around with Rand McNally map books. Before long he’d collected data and comps on more than 3,200 retail centers.

Business eventually picked up, and in all, Michalak says he’s sold more than 250 retail centers throughout his career, generating transactional volume in excess of $2.5 billion.

That level of performance has attracted the attention of institutional investors, who typically gravitate to more national brokerages with whom they have multimarket relationships.

“What separates Jim and Plaza Advisors is the thoroughness of the work they do and the data they compile,” says Chris Wild, principal of Tampa-based investor East Coast Acquisitions.

“With them, when it’s time to evaluate whether to do a deal, you have a lot of information in front of you because their (offering) packages are always so well put together. That takes a lot of guesswork out of things.”

Michalak’s approach has garnered a lot of repeat business, as well.

“Jim and Plaza Advisors have good relationships with both buyers and sellers, which often can work as a bridge in a transaction,” says Frank Meyrath, a director at Atlanta-based RCG Ventures LLC, which tapped Plaza Advisors to sell the 134,707-square-foot Naples Town Center and the 73,250-square-foot Walden Woods center in Plant City last year.

“Every transaction has risk, but with Jim often knowing the buyer or the seller personally, it helps to facilitate a successful conclusion, which is what you want, naturally.”

COURTESY PHOTO — Plaza Advisors sold the 90.328-square-foot Temple Terrace Plaza in June 2019.

Michalak says his sense of personal integrity is another difference between him and others.

“You’ve got to do the right thing for the client, first and foremost,” he says. “I have conversations all the time with brokers who, right up front, will ask me, ‘how much commission will we make?’ and that’s not the right focus.

“Ethics is a big thing, and a lot of people don’t seem to have any nowadays. I tell other brokers ‘don’t be greedy,’” he adds. “My feeling is, even if I don’t land a listing, if I do the right thing that client will remember me.”

Wild agrees.

“Jim’s a very straightforward guy,” he says. “I’ve known him for 15 years. With him, all the cards are on the table. There’s never a feeling that you’re being led astray. Ethically and morally, there’s no better.”

And while retail in general is increasingly being disrupted by online shopping, Michalak believes the Tampa Bay’s region’s growth will offset most Internet-related issues.

“Retail is, and always has been, the most dynamic real estate sector,” he says. “Florida has all kinds of growth dynamics, and the Tampa area is receiving a lot more recognition now from investors. There’s much more demand than supply.

“The overall future of retail? There’s a lot to figure out yet.”

For his part, Michalak plans to maintain the focus and commitment that’s contributed to his past success.

“I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m diligent and honest and I work hard,” he says. “I have a lot of faith, and I’ve been very blessed.”

 

 

 

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