Land broker reflects on four decades of deals and change in Tampa Bay
Bruce Erhardt began his commercial real estate career in the 1970s with J.L. Hearin, just a few months before it was sold to Cushman & Wakefield. He’s been there ever since, becoming one of the most recognized and lauded land brokers along the Gulf Coast. Beginning in 2011, Erhardt led the company’s entire North American land practice for six years. In all, he’s sold more than 30,000 acres in deals generating more than $1 billion. On the occasion of his 40th anniversary with the company, Erhardt reflects back on how the Tampa Bay region has changed, the ways in which the commercial real estate industry has evolved and what might be ahead.
What’s changed in the Tampa Bay area over the past 40 years?
Well, there’s been tremendous population growth and job growth, of course. In the 1970s, the (Metropolitan Statistical Area) for Tampa had about one million people living in it. Today, the MSA comprises three million people, so we’ve tripled in size during that time. And not surprisingly, transportation has evolved, too. The Howard Frankland Bridge has gone from being four lanes to today being eight lanes, and Interstate 75, though it went through St. Petersburg to Naples, didn’t go through Tampa itself yet four decades ago. There was no Crosstown Expressway or Veterans Expressway, either. Even the land itself has changed. Harbour Island, for instance, used to be a swamp. There was a phosphate terminal there and a wharf and railroad tracks and CSX eventually sold it and it was eventually developed into what it is today, a high-end residential area. It’s practically built out. The suburbs, too. Brandon, back in the 1980s, there were no barriers to entry there and a lot of folks didn’t want to buy land there because of that. Now, with some of the deals that are under contract there, it’s practically going to be built out, especially from an apartment sector point of view.
What’s changed in the commercial real estate business in the region over the past four decades?
Land brokers were once sole practitioners. I think there was just me in this market for a while. And then CBRE came in, and for a time, it was just the two of us. Then JLL added a land broker, and Grubb & Ellis, now part of Newmark. Overall, there are a lot more brokers than ever before, but that’s understandable because the size of the market has grown and Tampa has become more popular. There’s a lot more regulation, too. For instance, we didn’t have to have retention systems, that didn’t start til 1982 or 1984, but I think adding retention has helped make (Tampa Bay) cleaner. We didn’t have impact fees once upon a time, either, which today can add anywhere from, in Pinellas County, can add $5,500 to the cost of a single-family residence to Pasco County, where the fees are north of $20,000. But increased regulation is the biggest change. Today, it can take anywhere from 12 months to 24 months to get a permit, and often a developer has to go through multiple agencies to get multiple permits.
What about technology? How has that changed the commercial real estate business during your tenure?
Where to begin? We used to have pink slips, literally slips of paper that, when you got a phone call, the company receptionist would write who called you and what they wanted, and they would tear it off a pad and hand it to you. And we used to have to carry quarters with us, rolls of quarters, to use pay phones when we were out in the field. The cell phone has been the biggest thing to impact the industry, I believe, bigger even than computers because of what it allowed. I remember I had one of those brick phones that really wasn’t at all portable — it was attached to the floor of my car. Then I had a Motorola brick phone, and today a smart phone. Information today is at your fingertips. Used to be, we had these books, they were literally two feet by two feet, really thick, and in them would be all the real estate ownership data. You’d have to make a Xerox copy of a particular page, or go to microfiche. Or, you’d have to travel down to the county and look up data on owners, transactions, what have you. So that’s been a pretty amazing, positive change, and there are apps that can tell you what a particular house has sold for, who owns a particular property. Things are a lot faster now; accessing information used to take a lot more time.
"It’s still a relationship business, and it always will be. Personal relationships are still the key. That hasn’t changed. Personality matters as well." — Bruce Erhardt, Cushman & Wakefield
What hasn’t changed in Tampa Bay over the past 40 years?
Land owners. They’re a breed unto themselves, some interesting characters. Many of them have inherited the property they own, so I am dealing with second or third generations of people I worked with before. And the phenomenal waterfront has always been important. I’m reading Arthur Savage and Rodney Kite-Powell’s book on Tampa’s history now, and it’s so interesting. Tampa Bay used to only be nine to 12 feet deep, and thanks to dredging, it’s now 42 feet deep. But the waterfront has always been a driver for Tampa Bay. The weather has been another, and cost of living another. I’ve always thought of Tampa as a working town, different from other Florida cities. It doesn’t have the glitz of Miami or the tourist draws Orlando does. But we have a tremendous airport, USF, MacDill, professional sports teams and other draws.
What hasn’t changed in the commercial real estate business over the past 40 years?
Well, it’s still a relationship business, and it always will be. Personal relationships are still the key. That hasn’t changed. Personality matters as well. It’s understandable. People like to work with people they enjoy being with. And hard work pays off. You still have to work really, really hard. You can’t be a slacker in this business and expect to be a success. The business will pass you by. I have always thought that the harder I’ve worked the luckier I’ve gotten.
Where do you think we’ll be as a region and CRE as a business four decades from now?
It’s so hard to say, and the reason I hesitate to answer that is because the way things are speeding up is amazing to me. Who’s to say whether anyone will be driving a car or what a phone will look like in 40 years? I don’t know. But I think advancements will continue to be technology driven. I also don’t know what global warming and sea level rise will do to Florida, but I think the state will continue to be fun in the sun for a lot of people. There are still a lot of greenfields. Between Brandon and Plant City, there are literally thousands of acres. There’s plenty of land available, it’s just not on the coast. As for the commercial real estate business, I think you’ll see a lot of unforeseen change, but the person who knows the most, in terms of product knowledge, will always do better. That won’t change.