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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 29, 2016 5 years ago

'Walk the Talk'

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HFF found a niche in high-profile investment sales. But the heart of its culture is a relentless focus on clients.
by: Kevin McQuaid Commercial Real Estate Editor

Holliday Fenoglio Fowler L.P. isn't like other commercial real estate brokerages.

And that's not just because it focuses almost exclusively on investment sales, raising equity and finance, and doesn't engage in leasing or property management the way many competitors do.

It isn't because HFF blankets the entire Gulf Coast through offices in Tampa, Orlando and Miami, stretching into Sarasota and Naples to execute deals.

It isn't that HFF is publicly traded, either, or that more than a few of its assignments lead to nine-figure sales — like its recent deal involving the 520-room downtown Tampa Hilton, which traded for $101 million.

What makes HFF unique is a corporate culture that has somehow tamped down the cutthroat nature of the brokerage business and replaced it with a collaborative approach that fosters teamwork and inter-office co-operation.

“For us, what's critical is building relationships and then servicing our clients through the life cycle of their assets,” says Daniel Peek, an HFF senior managing director who heads the company's Tampa office and leads its hospitality practice group. “We like to say we're a pure play capital markets intermediary.

“We try to provide institutional-level service regardless of the asset size we're dealing with,” Peek adds. “There are no silos at HFF, and we recognize that that's not commonplace in commercial real estate. It sounds trite to say you're client-driven, but with us, it's 100% true. We walk the talk.”

In HFF's case, the walk equates to $2.6 billion in transactional volume generated by the firm's Tampa office last year alone. Companywide, HFF did $75 billion worth of deals in 2015, spread throughout 23 offices.

So far this year, it's kept pace: In the first quarter, HFF completed more than $17 billion in investment sales and debt placements companywide.

Matt Mitchell, an HFF managing director in Tampa, says the key to the company's success can be summed up in a word: Communication.

“We're constantly communicating, amongst ourselves and with other offices,” Mitchell says. “We make sure business in Florida is executed the same way it is in New York City. As a result, we think we know which way the wind is blowing.”

Each Monday, for instance, representatives from each of HFF's three Florida offices participate in a conference call to discuss deals, plot strategy and talk about their markets.

The cross-pollenization often leads to business. HFF's $185.5 million sale last year of the LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples stemmed from a relationship between the firm's Miami office and seller Barron Collier Cos.

HFF Tampa leveraged the introduction to connect Barron Collier with Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, which ultimately bought the 189-room, beachfront luxury resort.

“They have extensive expertise, and we've found them to be a real partner in the buying and selling of assets,” says Katie Sproul, co-president of Barron Collier and the CEO of the related Halstatt Real Estate Partners.

“We've found them to have a high level of integrity, as well,” Sproul adds. “We unequivocally would use them again.”

LaPlaya wasn't the only high-profile asset HFF sold for Barron Collier in 2015, either. HFF's Miami office brokered the sale of the Mercato office and retail complex, also in Naples, to Prudential Real Estate for $239.6 million.

HFF's Miami office also brokered a $27 million deal for Jacksonville-based GreenPointe Holdings to acquire the 15-acre former Sarasota Quay tract in downtown Sarasota, on behalf of the Irish government.

Peek says the deals illustrate another key HFF trait.

“One of our core tenets as a company is to always put the best team on the field,” he says. “If that means collaborating between offices to get the job done, that's what we do, and we think that gives us a competitive advantage.”

Up and comers
But ultimately, HFF relies on building — and maintaining — relationships, both internally and externally.

Such was the case with the Tampa Hilton, only the fourth lodging asset to sell for more than $100 million in the area's history. (HFF also worked on one of the other nine-figure deals, a $134 million sale of the Hilton Clearwater Beach.)

With the Tampa Hilton, HFF represented sellers Driftwood Hospitality Management and H.I.G. Realty Partners in a joint acquisition of the property in 2012. When the entities decided to sell the asset, after a rebranding from a Hyatt to the Hilton flag, Driftwood and H.I.G. went to HFF again.

The same extends to internal growth. Though many of its agents, like Peek and Mitchell, have decades of experience, HFF also works to bring in younger talent, hiring individuals as market analysts and slowly transitioning them to brokerage.

In Tampa, associate directors Preston Reid and Zach Nolan both started as analysts. They provided marketing and research support to agents while they learned the business and the HFF culture firsthand.

“We're fortunate in that we've been given a lot of support from the older producers in the company,” says Reid, 31, who joined HFF in April 2012 from SunTrust Real Estate Investments.

“This business can be very cutthroat,” he adds. “But it's not that way here.”

Peek believes that collaboration bodes well for HFF's future in Tampa and beyond.

“I see plenty of opportunities for us to grow, when we find the right people and market opportunities,” he says. “I think we're actually in the very early years of our growth in this market, because for us it's all about representing our clients effectively. Some of our smaller clients have turned into really big firms, so we work from the premise that you just never know.”

- K.L. McQuaid

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