Lee Arnold has spent more than four decades in commercial real estate innovating, and at age 64, he shows no sign of stopping.
Chairman and CEO of commercial real estate services firm Colliers International Tampa Bay, Central Florida and Southwest Florida, Arnold's trailblazing began in 1974, when the former pilot decided to forego residential real estate sales.
“At the time, a lot of well-meaning old guys put an arm around me and told me I was going to fail,” says Arnold. “I loved that.”
To gain an edge over the competition, Arnold employed technology at every turn: He became an early and staunch proponent of cellular phones to conduct business, a device he refers to as a “differentiator.”
“I've never been intimidated by technology, and a lot of people are,” he says. “I'm also really into moving the ball, and technology allows you to do that. By the early 1980s, it was pretty obvious to me that data would be driving a lot of deals.”
That knowledge led him, in 1982, to create a computer software firm and buy one of the first personal computers containing a 10 megabyte hard drive. From there, Arnold's team began creating one of the industry's first Internet websites to market properties.
In time, Arnold would found Bayshore Solutions, an interactive Web-based marketing firm.
That innovative spirit also pushed Arnold to diversify, first into property management and later into the appraisal business, at a time when most brokerages intentionally limited themselves to sales and leasing.
Today, Arnold's Colliers International is the largest commercial property manager in the region, with more than 9 million square feet in its portfolio.
Perhaps Arnold's biggest innovation came nearly two decades ago, when he affiliated with Colliers — a global real estate services firm that would be among the industry's first consolidators and talent aggregators.
Arnold says he made the link because in Colliers he saw a company that shared his vision, and was very client-centric, entrepreneurial and ethical.
He acknowledges now that at the time the move carried with it the considerable risk that his established brand would be watered down — or forgotten.
“Nobody had ever heard of Colliers in Florida,” Arnold says. “But it was easy for me to see the world we were living in, one with a fragmented industry that would eventually be consolidated. And they had an international presence, which I felt would be important going forward in Florida.”
Today, the Seattle-based Colliers network includes 550 offices worldwide. Arnold's firm, by comparison, operates five offices from Jacksonville to Miami and is home to nearly 200 real estate agents, who generate in excess of $1 billion in transactional volume annually.
Arnold says business is up nearly 30% since the end of the recession, though he declines to provide specific figures.
“One of Lee's great traits is he never settles for the status quo,” says Chris Leehy, vice president of property development with Wisconsin-based Ashley Furniture, which is making a big push into Florida with Colliers' help. “He's always looking to build a better mousetrap, and he has a great ability to see things from a totally different perspective.”
“Lee is always thinking outside the box,” agrees Rhea Law, the chairwoman of law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's Florida practice and chairwoman of the Florida Council of 100, a public policy group, who has known Arnold for 30 years. “I don't know if he knows inside the box.”
Arnold's most recent innovation is, however, of a box: The firm's Tampa offices, in the One Urban Centre building in Westshore, where it moved last November. Designed by interior firm Gensler, Colliers International's digs are open and spacious, intentionally without traditional offices.
In their place is a coffee bar, large conference tables and comfy couches. In a nod to Arnold's past, large TV monitors adorn nearly every wall that are capable of synching up with agents' hand-held or portable electronic devices.
“We consciously wanted to create new ideas through collaboration, and space can drive that,” Arnold says. “There are a lot of opportunities here to see things in different ways, but our real secret juice are the people who want to collaborate and work together.”