Cheri O'Neil is an anomaly, and not just because she's a woman who heads a Southwest Florida commercial real estate brokerage firm.
As senior vice president and branch manager for brokerage firm Savills Studley's Tampa office, O'Neil takes a markedly different approach to real estate from her competitors.
That's because Savills Studley exclusively represents tenants in their search for space, land and investments. By contrast, most brokerage firms tend to represent landlords and their properties.
“I consider tenant representation to be much more gratifying than typical landlord work,” O'Neil says. “But what really sets us apart is entrepreneurial spirit. In today's business world, I believe the things that drive success are all entrepreneurial.”
O'Neil says another key to Savills Studley's success is that the firm isn't adversarial with opposing brokers or landlords, who pay tenant rep brokerage commissions — even when a tenant's goal is to reduce its occupancy costs.
“A lot of what we do is educate tenants to the realities of the market, and structure deals so both sides get what they want in a transaction,” says O'Neil, 53. “And everyone in a deal is driven by different metrics, and because we understand that, we help everyone get to a win-win situation.”
O'Neil credits her experience at Tampa-area real estate firms such as Julius Green Enterprises, Carter & Associates, Beaumont Properties and Lincoln Property Co., together with a series of mentors, for helping her learn such varied skills as financial analysis and optimum workplace efficiency.
Building owners say that O'Neil adds considerable value to transactions.
“She has a great understanding of the market, she's fair, and she knows the construction process inside and out,” says Greg Williams, a principal and founder of Cardinal Point Management, a St. Petersburg landlord.
“Our experience is she's done a great job advising her clients, even though we've been on the opposite side of the table from her,” he added. “Cheri's a pleasure to work with.”
Most recently, O'Neil represented Stonegate Mortgage in a 33,000-square-foot lease in a Cardinal Point building in Clearwater, a deal that Williams says was made more complex by the company's specialized tenant improvement needs.
It was familiar territory for O'Neil, who has worked with clients such as Feld Entertainment; Lincoln Property; TECO; H. Lee Moffitt cancer Center; The Children's Home Inc.; law firm de la Parte & Gilbert and others since opening the Studley office in Tampa in 2004. London-based Savills plc acquired Studley in April 2013 and changed the brokerage's name.
“Sometimes we're the real estate arm of a client company,” O'Neil says. “That's so rewarding because you're always learning about different operations, and a client's success becomes our success.”
And O'Neil notes that despite market undulations, tenant representation is always in demand.
“No matter what the economy is like, tenants always have needs,” she says. “That's why we strive to build strong relationships, so our clients know we're there for them.”
O'Neil says her biggest challenge is recruiting new talent, because Savills Studley mandates that its agents have at least five years of brokerage experience, typically in working with landlords. She sometimes has a hard time, too, persuading agents to switch to tenant representation.
“But there will be more opportunities there as the market continues to grow,” she says.