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Camaraderie driven

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  • | 9:57 a.m. June 10, 2016
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The trio of principals behind the Fort Myers' office of brokerage firm Lee & Associates bounced around a handful of national commercial real estate firms -- Trammell Crow Co. and Grubb & Ellis among them — before settling in Southwest Florida and settling upon a partnership that has proven itself both professionally and personally.

In fact, Richard Clarke, Bob Johnston and Jerry Messonnier say their primary goal five years after forming their commercial real estate-focused Lee affiliate isn't to garner increased market share, capture more listings or even make more money.

The three simply want to have more fun.

“I think we're more driven by camaraderie at this point,” says Messonnier. “Our main goals are to continue to provide fantastic service for our clients and we want to continue to have fun. We're money focused but we're not money driven.”

That focus isn't the only thing that has differentiated Lee, which, despite its focus, generates more than $50 million a year in revenue.

Unlike most Southwest Florida commercial real estate brokerages from Charlotte to Collier counties, Lee is national in scope. In all, the California-based firm has more than 55 offices nationwide and more than 800 agents.

That national platform, combined with the local principals' local market expertise, a unique pay structure for agents and a collaborative approach to running the business, has separated Lee & Associates from the pack, clients maintain.

“They're actively on the street, trying to make things happen,” says George Ebel, president and CEO of Action Automatic Door & Gate, a Fort Myers firm that rents out units in a few of its buildings.

“When we have a building and need to rent it out, we go to them and they're really good about following through,” he adds. “They know the intricacies of the markets here well.”

Johnston and Messonnier came together around 2001, when both worked for what had been a Southwest Florida affiliate of brokerage and real estate services giant CBRE Inc.

Johnston, 56, who had worked with brokerage chain Grubb & Ellis in his native California, relocated to Fort Myers for its lifestyle: The place reminded him a lot of Newport Beach, Calif.

Messonnier, 59, who grew up in New Orleans but later worked in banking in Arizona and California, was lured to Florida by a video tape produced by the Naples Chamber of Commerce that touted the area.

But at CBRE, the pair chafed under all the firm's rules and administrative red tape.

They both liked the idea of maintaining a national tie, but wanted to be more independent.

Johnston maintained relationships with Grubb & Ellis executives, so in 2008, he and Messonnier opened up a Fort Myers office for the chain, at the time one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the U.S.

Then the crash came.

Clarke, 57, joined them in 2009, after executive stints at Trammell Crow and the Welk Resort Group Corp. — a company begun in the mid-1960s by famed TV bandleader Lawrence Welk — and developer Opus One.

Because each had different skill sets, things between them “clicked,” Messonnier says.

The same couldn't be said for their deal with Grubb & Ellis, which had filed for bankruptcy protection. When the trio's contract came up, they elected not to renew it.

Johnston, meanwhile, had known of Lee & Associates from his days in California.

“They were very entrepreneurial,” he says. “Their philosophy was that agents made the money for the firm, and therefore, they should keep most of the money.”

Lee maintains a profit-sharing program with agents whereby they receive 90% of all earnings after an annual budget figure is met. The licensing agreement Johnston, Clarke and Messonnier signed for Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties also gave the trio something equally valuable in their eyes: freedom.

“With Lee, we were able to take all of our pet peeves about other companies we'd worked for and simply eliminate them,” says Messonnier.

So in 2011, while in the depths of the longest and deepest recession in the U.S. since the 1930s, the trio opened Lee & Associates' first Florida office. A second has since opened in Orlando.

Attracting agents to a new and largely unknown company wasn't easy, at first, until the trio put the word out that Lee split commissions with most agents on a 85%/15% basis, a departure from the more typical 50%/50% or 60%/40% split most commercial agents receive.

And from the beginning, the Lee partners decided to put everything from bringing in new agents to decisions on computer software to a vote among the staff.

“We'd interview someone, and the first question would be, is he or she a good fit?” Clarke says. “We'd vote, and it needed to be 100% approval. For us, the chemistry has to be right.”

The strategy worked. Lee's Southwest Florida affiliate today has 12 agents, who manage by committee at monthly meetings.

And while the Lee partners decline to provide exact revenue, they say that the firm generated more than $50 million in sales and leasing volume last year, and that the company has grown by at least 15% annually each of its five years in operation.

“We founded the company on the premise that we'd make more money by increasing splits, not by owning a real estate company,” Messonnier says.

- K.L. McQuaid


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