Even in a global economy, real estate is about relationships

Practicing in New Hampshire can be like swimming around a fairly small fish bowl. Not infrequently, we bump into fellow real estate practitioners as well as the usual cadre of bankers, lawyers, appraisers, contractors, along with zoning and planning officials, not to mention the municipal economic development folks. It would be easy to be lulled into complacency and pretty much operate on automatic pilot or by rote. To guard against that tendency, we at Norton Asset Management regularly jump out of the fish bowl, either by visiting with clients outside of our immediate markets or through our memberships in national and international organizations such as the Counselors of Real Estate.

The Counselors, with about 1,100 members worldwide, is an affiliate of the National Association of Realtors, which encompasses those who consult, counsel or advise others for a fee. About half of my work week is spent in this area. The balance of my week is divided among brokerage (representing sellers, buyers, landlords or tenants), some administrative responsibilities, although I have a partner who manages 90 percent of that, and business development (aka sales).

Having been an active member of CRE for more than 10 years, I have gained access and exposure to some of the top real estate professionals in the world.

Listening to Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Residential Properties Trust, the largest apartment real estate investment trust in the United States, and Equity Office Properties Trust, the largest office portfolio of any publicly traded company in the United States — two of the biggest REITs in the world — talk about selling off $3.2 billion of properties in the next 12 months, this would get any real estate broker’s heart pumping.

Just as important, useful and educational is the opportunity to travel to different cities for the semi-annual meetings. Ten years ago we were in New Orleans and spent time learning about the levee system. Because members are often advising state, local and private clients, we often get insider tours, such as the underground city that supports Disney World. The point is that it is healthy, refreshing and invigorating to leave your turf and visit with others in theirs.

As Tom Friedman explains in minute detail in his most recent book, “The World is Flat,” the world is exponentially more connected each year through improvements in travel, free trade and electronics, including voice, e-mail teleconferencing, outsourcing, global partnering, etc.

The other day I met with a client here in New Hampshire whose partners (ownership) are in Indonesia and China. Not long before, I met with a prospective tenant whose executives were in India. There is no doubt in my mind that the global aspect to my business will only increase. European, Canadian and now Southeast Asian investors are buying real estate in the United States because they see it as a good investment in a stable country with the world’s strongest economy. This will not change any time soon.

While the Counselors have an international membership, 80 to 90 percent are either American or Canadian. The Counselors deliberately chose to be a smaller organization. However, for the past several years, the Counselors have dialogued with the world’s largest, most highly regarded real property organization outside the United States, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. They have over 116,000 members worldwide.

Real estate, perhaps more than most businesses, is about relationships. The ability to identify reliable professionals in key markets worldwide is a critical component of doing business in an increasingly complicated and at times uncertain global economy.

Through a new alliance and partnership, the Surveyors invited members of the Counselors to submit application for membership as eminent professionals. I am pleased to say that I made the cut and was granted membership as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. I tell my kids they have to be global citizens, and so I will be walking the walk as we plow through the first decade of the new millennium.

Bill Norton is president of Norton Asset Management. In addition to his active brokerage work, he is a Counselor of Real Estate, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and on the board of the Concord Initiative for a 20/20 Vision. He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

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