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Global heavyweight throws down the gauntlet

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

With real estate in his blood, Brett Miller aims to make growth the watchword at Jones Lang LaSalle Canada

TARA PERKINS

REAL ESTATE REPORTER

Brett Miller would be happy if the company that his father helped to build started bleeding business.

Mr. Miller quit the firm where his dad, Clive Miller, had been a founding principal in order to take a top job at its rival, as president of the Canadian arm of Jones Lang LaSalle.

"It was absolutely gut wrenching," Mr. Miller says of his decision about a year ago to leave CBRE Ltd., where he had run the Eastern Canadian division for more than 10 years. "Lots of friends, and lots of family relationships that went back 20 years. When I left it caused some heads to turn and people said, 'Wait a second, your blood runs green [the colour of CBRE's logo], how could you do this?' "

Mr. Miller was actually the first summer student that CBRE's Canadian business hired, back in the days when it was called Coldwell Banker Canada Inc. His father, who moved the family to Canada from South Africa when Brett was 13, was one of Coldwell Banker Canada's original owners when it sprouted up in 1983 and helped to get it started out of a makeshift office in a residential apartment in downtown Toronto.

As a student the younger Mr. Miller knew he wanted to be in real estate, and he also knew that he wanted to make it in the industry based on his own merits. After graduating from university he went to work for Canderel Ltd. in Montreal in 1986 - outside the shadow of his father - and eventually went on to work in Europe before landing back at CBRE in late 2001.

While it was a tough decision to leave, Mr. Miller says that in many ways it is at Jones Lang LaSalle that he is really able to follow in the footsteps of his entrepreneurial father. While CBRE is firmly entrenched as a market leader in Canada, Mr. Miller has stepped into the helm at Jones Lang LaSalle at a time when it is very much in growth mode.

"CBRE is a wonderful company, very well established, but difficult to move the dial and change the way it operates," he says. "I had a great 10 years at CBRE, but I'm also entrepreneurial and I guess, similar to my father, I saw the opportunity to take a big brand, grow it and develop it in the Canadian market."

Jones Lang LaSalle, a global heavyweight, is now looking to bolster its Canadian presence in a big way. It has hired more than 115 people since April of 2012, and will be adding at least an additional 170 in the coming months, bringing its employee count above 500.

The majority of its profits come from representing landlords and tenants in the negotiation of office leases, a business where it is already a top player. But it is also beefing up other business lines as well as adding entirely new ones, including bringing on capital markets professionals in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and a national retail capital markets team, which can assist clients who are looking to sell or invest in properties. Amid the expansion it has opened new offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa, bringing its total to six.

"Having a strong presence in Canada is an important part of our firm's growth strategy for the Americas," says Bill Krouch, president of the Americas for Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, which recently reported first-quarter earnings of $13-million (U.S.). "Canada has a strong economy, it has weathered the economic storm and is one of the world's strongest and most stable commercial real estate markets. We see a great opportunity to expand our share of Canada's real estate market."

Globally, Jones Lang LaSalle and CBRE compete head-to-head. Jones Lang LaSalle began operating in Canada 13 years ago, but its presence here hasn't been as strong as it has been in some of its other markets. Mr. Miller is looking to change that, in part by taking on the firm that his father worked so hard to create.

"It's pretty aggressive growth for sure," says John Andrew, director of the Queen's Real Estate Roundtable at Queen's University in Kingston. He notes that there is "cutthroat" competition among the brokerages right now, a period in which the real estate industry is going strong - especially in this country.

"They are a very large company globally, and they have essentially been underweight in Canada, and I think they're recognizing that that's a bit of a deficiency," Dr. Andrew says.

Whether it's pension funds, real estate investment trusts, or insurers, Canadian real estate players are making a splash of global proportions. As a result, Mr. Miller points out, "the Canadian market is so important now." At least 20 per cent of all cross-border international real estate investments came from Canada last year, according to Jones Lang LaSalle global capital markets research director David Green-Morgan.

"Canadian institutions are exporting funds, and so you have to have a relationship with them domestically as well as internationally," Mr. Miller says. "And our large corporate occupiers for the most part, the Fortune 500s we work with on a global basis, are increasingly deploying staff in Canada and looking to grow their presence, so they want to be accompanied in the marketplace."

Dr. Andrew says that "HSBC would be one example. They're a very large client of the company globally and they're starting to get a very strong foothold, especially in real estate and investment banking here in Canada, so it just makes sense then that JLL would bolster itself and bring in the right people to provide that same level of service domestically."

While Mr. Miller points out that JLL will have doubled in headcount by September, he says his goal isn't to have as many brokers as the competition. "It's really to recruit the higher talent who can do the more complex assignments, very strategic, with the largest companies and the largest financial institutions."

Large clients now want to deal with one-stop shops that can act as brokers, property managers, project managers, investment advisers, and more, he says.

And as JLL beefs up in a few more areas, look for it to bite off bigger parts of its competition. Mr. Miller notes that the firm grew its business in the United States in large part by acquiring other players, something that it hasn't done in Canada. So far. "We're actively looking," he says.

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JLL GLOBALLY

Jones Lang LaSalle is a financial and professional services firm that specializes in real estate services and investment management.

More than 200 offices, 59 of which are in the United States.

More than 40,000 employees.

Annual revenue of $3.9-bil-lion (all currency U.S.).

Completed $63-billion in sales, acquisitions and finance transactions in 2012.

Provides management and real estate outsourcing services to a property portfolio of 2.6 billion square feet.

Tara Perkins