Stephen Rutchik went paperless when he joined Colliers International 1 ½ years ago.
That’s a big deal for a broker in the commercial real estate field, an industry that has historically lagged behind others on the digital front.
Colliers has begun to fill the disconnected line between the commercial real estate industry and technology. The fourth-largest real estate brokerage in the nation joins global companies CBRE Inc., JLL and Cushman & Wakefield in what agents describe as a speedy digitization of a traditionally old-school industry.
Companies large and small are placing a priority on software upgrades.
Rutchik and his south Florida team were early adopters of View the Space, of VTS, a cloud-based leasing and asset management platform. Both property owners and brokers have access to VTS, which allows them to manage property from any device 24 hours a day.
Colliers also uses similar software called Hightower to streamline reporting and communication among its brokers and clients. On Hightower, agency brokers instantly share updates like new lease deals and property tours with clients on the collective platform.
“It’s about getting more time with your clients and spending less time at your desks,” Rutchik said.
Now that information is easily accessible on both platforms, the Miami-based broker said he no longer needs to call his team members every morning and ask, “What happened yesterday?”
Blanca Commercial Real Estate uses Hightower across its entire portfolio, one of the first companies in Miami to do so, said chief marketing officer Diana Pubchara, who advises on the company’s tech initiatives. The company manages over 25 buildings with the software and gives landlords complimentary access.
Pubchara applauds the company’s adoption because it has helped boost Blanca’s market intelligence. She said Hightower streamlines communication between brokers and clients, tracks building performance and helps identify trends. If several laws firms have signed leases or are touring space in a particular market, the software picks up on that and hands over the data its users.
Brokers were at first hesitant quickly embraced Hightower, Pubchara said.
“They like the comfort of being able to do it from their phone,” she said. “Aside from logging tours, they can share floor plans and spaces with other brokers. It makes the exchanging of information so easy. They get hooked on it once they start using it.”
Leading the commercial real estate realm in high-tech investments are brokerage giants JLL and Cushman & Wakefield, which have spent large sums adapting to the newest software and creating proprietary technology.
“It is very amazing how quickly the business has transformed and how organizations like JLL are focusing on technology and innovation,” said Alan Kleber, who became a managing director at JLL’s Miami office when the company acquired Cresa South Florida late last year.
Kleber left Cushman & Wakefield to join the smaller Cresa in 2011. The broker said “his jaw hit the floor” when he joined JLL four years later. He said it’s almost “mind-boggling” how quickly the company is “evolving into a tech-savvy real estate services organization.”
The industry has realized that different results are achieved when data is leveraged to inform brokers and clients, he said. And that data is now available anytime at your fingerprints.
“It’s too important to not innovate and evolve,” Kleber said.
JLL launched its own innovation team to sift through the latest and greatest, and began acquiring tech companies, he said. The company recently purchased BRG, which helps companies successfully integrate new technology systems, and Silicon Valley-based Corrigo Inc., a web-based facility management software.
Both JLL and Cushman also have invested heavily to develop their own proprietary technology.
Kleber is most excited about Blackbird, a JLL-created tool that gives clients a virtual 3-D tour of individual markets while visually integrating relevant data points for prospective buyers, landlords and tenant.
“Think of Google Earth on steroids with lots of real estate data,” the broker said.
Meanwhile at Cushman & Wakefield, brokers operate on the company’s own web portal coined Fusion.
Mark Pateman, a director at the company’s West Palm Beach office, pointed out the new tools are only as good as the data entered by brokers.
“The more we rely on technology, the more accurate the data should be,” Pateman said.
Pateman predicts mega-partnerships will form between fledgling businesses like Hightower and long-established customer relationship management, or CRM, systems like Salesforce.com. Ultimately everything will merge onto one collective CRM platform, he said. If those partnerships crystallize, every broker in the country could one day be looking at the same screen.
The vast availability of online data has heightened completion in a notoriously competitive business, especially with the rise of virtual marketplaces like LoopNet, which give owners the ability to list properties for sale without a broker.
LoopNet-like platforms are making it easier for building owners to sell directly, said Greg Matus, regional managing partner with Franklin Street.
Tampa-based Franklin Street tracks LoopNet listing on a daily basis. Rather than wait for an owner to contact the company, he approaches sellers listing properties on the site, saying, “We’d like to market this property for you. We have a buyer.”
“Because of technology, it’s easier now for investors to cut a broker out of a transaction,” Matus said. “But smart clients understand that a good broker will add value to a transaction. That’s why groups like [Ten-X] don’t market property without a good broker.”
Ten-X is an online marketplace that partners with brokers to market their listings nationwide. Formerly known as Auction.com, the Irvine, California-based company is dominating the online real estate transaction arena.
“We’re positioned between the seller, the brokers and the buyers in the market,” said Justin Latorre, vice president of business development in Florida.
When Matus scores a listing, he shares it with Ten-X, which markets the property to its expansive audience. Ten-X does everything a broker would traditionally do to market a property but on a wider scale. The company also underwrites the deal and completes an environmental assessment and property condition report – and it’s all done online.
Matus said connecting with out-of-state buyers interested in his clients’ properties is easier than ever before.
At times, the relationship between an online platform like Ten-X and brokerages gets characterized as competitive, but Latorre said that’s not the case.
“We’re not replacing brokers,” he said. “We’re really a marketing platform and a tech company that’s enabling more transparency in the market for sellers, buyers and brokers.”
Every piece of real estate is different, so Ten-X highly leverages brokers for their local market knowledge.
While brokerages are evolving into data-driven machines to stave off competition, brokers say relationships are still key.
Because at the end of the day, a client will always look beyond the data for behind-the-curtain information, said Pateman, the Cushman & Wakefield broker. For example, an investor eyeing an office building will want to know if the law firm occupying the top floor will stay or go when the lease expires in five years.
“Technology can’t tell you that,” Pateman said.
But an agent who has spoken to the firm’s junior partners can. A mobile app also can’t negotiate lease terms between a landlord and tenant with competing interests.
“I get that a broker’s job can become more commoditized,” he said. “But there’s a part of the job that I don’t [think] can be done by software – yet.”