Guy Burns couldn’t believe the luck.
Four years after his law firm had developed a strategic plan to add attorneys, Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns LLP was preparing for a relative onslaught of new lawyers en masse.
In all, 10 health care and tax attorneys decided last fall to join Johnson, Pope’s Tampa office to start 2017.
But while the new blood would allow Johnson, Pope to diversify its litigation-based practice and double its total number of attorneys in Tampa, the additional lawyers would also mean a sudden space crunch.
Burns, the firm’s managing partner and head of a group that had until early 2015 owned the firm’s longtime quarters at 425 N. Florida Ave., surveyed the scene. The three floors the firm occupied in the Northern Trust Building, totaling 12,300 square feet, wouldn’t be enough for everyone.
“We were looking at the prospect of going to 23 lawyers from half that figure overnight,” says Burns. “We knew we were going to outgrow our space, and we knew that within 60 days something had to happen. What we didn’t know was what was out there for us.”
What Burns also may not have realized at the time was that major office moves like the one Johnson, Pope was contemplating typically take many months — and often more than a year — to execute and complete.
Further complicating Johnson, Pope’s plan was that the available inventory of larger blocks of space within Tampa’s office market has been shrinking steadily since 2012.
Although the official Class A vacancy rate for Tampa hovers around 10%, by some measure blocks of 15,000 square feet or above are few and are becoming increasingly difficult to secure.
Around Thanksgiving, Burns placed a call to Chris Butler, the managing director of office and industrial brokerage services at commercial brokerage Franklin Street, in Tampa.
Burns told him Johnson, Pope wanted to be in downtown Tampa, to complement the firm’s offices in Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg. It wanted about 20,000 square feet. It needed to have ample parking for staff and clients. It needed space that would have the high-end finishes appropriate for a law firm. Most importantly, a move needed to happen before the holidays ended.
And because it needed to move within weeks, it needed space that would be plug-and-play — as in, vacant, or at the least immediately available. And, preferably, fully furnished. Simple, right?
Butler and Franklin Street colleague Ryan McCurdy went hunting.
“We knew they needed something that, to the extent possible, they could move into as is,” Butler says.
He and McCurdy suggested the firm might want to temporarily remain in the Northern Trust space and lease a satellite office while a more comprehensive search could be undertaken.
“Integrating new people into an existing firm is challenging enough anyway, but the idea of doing that while having folks in multiple offices wasn’t an idea we liked,” he says.
Neither he nor Evelyn Delgado, the firm’s COO, relished the idea of moving more than once, either.
Butler explained that scouting the market for Johnson, Pope’s requirements could take weeks. Designing new space would take a month. Permitting would take roughly another month. Tenant improvement construction — once new space was found and a lease executed — could take another two months.
“We tell clients that, typically, four to six months is a tight timeframe for an office user to contemplate moving,” he says. “Many tenants will go out in the market a year, maybe even two years, before their lease expires to give themselves every advantage in their search.”
Burns was undeterred. The prospect of cramming roughly 40 people — lawyers and other staff — into the NorthernTrust building wasn’t tenable.
Butler and McCurdy went back on the street.
Eventually, they found serendipity: Synergy Health had been leasing space in the SunTrust Financial Centre downtown, at 401 E. Jackson St., but the company was looking to downsize in the wake of a merger and wanted to move closer to Tampa International Airport.
The space on the 31st floor of the 36-story skyscraper had a “wow factor” too: It had been previously occupied by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, when he ran an investment fund from the offices.
“The space looked like something out of Architectural Digest,” Burns says. “And Synergy left virtually everything — kitchen equipment, audio-visual equipment, furniture. We couldn’t have been happier.”
Johnson, Pope struck a deal and somehow moved in the final week of December.
The firm’s arrangement with Synergy also allowed it to reconfigure the space, so Johnson, Pope is now considering cutting up some existing work areas on the floor to create new offices.
For his part, Butler still marvels that the move came together as it did, and as quickly as it did.
“I guess I knew we would find them the space they needed, but the question was always how ideal would that space be?” he says. “For Johnson, Pope to be able to just walk in to a fully furnished space was just perfect for them. The finishes in the space are beautiful, it has great parking, a solid amenity base, and it’s well located.
“It’s really a Cinderella story in so many ways.”
But unlike Cinderella — who had to make a hasty exit from the royal ball when the clock struck midnight, according to legend — Butler’s involvement with Johnson, Pope hasn’t ended.
Despite its move, the law firm still has five years left on its lease at the Northern Trust Building, which is now owned by 717 Parking Enterprises owners Jason and John Accardi.
He and McCurdy are working to sublease that space now.