Kurt Keaton played football at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he learned what it was like to win on a big stage. After a mandatory stint in the military, he spent 16 years climbing the corporate ladder at JLL, one of the largest commercial real estate services firms in the world.
There, Keaton rose from managing commercial properties in Atlanta to managing JLL’s diverse 30 million-square-foot portfolio and multiple offices throughout Florida. By 2013, he was managing investor and institutional clients’ properties nationally.
But at the beginning of this year, Keaton shocked his colleagues, his clients and the Florida commercial real estate community when he left JLL for Tampa-based Franklin Street, a relative startup created by an entrepreneur a decade ago only now in his thirties.
Keaton says he couldn’t be happier with the move.
“From a platform standpoint, I believe we can touch and do more things here than national firms can,” says Keaton, Franklin Street’s president of real estate and management services. “We have multiple avenues from which we can solve problems for clients, from real estate to insurance to lending, and for me personally, there’s an absolute alignment of our values.
“The personal mission statement here is integrity first, and while other commercial real estate firms say that, what’s different about Franklin Street is we live it every day. Accountability permeates the organization,” Keaton adds. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The South Carolina native comes to Franklin Street amid a surge of growth, a slate of impressive numbers and a growing list of accolades, including being named a “fastest growing company” by Real Estate Forum in 2015.
Last year, the company completed $25 million in leasing transactions, including 87 retail deals.
At the same time, the company ratcheted up its insurance division’s book of business to more than $10 billion in property values; increased its total landlord representation to 9 million square feet; crossed the $500 million mark in loan originations, and notched more than $300 million in property sales.
That growth has, in turn, propelled the company to expand internally. From its start as a mortgage brokerage in 2006, Franklin Street now has more than 200 employees. Later this year, the Tampa-based firm plans to open its seventh office, in Orlando.
“I think there’s space in our culture today for disruptors, from craft beer to denim,” says Keaton, 44. “People are looking for something different, and at the end of the day, as a client, Franklin Street’s difference is that we’re going to look at you as a person and find out what your individual problem is, and then have specific tools to address it.”
Unlike many commercial real estate services firms that specialize in leasing and management, Franklin Street also offers insurance services, lending, appraisals across a wide spectrum of property types, including office, retail, industrial and multifamily.
Those who know Keaton say they understand why he’d be a good fit for Franklin Street.
“He has a special ability, with people of all ages and types, he’s someone people look up to,” says Linda Dolan, who recruited Keaton to work at JLL during her 22-year career there. “He doesn’t ever make you feel like he’s your boss. You work with Kurt, not for Kurt. That’s how he makes you feel. He’s an exceptionally nice guy, but he also has the ability to get a lot of things done.”
Andrew Wright, Franklin Street’s founder and CEO, calls Keaton “A No. 1 draft pick.”
“We could not have ended up with a better person to lead our real estate and management efforts,” Wright says.
But Keaton took an unlikely path to a real estate career.
After the Air Force Academy, Keaton worked for the military in weapons systems and development, alongside companies like Boeing and Lockheed.
When JLL came calling, in late 1999, he took a leap and transferred his skills to property management. By 2005, he was overseeing the company’s commercial portfolio in Atlanta, some 5 million square feet in all.
It was around that time that JLL asked him to help it establish a beachhead in Florida, at the time a relatively new market. By year-end, he had relocated full time to help the company expand its presence and diversify into institutional asset sales.
In 2008, JLL acquired Staubach Co., the commercial brokerage begun by former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach, and Keaton helped integrate it into the company fold.
A year later, he was named JLL’s market director for Florida, with responsibility for offices in Orlando, Miami and Tampa. Over the next four years, Keaton quadrupled JLL’s business in the Sunshine State, and helped the company diversify into the retail and industrial sectors.
The success attracted the attention of JLL leaders, who asked him to begin handling national accounts.
But while his numbers grew, Keaton says he didn’t feel he was making the impact he wanted to make.
Franklin Street, he says, fills that void.
“Here, it’s not how or what so much as a matter of why. Leadership here is dedicated to developing people, not just to doing deals. That’s why my absolute goal in 20 years is to be right here.”