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Charlotte’s New Good Old Boy Network

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A friend and colleague recently was talking with me about a firm he once worked with. He candidly shared that his boss specifically only hired white guys with trust funds. This profile was important, his former boss reasoned, because if a guy had a trust fund it meant he had contacts in the community he could leverage, and he had the financial wherewithal to comfortably withstand the booms and busts of the commercial real estate world.

Charlotte’s commercial real estate industry certainly has a good old boys club, aptly illustrated by my friend’s experience, and those connections have certainly closed many important deals in the Queen City’s history. But I believe Charlotte’s Good Old Boy network is penetrable, and becoming increasingly more so. And this is part of Charlotte’s success.

A prime example is how Johnny Harris, a veteran developer who hails from an established family, is mentoring Tracy Dodson, a Harvard graduate who worked her way up the real estate ranks. Professionals such as Johnny are fast to reach out to promising new leaders and bring them into the established network.

Richmond and Charleston, in contrast, can be small and cliquey. Or take Nashville. My experience is that Nashville is not penetrable for outside developers. I was recently on an assignment there for Crescent Communities and the complexity of their codes and murkiness on entitlement processes were only clear to the locals who sought consulting jobs. I’ve done more than $20 million in land deals around Chattanooga, and I found that unless you were from there, and had a nickname like “Thunder” or good ol’ “Scooter”, you weren’t getting anywhere fast.

This is not unique to the South. My experience developing office and warehouse buildings in NYC and South Boston were the best examples of how I learned that it may take years, and millions of dollars spent on local consultants before the wheels of progress would get greased enough to start a development project.

Charlotte is different. Scott MacLaren with Stiles didn’t have to open a local office, or have people based here to start developing Publix. While working with him, I learned how an outsider can quickly penetrate the Charlotte good old boy network:

  • Use straight talk with the locals: Remember that Charlotte, like in other places, has a small real estate community. “Word gets around fast”, and if you are transparent and respectful, people on the inside will want to help you.
  • Show loyalty and be humble to your local team: I watched Scott time and time again give his local engineering team credit, or tip his hat to his land use attorneys for building consensus.
  • Hire the best team possible: they should be specialized knowledge about the Charlotte market; they should have evidence that they have a working relationship with those you want to influence; and give them a clear mandate on how to act on your behalf.

Sure, Charlotte, like all of the other places I have seen, the entitlement process is bureaucratic and frustrating to outsiders. But our development world is penetrable. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps what helps is that Charlotte’s community and civic leaders are more business minded, and appreciate the value of the work being done results in a better community for everyone.

Regardless, I think it’s a good thing that the upper echelons of Charlotte’s commercial real estate market can be tapped by relative newcomers because it brings us new connections. And connections are what ultimately drive deals and bring the greatest value for clients.

For tips and your own road map to navigating the Charlotte, or any other good old boy network, get a copy of Go For Broker – A leader’s guide to hiring a commercial real estate broker.

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