Workplace Talks: Melanie Jones Speaks with Brian Jarrett

Not long ago, I was in Austin, Texas meeting with the energized and inquisitive project management team at CBRE. I walked away so inspired by their questions, authentic curiosity, natural humor, and knowledge on so many subjects I wanted to capture and share a snapshot of the conversation with all of you.

Knowing that good teams evolve from strong leadership, I reached out to Brian Jarrett, Managing Director of this group, and asked him to share a few insights. I hope all of you walk away from this interview with more knowledge around.

Melanie Jones: Let’s start with the benefits you bring to the table in supporting clients and your brokerage team. For those unfamiliar with CBRE Project Management, what is the scope of services and expertise, and why do clients tap into professional project management services?

Brian Jarrett: Let me share an analogy. Every company strives to be an expert in its field and excel at what they offer customers. For example, CORT is an expert in providing an on-demand furniture solution, Ford builds vehicles, and so forth. When a neurosurgeon needs a knee replacement, they don’t call another neurosurgeon. They go to an orthopedic surgeon.

I think most agree that it’s best to rely on an expert who specializes in solving the challenge at hand. In our world, a widget maker needs to focus on widget making and should probably turn to a project manager to support everything related to a move or relocation, an interiors project, a ground-up project, a custom buildout, or simply changing how and where they use space.

That’s the value of hiring a project manager. It’s our business to know the ins and outs and how to efficiently and effectively get things done. We must stay connected to local support teams, understand permitting processes, and know the designers, contractors, and experts like CORT.

We also know what we’re looking at. Just simple things like timelines, bids, and proposals. We know where people hide things, and forget critical pieces of information, and we understand how to protect our clients.

Melanie Jones: I love that perspective. Back to the analogy, what’s the first thing a doctor does when they enter a room? They ask all the probing questions. The widget maker would generally have no idea what probing questions to ask.

There’s a vastness to it also, isn’t there? Three clients would likely have different needs and, therefore, different lines of questioning.

Brian Jarrett: Absolutely, every project is different. Every client is different. Right out of the gate, we’re examining the initial facts, interviewing our clients, and trying to understand what they need and want to accomplish. And sometimes it’s as simple as putting desks in place, which surprisingly isn’t always all that simple.

We have a lot of startups in Austin. They often don’t know what they need, so we probe into the operation and design a solution for them.

Melanie Jones: Right! As an example, your team knows the value of CORT’s Furniture-as-a-Service™ model. If the startup is looking for speed and flexibility, maybe the subscription model is a better fit than a purchase. If the client needs to conserve capital to grow the business, access to furniture could be perfect.

Brian Jarrett: Absolutely. Understanding what they are working to accomplish allows us to bring a couple ideas for their consideration.

Melanie Jones: I’m curious. Do you primarily manage one-off projects for customers or repeat business?

Brian Jarrett: Both. We have several service lines. I am responsible for what we call a Local Market Area (LMA). Our primary focus is supporting brokers representing a tenant. When a potential new lease is on the table and project management services are needed, we support the broker with everything from lease review to buildouts and everything in between.   Of course, often, these turn into multiple projects.

Then there is CBRE Global Workplace Solutions (GWS) which services our major national accounts. This could entail embedding CBRE employees within the client environment to a variety of project management initiatives. Sometimes the LMA teams work hand in hand with the GWS team. Just depends.

Melanie Jones: Would you explain CBRE’s Principal Project Group (PPG) and how it benefits customers?

Brian Jarrett: This is a unique offering, a strategy, and a service much different from most of our competitors. CBRE will hold contracts on behalf of our client. It’s more than a pay agent.

It’s the Staples “Easy Button.” We develop and are responsible for budgets, timelines, hiring architects, contractors, procurement, contract reviews, and everything related to a project. Then we guarantee the delivery of the project within that timeline and budget.

Since we carry the risk, the services may cost a bit more, but it makes things easier for our clients to continue focusing on their core business. I don’t know many of our competitors who assume risk like this.

Melanie Jones: When I work with clients, I share a total cost of ownership perspective comparing access to furniture vs. ownership. There are many associated costs in owning furniture beyond the initial price tag. Cost of capital, employee cost to manage assets, moving and storage, replacement costs, etc.

Similarly, how much does your customer spend managing all the services you mentioned? It adds up, so I certainly see the value in assuming ownership of the projects for them. Does this approach help win more new business? Is it a sales tactic?

Brian Jarrett: I would say it absolutely can be a sales tactic. I would argue it’s critical to have an incredibly skilled project manager working in such a scenario. We must have a high degree of confidence in their ability to manage risk and make the right decisions.

Melanie Jones: Is that an area of the business CBRE plans to expand?

Brian Jarrett: You’ll see growth with PPG across the country, absolutely. We feel it’s a winning situation for our customers and us. It requires a higher degree of commitment and very focused attention by the team managing things for the customer.

Melanie Jones: What are you hearing from clients regarding the need for more flexible space?

Brian Jarrett:  The conversation varies considerably from client to client. Many of our clients feel nothing has changed. Everyone gets an office. The conference rooms are the same. No big changes. Others prefer non-assigned seating arrangements, plug-and-play, and plenty of comfortable spaces to huddle and collaborate.

Still, others may have read a white paper study on the new workplace and the need for hybrid options and new types of amenity areas, but they aren’t convinced it’s for them. They are seeking guidance from us.

It’s not that the modern office suddenly needs flexible space. That’s always been in the conversation. Companies are sorting through this considering a hybrid model to home-based to back in the office full-time. The focus today is how they will utilize space and how that impacts the greater real estate portfolio.

From a pure project management perspective, it’s still a project. We have the same challenges – a design problem to solve and a functionality problem to solve and we’d like to think we’re good problem solvers!

Melanie Jones: Let’s talk about data for a minute. As you know, CORT has a sensor technology solution called 4SITE. Our clients are extremely interested in collecting occupancy data and understanding the results. Curious if you are being asked to bring occupancy data solutions to your customers to help them make informed real estate decisions.

Brian Jarrett: The idea of occupancy studies is not new. What’s interesting about 4SITE is that it makes the occupancy study invisible to the occupant or employee. I think that’s innovative.

Historically if we needed to better understand space utilization, we’d work with the architects or potentially the furniture partners, or other consultants. We’d see someone with a clipboard walking, checking how often people sit in a workstation and how long they sit in these workstations, and compiling all this data manually. It was very labor-intensive and somewhat costly.

People knew when it was happening. And the fact that they knew it was happening would change their behavior. I need my boss to see me in the office every day, so I’ll be in the office while the study is happening. Lots of insufficient data.

So, technology like 4SITE accomplishes the goal, but the sensors are relatively concealed. It’s not big brotherish for a business to have an interest in understanding how much real estate is needed.

Finding out that 10% or 15% less space is needed is enormous. So yes, I think that this technology, and particularly 4SITE is very intriguing. And, as a matter of fact, we’ve already suggested it to one of our customers. I see a lot of utility in this, even potential permanent solutions where our customers have access to real-time feedback.

Melanie Jones:  In some markets, spec suites are being promoted as a tool to quickly lease shorter-term spaces. What are your thoughts?

Brian Jarrett: If I could pull out my crystal ball and look ahead a few years, I’d predict we’ll see more real estate dressed up. Maybe a sublease, or a remodeled space for a lease that’s expired. The building owner needs to get a new tenant. Dress it up and stage it as you do in residential real estate because everyone knows it will sell faster.

The same thing holds true for speculative office space. If a space is being shown regularly, the landlord would be wise to stage it for a few months. It helps tenants understand how the area can be used. Furniture-as-a-Service™ as a problem solver is money well spent whether it’s staging an office, supporting leasing of a sublease, spec suites, or short-term opportunities.

Melanie Jones: Of course, I agree. The other part of the conversation is that a space can be partially furnished with the balance of furniture delivered once a new tenant comes along. It’s hard to get landlords to open their pocketbooks, even though they know they should. And since we offer a subscription-like approach, the risk is minimal.

Brian Jarrett: Right! The space doesn’t need every single office furnished. We’d typically suggest a lobby, conference room, office, and maybe the break area.

Melanie Jones: What makes CBRE stand out when competing for business?

A personal touch with an enormous amount of support behind us. As you know, CBRE is the largest real estate company in the world. Sometimes customers think they are just a number because we are so big. That’s not true. In my case, I have a five-person team in Austin and a six-person team in Houston. Every single customer is vital to us, and we treat them like any other boutique project management firm.

CBRE oversees nearly 95 billion dollars globally within project management and enjoys phenomenal relationships with significant industry providers and suppliers. Our job is to know and bring the right partners to the table. I would say that’s an enormous advantage that we have over many of our competitors.

Melanie Jones: You mentioned your crystal ball so what you might see on the horizon?

Brian Jarrett: Regarding project management, I think adapting and staying curious are critical. Good project managers are inherently problem solvers. To be relevant and have the tools and talent necessary to solve customer challenges, we must be open-minded.

It might be challenges with the economy, supply chain issues, new design ideas, implementation strategies, or new practices customers want to leverage as they evolve. There will always be problems to solve, and almost always, they are different than the last one, so we bring our experience to the table. That’s powerful.

Our day-to-day lives imitate life to a large degree. It’s constantly throwing twists and turns with countless surprises. Sometimes work/life is rewarding, and other times it’s incredibly challenging. What do you think, if life was always just simple and rewarding, would it be meaningful? It’s finding ways to get through the adversity of life by solving problems. And being diligent about it.

In our world, that’s what makes an excellent strong project manager. And that is what we’re paid to be. Strong partners to advise our customers when something is good, be honest when it’s not, and have the skill set to make the best recommendations. I find that very rewarding.

Melanie Jones: Having worked with your team, I know you all walk the walk.  It’s a privilege to call you a friend Brian. Your passion, and that from your team, is refreshing!