If you think an office is mainly about walls, desks, computers and copy machines, think again. Commercial real estate expert Howard Ecker explains how the location and design of his offices reinforce his company’s vision and values.
When I begin working with clients who are looking for an office, I don’t usually start with questions about how many square feet they think they’ll need or whether they want to be in a Class A building. Instead, I tend to ask about topics that don’t always make sense to them at first. Things like: Where are your customers based? Where do your employees live? What’s your organizational structure like in terms of teams and hierarchy? What sort of culture do you strive for?
I ask these questions not out of idle curiosity, though I’m genuinely interested in learning about the various ways organizations operate. No, it’s because these are the sorts of things that will help me determine which kinds of spaces will allow them work most efficiently and cost effectively. And one of the reasons I know this is that I’ve applied the same approach with great success to my own offices.
The location, layout and design of my office show clients who come here that I practice what I preach and reinforce the points I try to get across in a way that mere words can’t. I made these decisions intentionally to align with the vision and philosophy of Howard Ecker & Co. My office provides my company with cultural differentiation. It shows the people we work with that we’re leading from the front. People beat a path to our door because—unlike others in commercial real estate—we don’t just find them a space. We help them figure out how to occupy that space with the best possible layout and design, in the best possible building, for the best possible price.
Here are a few things I have made a priority in my own space, which I try to emphasize to the individuals and companies I represent.
Right Location for the Right Price
There’s a reason the old real estate saw, “Location, location, location,” is repeated so often. A property’s proximity to things like public transportation centers, premier shopping and dining options, and cultural amenities is frequently the determining factor in its level of demand. Obviously, people want to be close to these things, but they often feel as though they have to pay through the nose for the privilege, and that’s a misconception. The deals are out there, but you have to know where and how to look for them.
Take my main office: it’s located in an old, historic building in the heart of downtown Chicago, just a couple of blocks away from stops for every major “El” train line in the city and close to numerous bus routes. My location helps me to attract the kind of talent I want, but it also conforms to my company’s philosophy of “sustainable urbanization.” Without getting into the weeds on this too much, this refers to our view that as cities generally become denser and more crowded, that growth should be handled with a focus on smart infrastructure decisions and maximum quality of life rather than the simple solution of greater sprawl.
The location of my office makes it convenient for employees commuting in every day, and it’s expedient for clients who are either right here in the city or flying in from around the world. In the former case, it’s a short walk or a $5 cab ride; in the latter, the subway can get them here quickly, or they can hail a cab without getting puzzled looks from the driver.
You might suspect I pay a lot in rent for this office. While I wouldn’t say it’s cheap, it’s definitely a favorable rate considering where it is and what it offers. I could have easily paid twice what I do now for a comparable space. How did I get such a deal? Deep market knowledge — I was aware of the landscape and knew what I should (and shouldn’t) pay. Of course, I’ve been in this business for decades now, which brings me to another point: if you don’t have anyone on staff who understands office space in your area and how leases work, make sure you hire the services of an expert who does. In the same vein, don’t be sold by the expert and get passed off to the junior.
The quality of a building’s ownership and management is another crucial factor—one that I believe is more important than whether it’s a Class A or Class B building. Obviously, it’s necessary for the structure that houses your office to have up-to-date technical specs and not be falling apart. But a building can be state-of-the-art and still run by people who are unresponsive, careless or short-term thinkers, easily making a “Class A” physical structure into a “Class C” property.
When I chose the location for our office, I did so in large part on the basis of the owner’s strong commitment to the building and its sterling operation. I knew he wasn’t going to sell anytime soon, so the property taxes wouldn’t change drastically from a transaction, thereby increasing my rent. He also instilled a culture of friendliness in his staff. My employees and I are greeted warmly and by name by the people manning the front desk just about every time we come in and leave. That may seem like a small thing, but when you enter and exit a place hundreds of times in a given year, you appreciate the fact that you’re being met by faces that are friendly instead of sullen (or worse, buried in a mobile phone).
Also, building management has accommodated our way of doing business, which is definitely distinctive—some might even call it eccentric. For instance, my dog Rocky has come to the office for a long time now. He’s even listed on our company Web site as an employee.
However, before we moved in, I was told this violated the building’s policy against admitting animals, no matter how domesticated or integral to a tenant’s operations. Well, that wasn’t going to do at all, and I didn’t hesitate to let the owner know about my objection to that particular rule. As it turned out, it wasn’t nearly the issue I thought it was going to be. “No problem, Mr. Ecker,” he said, and my leasing agreement was amended to allow my dog come and go as he pleased. That flexibility and direct access to the owner was a major selling point for me, and it’s one of the reasons I’m still in this space.
Rocky’s getting on up there in years, and he doesn’t make it into the office as much as he once did, but it’s still nice to know he’s got a home away from home.
I find that the overall aesthetic of our space leaves a lasting impression on clients and keeps them coming back. More than a few of them have told me they actually enjoy coming here, which isn’t a sentiment commonly expressed toward an office, and several have even asked to use our space to meet with their own clients. (I happily obliged.)
What makes ours different? In one word: everything. We have a vibrant—but not overdone!—color scheme, with lots of bold red tones (my personal favorite). We’ve knocked down walls to create good flow and openness among our employees. We eschew dull “corporate” art and insipid motivational posters, preferring idiosyncratic, postmodern paintings, sculpture and multimedia that mostly center on our area of expertise: buildings.
It’s not about impressing people with our sense of style and taste. OK, maybe a bit. But what we’re really aiming for is a space that encourages free thinking and fun, which comes back to culture. And if our design turns a few folks off … well, they probably aren’t the ones we want to be working with anyway.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying everyone needs to do exactly what I did and set up an office in a unique building in the middle of a major metro area and put avant-garde art all over the walls. Whatever choices you make about your work space should similarly support your company’s unique brand and culture. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the equivalent of pablum: a flavorless, boring office that provides little mental and spiritual sustenance to those who occupy it. No matter how low the rent may be, the space is not worth the price.
Howard Ecker founded Howard Ecker + Co. in 1975 as the first real estate company in Chicago devoted exclusively to representing tenants. He has spoken throughout the U.S. about real estate issues relevant to startups, most recently at a panel discussion for Denver Startup Week (“Beyond the Idea… How and Where Will You Office?”). Notable projects include successfully negotiating a built-to-suit space for the Shure Brothers corporate headquarters, securing 200,000 sq ft in two leases for client BDO in Midtown Manhattan, and founding Ecker Green, a company that uses a behavioral-change model to help businesses embrace energy-efficient operations. Howard started his career at Cushman & Wakefield and at Arthur Rubloff & Co.