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HR in the Car - Episode 19: "It's Not About Real Estate, It's About People"

Your business space has a drastic impact on your company's identity and brand. In this episode of HR in the Car, Todd Stevens talks to us about the many elements involved in choosing the right space to invite your people to work with you on a daily basis. We walk through Todd’s journey into the commercial real estate space and learn about his impact on local business culture and engagement, through designing and developing the right space for their organizations. Additionally, we learned something new about our neighbor, that he is a long-standing, volunteer firefighter in the Town of Colonie.   

About Todd

Todd is a Vice President with Cresa and has managed the Albany office’s accounts since 2017. As their clients’ advocate, he provides guidance in implementing real estate strategy to meet their operational and financial goals. His specialties include strategic planning, market analysis, site selection, financial analysis and integrated transaction management. Todd has been an active volunteer firefighter in the Town of Colonie since the age of 14 having served as a captain and lieutenant over the years. He served on the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity Capital District for eight years and held the offices of treasurer and board president. 

Of Special Interest

Shaker Road-Loudonville Fire Department
Habitat for Humanity Capital District 

Todd Stevens
Vice President
Cresa Albany


Voiceover: Welcome to HR in the Car with Miriam Dushane and Tom Schin of Alaant Workforce Solutions, where exciting HR professionals and business leaders share laughter, insider stories, and maybe even a few tears about HR in today's world. Buckle up for the best half hour of your week.

Tom Schin: All right, so this week we have Mr. August 2023 as our special guest. Do you want to take a guess?

Miriam Dushane: Well, I know it's Todd from Cresa.

Tom Schin: Yeah. We joke a little bit here because one of the funny things we found out about him is he's a volunteer firefighter.

Miriam Dushane: Well, hat's not the funny thing. That's an amazing thing.

Tom Schin: It is. The calendar is the funny thing.

Miriam Dushane: The funny thing is the calendar that we just learned, after the fact, that he happens to be Mr. August 2023 for his local fire department. So, that's pretty cool.

Tom Schin: Yeah. And so, we talked today a little bit about how the real estate side of things really is interwoven into how a business decides what's good for their people, what's going to keep them in the office or bring them to the office versus being forced to come back in. So, let's listen in. We'll go through a few questions here and learn a little bit more about Todd.

Miriam Dushane: Todd, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

Todd Stevens: Thank you for having me.

Miriam Dushane: So Todd, tell us a little bit about your role, what you do for Cresa, and tell us a little bit about what Cresa is as well, because I don't know if everybody would know what that is.

Todd Stevens: Sure. Cresa is the world's largest commercial real estate advisory firm for occupiers. Fancy terms for we represent tenants and businesses looking to buy space for them to operate out of. And so, what I do for them is I'm a transaction manager. I do the brokerage side of things in addition to all the different service lines that we offer our clients.

Miriam Dushane: Gotcha. How has it been since the pandemic? I mean we talk a lot about hybrid work environments, or remote work, or people downsizing spaces, and leases, commercial lease opportunities being increased because of the pandemic. Tell us what you're seeing here locally about as it relates to all of that.

Todd Stevens: I remember having a conversation with my partner, Zach, on the second day of the pandemic. I was sitting on my front porch and a large client of ours said, "We're not signing our lease." And that meant a significant commission to us was not coming in. I had a moment of panic, and I said, "Oh my God, I'm going to get fired. Nobody's going to lease space anymore. There's just no room for this right now, and it's all over for right now." And went through some struggles that way early on in the pandemic. I remember actually you were a guest speaker on a panel for the Leadership Tech Valley program.

Miriam Dushane: Okay, sure. Wow, that was a while ago.

Todd Stevens: And you were talking about not needing your office anymore and stuff like that, very early on. And I remember my co-chair, because I co-chaired the program at the time, texted me and said, "You must want to kill her right now." And I texted her back, I said, "No, I'll help anybody downsize their space." And that was really the first time I thought about, well, if that's the right thing, right, then that's what we'll help them do. Because, we're, I feel like a lot of folks in commercial real estate are about the transaction, we're much more about the relationship and the business, and what is best for your business, and we'll help you do it from a real estate side. And so, that's really actually the first time that I thought about it is, well, if they need to downsize, we'll help them do it, or whatever it is that a business needs. If they don't need any space and they need us to help negotiate to get out, if they need some rent relief, we did a lot of that during COVID.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, sure.

Todd Stevens: And so, whatever it is. Fast-forward now and what we're seeing is all kinds of different things. And it really depends on the business. And even in some larger businesses, it depends on the different departments and what they need. We've seen a lot of call centers go by the wayside, that because they can track everything that they're doing. They have customer satisfaction surveys, they know how many dials they're making, they know how long they're on the phone, they know all of that sort of stuff. And it can be tracked, and measured, and you've got KPIs, and it's easy. The example I like to give on the other side is marketing. And I'm not picking on marketing folks, but do we know if the campaign that they came up with at home versus in the office was as good as they would've come up with in the office?

Miriam Dushane: Sure.

Todd Stevens: Don't know. And so, what that's really led us to help companies figure out is what's best for their company, for their people, and that it's really not about real estate right now, it's about people. And that's where we all got together and started having some conversations about, well, a lot of the stuff we're talking to companies about is their people and what they want to do for work, where they want to work, how often they want to work, and what work they want to do where. And you must be talking to your candidates about that and started to find some synergies. And here we are on the podcast.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. Definitely. It's interesting because, so a couple months ago I shared with you that I was going to do an online webinar about real estate and HR. At the time, I didn't realize that it was some executives from Cresa that were actually the people running the webinar, presenting on the webinar. And then, he had said to me, "Well, what was it? How was it?" And I said, "I haven't listened to it yet. After I listen to it, I'll let you know." And I emailed him. I was like, "Dude, these were Cresa people that were doing this webinar." I was like, "And it was excellent, and here's all the things they said, check it out." One of the things they talked about, and I think the trend for HR people to realize, is they are involved in the real estate transaction. And that's a new concept for a lot of people, because HR typically aren't involved in stuff like that. You think finance, you think operations. But the reality of the situation is it's not about real estate, it's about people, and then finding the right real estate to fit the needs of the company, and ultimately those employees and those people.

Todd Stevens: That's exactly right. We are starting to work with HR people on almost every client team.

Miriam Dushane: See.

Todd Stevens: Whereas, it was sporadic before is because they were in upper management and had some role in decision making, but it wasn't a people first decision. And now companies are realizing this really is about our people and new talent trying to bring people in. And what does our space say about us? And what we do in our space, say about our company and how their experience is going to be with us?

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Tom Schin: I was going to ask you about that in terms of the questions then versus the questions you get now out of the gate and the things that come into play. And I'm sure that's part of it. But are there other elements that are the starting point conversations beyond the price point? I know that's always a question. But the things that people need to know to start to give you information that you can say, "All right, now I've got my ball of clay, and I can start to mold what you're after?"

Todd Stevens: Interestingly, the price question is not forefront like it used to be. Not to say that people are willing to spend undefined amount, there's still things that need to fit a budget and whatnot, but it's not the first question anymore. It's about, what should we do in our space? Because people aren't coming in, how do we get people to come in? It's really those kinds of questions. Because I've heard so many CEOs say, Well, if it were up to me, everyone would be in." And I wonder, well who is it up to then, if it's not up to you? What I think they're really saying is, "I can't just force people to come in, because"-

Miriam Dushane: That's exactly.

Todd Stevens: -"That may cause a mass exodus," or this or that. Because someone else is going to offer them more of what they want. And so, how can we make what we do work for everyone and not upset the apple cart, but really work for what management and leadership wants and work for what people, the staff, want to do. So, that's really where we're starting to talk to them. We're starting to ask questions like, well, what work do you want them to do in the office and why? Because we've found people don't want to do the same work they can do at home in the office.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Todd Stevens: They don't want to come in and bang away on their computer by themself in the office, like they do at home, because they can do that at home.

Tom Schin: Right. We hear about that. People doing Zooms in the office. They're like, "Why?"

Miriam Dushane: That's asinine.

Todd Stevens: Right. Or just sitting by-

Miriam Dushane: I've heard about... Yeah.

Todd Stevens: ... themself in the office because they're required to be in the office, and they're just doing heads down work at their desk. And I could do that at home. So, it's being intentional about what they're going to do in the office. You guys are a very good example of that. You're our neighbors, so we see it. But you come in and you do things surrounded about the team, not about the work necessarily. You're doing work there, but a lot of it is team building, it's camaraderie, it's culture, it's fun, it's centered around food most of the time.

Miriam Dushane: Tell me about it.

Todd Stevens: And I'm always lurking for leftovers.

Tom Schin: There weren't any leftovers the last time.

Miriam Dushane: But there wasn't.

Tom Schin: No.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, wow.

Todd Stevens: Sad, sad, sad.

Miriam Dushane: We're getting better at buying, because that was starting to bother me. We had too much.

Tom Schin: We sent people home with a box of lettuce.

Miriam Dushane: I ate Olive Garden for a freaking week one time because there was so much of it. And I was like, this can't all go to waste. I was listening to my mother saying, "There's people starving"-

Todd Stevens: Starving people, yes.

Miriam Dushane: "In Africa and everywhere, in our backyard." I can't throw this stuff out. So, go ahead. Sorry.

Todd Stevens: That's okay. No, but it's about engaging people and making intentional, the work that they do in the office.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Todd Stevens: Is it training? Is it team building? Is it just communal? We are hearing a lot that it is about food, bringing people in, or that's what draws people in. One of our clients that we've helped them out in a couple different locations and they say, here locally, they don't need a solution right now, because the only time they get more than three, four, five people in the office is on the days that they offer lunch. So, that draws people in. But it all also helps to tie into their culture and how they work together. They are on Zoom with their clients a lot. So, people don't want to come in to... They have an open space, and be a Zoom, and there's other people in this doing the same thing.

Miriam Dushane: Loud and... Yeah.

Todd Stevens: And so, doing that from home is actually more conducive for them in the way they work, given where they work. And I think I answered your question.

Tom Schin: Yeah. No, and we've had other conversations where the question really is, what are you doing to invite the people in? And as you put it, food's a great motivator, especially for those who are starving in other continents.

Miriam Dushane: Well, and the other thing is, so the term that I got from that webinar, from those Cresa executives, was, how is your company earning the commute? And that really resonated with my team, because Amy on my team and Nick on my team, they add that to their intake call with their clients. Okay, what's your working structure? How do you do it? And if they say, "We want people to be in the office every day," their follow- up question is, "All right, please tell us how you're earning that commute so we can sell it to applicants." And that's like a light bulb, like a complete mind shift change. Because, I still think employers, like you said, the CEO, "Well, if I had my way..." And the reality of the world is employers are recognizing, even if they're coming kicking and screaming to the table, recognizing that it's not just about them anymore, it's about the employees. And they don't have a company if they don't have those employees.

Todd Stevens: And I think one of the things my colleagues in local commercial real estate said is, if you ask someone in 2019, early 2020, why do you have an office? The answer is because that's where we work. By and large, the remote work has existed for a long time, large companies, things like that. But amongst most of our local companies here, it's because that's where we work. And that's not the answer anymore. So, what is the answer? Why do you have the office and why do you want to have an office? And why do you want people to come in? And what is in it for them and how are you earning their commute?

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. Definitely.

Tom Schin: How did you get into this world? How did you get your start in this whole... I mean-

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, because you've been with Cresa a long time. I think you told me it was well over 15 years.

Todd Stevens: No, no, no. It's five and a half years.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, I'm sorry.

Tom Schin: He's much younger than that.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, that's true. That's true.

Todd Stevens: No, five and a half years with Cresa. But I always had an inkling towards real estate. When I was a kid, I doodled buildings, I didn't doodle people, things like that. I doodled buildings. And then later in life I said, kind of interested in real estate. I went to college as an architecture major, that lasted a year. Because, I knew that that's not what I wanted to do every day. I do enjoy the design aspect of it, love to look over the shoulder of our workplace designers and see what they're doing and lend some thoughts that sometimes are worthwhile. I've flipped some houses with my dad through the years, but that wasn't, say, a calling for a career. I've worked for a law firm doing real estate. I worked for a title agency. Then I ended up in banking. And just never really found the right thing. Always thought, hey, I want to do something in commercial real estate and I don't know what. I ended up meeting Zach through a mutual friend, who he served on a board with. And she said, "You keep talking about commercial real estate, you ought to meet Zach." We met. And it took a couple of years before the right thing emerged with Cresa. But eventually, he had a spot, brought me on board, and five and a half years later we're still going.

Miriam Dushane: There you go. There you go. Maybe it was Zach 15 years with Cresa.

Todd Stevens: Zach's been, yeah, 15, 20 years he's been in the business, yeah.

Miriam Dushane: Okay. That's where I got my-

Todd Stevens: That's what it was.

Miriam Dushane: - dates and my years mixed up. Sorry.

Todd Stevens: That's okay. He has far more hair than I do too.

Miriam Dushane: He really does.

Todd Stevens: To get us confused.

Tom Schin: We're all jealous.

Todd Stevens: Yeah.

Tom Schin: We're all jealous.

Miriam Dushane: I think he has more hair than me.

Todd Stevens: That could be.

Tom Schin: You mentioned some of the other team members that you have in terms of looking over their shoulder. Talk to us a little about, just in terms of some of the things that Cresa does and what the value that you bring.

Miriam Dushane: I think that's a great question. Because, you think, oh, broker, that's it, right?

Tom Schin: Right. You're thinking contact sign and-

Miriam Dushane: But you have actually a great team, so talk us through that a little bit more.

Todd Stevens: Sure. So, my role is the brokerage piece, which we like to think of as being sandwiched in the middle of what we do best for our clients. But what it really starts with is workplace strategy and design. And we have two folks who do... They are interior designers by trade and by training. And they do a lot of strategy work to figure out all this stuff we've been talking about. What is that you're doing in the office and why? And then, informing, well, how much space do you need, and what are those spaces, and how do they interact together? Which leads to conceptual design of space, what we call test fits, and trying to figure out exactly what you need from your space. And then, a lot of other things too, like what's important to your team. We find out natural light is a really big thing that comes back from strategy sessions with people.

Miriam Dushane: I mean, come on. Right?

Todd Stevens: Yeah. Well, it's-

Miriam Dushane: I don't even know how you could work in a space where you didn't have a lot of natural light. And I know there's a lot of, even around our area, older business offices. And my husband-

Tom Schin: Where the windows are-

Miriam Dushane: I said him the other day... He works, he calls it, he's like, "Ma, I'm in a warehouse. I have no windows in my office." Because I said, "Did you see that rain the other day? Did you hear that rain?" He's like, "I couldn't hear it. And I definitely didn't see it." I was like, "I would die if I didn't have a window.

Todd Stevens: Yeah. And there are a lot of office buildings that were built at a time when it was thought that small windows and everything was an energy efficient way to build and design a building. And so, there's a lot of people whose offices are in them, and they don't want that situation anymore if they can help it. So, that comes up a lot amongst interviews that we do, people's access to natural light, walking paths, things like that.
And I think it's also born out of a lot of stuff with COVID. Because, when people were working from home, they were probably had a lot of light sitting in their dining room, kitchen, wherever, and they'd go out for walks. I know I took a ton of walks in 2020 that summer, because our son was home with us too, and we're trying to get out of the house a little bit. And we saw all our neighbors were walking all the time. And so, I think it's born out of that. People really like that and they want that as part of their work life now.
We work on all of those sorts of things to figure out, all right, what is it that the client needs and wants out of their future space, whether it's their current space and reconfigured to suit their needs now, or whether it's relocating to a different space. So, they do a lot of that work on the workplace solution side. Then we take that, as transaction managers, take those needs to the market, and go out and find alternatives to where they currently are or look at where they are currently leasing and try to drive the best lease terms, if it's a lease, or try and find a property for them to buy to occupy, and bring a transaction to the table that works for their business.
And then, on the other side is the implementation side, our project managers who oversee construction projects from a timeline and budget standpoint for the client. So, making sure that everything happens when it's supposed to, that they're paying the right amount for it, that they're bringing together the right team outside of, say, a contractor's scope of vendors, movers, bidding those things out and making sure that everything is coordinated so that when they're supposed to move in, they move in and everything works. So, real strategy through implementation approach, all integrated through one company, which is really different than you'll see in the market.

Miriam Dushane: Definitely.

Tom Schin: I'm curious, so now going into client situations, when you're doing that discovery, if you had to describe, "Hey client, I want you to think of these perfect answers," what are those answers coming back to you? Like music to your ears, this is somebody that can help who's motivated to do things, what does that look like nowadays for you going into a situation and being so excited, I'm like, "This is the prize project that I've been after"?

Todd Stevens: It's really a lot of what we've been talking about. It's those clients who realize it's about their people and are willing to get their input and not hold that all close to the vest like they maybe used to. Is to say, okay, I need to get certain levels or a certain amount down the company involved into the situation to get their input. Because, there tends to be, or there can be, a lot of friction between staff and leadership. And through the strategy and discovery process, we're finding that we can reduce that friction, because people are feeling heard and what they want out of their workplace is going to be incorporated in the end result, or at least that's their hope. And so, it's reducing a lot of that friction. To really answer the question, it's about the people who realize it's about their people and are willing to get them involved in the process so that we know it's going to end up in the best result for everybody.

Tom Schin: Awesome. What are you doing outside of work? We'd like to talk to folks a little bit about some of their community involvement, some of the projects, the side hobbies, just more of a personal nature. What does Todd doing outside of Cresa?

Todd Stevens: From a community involvement standpoint, I'm a fifth generation volunteer firefighter.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, that's awesome. Thank you.

Todd Stevens: I've been doing that since I was 14. If you want to do the math, that's 27 years.

Miriam Dushane: Well, we weren't going to, but you just did.

Todd Stevens: Yeah, no problem. So, it's been a long time. And so, my parents met because their fathers were both involved in the volunteer fire service. They've known each other since my mother was four. It was just one of those things that comes with the territory of being in my family. So, I've been doing that for a long time. I like to say that I quiet quit the fire department for a couple years and not really realizing it. But because I had young kids, I still have young kids, but in a place now where my wife has enabled me to participate a little bit more this year. I've tried to get back into it a little bit more.

Tom Schin: You're thinking the kids at some point are going to need a spouse of some sort, so no better place to go.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, right?

Todd Stevens: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.

Miriam Dushane: Arrange marriage through the fire department.

Todd Stevens: Yeah, sure. But the kids love to go to the firehouse.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, sure.

Todd Stevens: I take my daughter to the firehouse. Almost every week after her gymnastics class we go and get her some lemonade, or she calls it lemolade, and just drive a fire truck real quick.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Todd Stevens: And so that's-

Miriam Dushane: That's wonderful. I love that.

Tom Schin: I think that's a grownup's dream too. You see the firetrucks coming through the parade and you see the little kids that are in there throwing the candy and you're like, "I want to sit up there."

Miriam Dushane: I want to do that.

Todd Stevens: You can. Over 70% of the firefighters in America are volunteers.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah.

Todd Stevens: So, you can, if you want.

Miriam Dushane: And we still have a shortage of them, and we need more.

Todd Stevens: Yes. We could always use more. Anybody who wants to volunteer, come give me a call.

Miriam Dushane: That's wonderful.

Todd Stevens: We'll find a place for you. So, that's been my community involvement of late. I spent a number of years on the Habitat for Humanity Board, which was tremendously rewarding. I helped the staff, did everything, but we really kind of oversaw the construction of a lot of homes for first time home buyers and people who really needed a hand up in housing. And so, that was great. Outside of that, I have a wife and two young kids, and we spend a ton of time traveling, and just trying to be adventurous, and fill the kids' lives with all the fun things.

Miriam Dushane: Awesome.

Todd Stevens: Yeah. That's me outside of Cresa.

Tom Schin: Favorite trip?

Todd Stevens: I'll give you two. My honeymoon was tremendous. We did Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome over about 10 days. So, two to three days in each city. Amazing. And this summer, we had a week in The Cape, and it was just a blast. We just had so much fun. The kids enjoyed the beach, they were great. The weather was perfect. Yeah, that one really sticks out. And it's not recency bias, because we've vacationed since then. But yeah, that was just a great vacation.

Tom Schin: Everyone that says says they love The Cape. And I was always reticent to go out there. I went out there once on the inside part of The Cape and we had a great time. It was more about the weather. I don't even remember what the weather was, but we rented the house and-

Miriam Dushane: Perfect.

Tom Schin: I had a fantastic time.

Miriam Dushane: All right. As we wrap up today, we ask everybody roadside assistance kit. So, everybody's got a roadside assistance kit, obviously in their cars, so in case there's a breakdown or you need an emergency, whatever. But if you think about from a work perspective, either a mindset, or a tool, or a technology, or a mentor, or somebody that helps you get through the week, get through your work, keep you maybe focused on the customer at hand type of a thing. Anything come to mind along those lines?

Todd Stevens: I'll give you a cliche one, but my phone. And it's not just about being connected and being able to take a phone call or check an email, but it's about all the different things. It's about being able to snap a picture of my kids at any given moment. And pulling up those pictures, the Apple feature where it just gives you memory pictures, man, sometimes they really hit you with some way back pictures of the kids. Not that they're that old and just, "Oh my God, remember when that young?" And maybe just get you through a rough spot in the day. I will look at pictures sometimes when I'm like having a tough day. So, I love my kids.

Miriam Dushane: You're a little softy.

Todd Stevens: Yeah. I love my kids.

Miriam Dushane: I love that. That's so sweet.

Tom Schin: Someday they're going to listen to this and be like, "Aw."

Miriam Dushane: Exactly.

Todd Stevens: Someday. If podcasts are around when they-

Miriam Dushane: I know, right?

Todd Stevens: Who knows what the next thing is. Yeah, so just being able to stay connected. And like I said, not just phone calls and emails for work, because sometimes those get distracting when you are spending time with the kids and something pops up, and you're like, "Oh, hey, what was thin? Let me see what my watch just buzzed me about," when you shouldn't.

Miriam Dushane: Right.

Todd Stevens: But it's about that. Or being able to get in touch with someone. I probably talk to my father every day. I call him, he calls me for some things, just a minute. Yeah, just being able to stay connected to people, and work, and all those things. I'll give you that. If you looked in my trunk, you'd find roadside assistance kit, but you'd also find something that needs to be returned to Lowe's. I think there's a couple things in there right now.

Miriam Dushane: Always.

Tom Schin: Always.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, definitely.

Tom Schin: Sans receipt. Don't tell them when I bought it or what I paid for it.

Miriam Dushane: You're secret's safe.

Tom Schin: Yes, thank you.

Miriam Dushane: Todd, thank you so much. It was wonderful having you here today. Again, I was just talking about this on one of our other podcasts that we had never had an L& D professional. And this is our first real estate professional talking. Again, we're all connected. Everything everyone does, regardless of what their job title is, it's all about people. It's all connected to HR. And so, again, I think you set an amazing example for people to hear that real estate is the people business too. So thank you so much for joining us today, really appreciate it. It's been great.

Tom Schin: No, thanks for having me on. This has been fun.

Miriam Dushane: So again, what's the common theme here, Tom?

Tom Schin: All about the people.

Miriam Dushane: People. People, people. People.

Tom Schin: Right?

Miriam Dushane: So, we have a real estate commercial transaction manager. And what did he talk about? The people.

Tom Schin: Right. And it's not even about the transactions. We talk about getting caught in titles.

Miriam Dushane: Yep.

Tom Schin: It's completely about people, and their engagement, and what they need. And it is really about asking them the questions. And he pointed to that directly and indirectly throughout the conversation.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. If you are an employer in an organization that would love to have your people come back to work and be in the office more frequently, how are you earning that commute? Something you have to think about. Because that's what we have to focus on, earning the commute and making it the- What is the why, and why do you want them there? So, it was a great show. Take a look at the show notes on our website, You can learn a little bit more about Todd, his volunteer fireman work, and his work he's done with Habitat for Humanity.