By Al Barbarino
When Michael T. Cohen looks at his floor of brokers, he sees a group of clients.
While increasing revenues and gaining new business are as important to the president of the New York Tri-State Region at Colliers International as they are to the next executive, it’s the retention of his “clients” that matters most.
It’s like running a hospital, he believes. “I’m running Mt. Sinai,” Cohen said. “I am running an operation and every one of my clients is precious to me. If they don’t like things at Mt. Sinai, they can pick up and move to Lenox Hill.”
Cohen and a handful of other “player-coaches” oversee a group of 117 brokers in the Tri-State region. They have added 22 brokers since the beginning of 2011. The fact that the brokers have chosen the Collier’s platform and culture is extremely important to Cohen.
“When I recruit somebody from one of my competitors, that’s the highest compliment of all,” he said. “I don’t see that reflected in the bottom line, but I know when I’ve brought those people in that I have created potential. I’m building for the long-term and for the future.”
Because he and the other player-coaches are in the trenches along with their brokers, he called Colliers the “quintessential player-coach environment.” The four executives — Cohen, chairman Robert L. Freedman, and Andrew Roos and Brian Given, both vice chairmen — have also worked together since 1981. Their common goals are the glue that keeps the ship tight.
Cohen is an accomplished dealmaker in his own right and serves as an advisor to some of the nation’s top companies, including Bank of NY Mellon and Wells Fargo. Over the last year he was part of the leasing teams that transacted a 163,310 s/f lease at The Argonaut Building at 224 West 57th Street for Open Society Foundations, a grant making foundation founded by billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, and 85,460 s/f at 685 Third Avenue for accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP.
“We understand what they need, when they need it, why they need it and we make sure they get it,” Cohen said. “These guys live on the edge. They have clients they have to keep happy. They have brutal competitors. Only if you’re out on that edge yourself can you really understand.”
Cohen was a driving force in converting a real estate partnership between GVA Williams and Grimley into a globally recognized brand, when the firm that eventually took the name FirstService Williams became Colliers International in May of 2010.
Originally a small, family-run business, the firm is now a key stronghold of a global powerhouse with annual revenues of roughly $1.5 billion, 12,500 employees and 510 offices in 61 countries.
“We were the little engine that could,” Cohen said. “With our very modest budget and skeletal resources, we put together what I would consider the best of the global independents on the planet. We felt that in order to truly compete, we needed to find another vehicle because you need to be a single company in this planet today.”
What attracted Cohen to Collier’s was its partnership structure with its regional offices, where local management is invested in and partnered with the firm.
“We were able to retain partnership status on the local level, meaning a continued focus on service,” he said. “It matters whose name is on the door and we are still a business about services and personal relationships. We aren’t manufacturing widgets or hamburgers.”
Cohen is optimistic about the future, despite what he dubbed a current “Boomcession” — a boom and recession at the same time — that’s occurring in New York City, as the finance industry shrinks and the communications, media and digital companies grow. The new challenges are no surprise for the industry veteran who’s been at it for more than three decades.
“When you’re in this business, you eat and breathe and sleep it,” he said. “There is no down time until your clients and your brokers have gone to sleep for the night.”