By Al Barbarino
When Joe Harbert left Cushman & Wakefield in May, the firm was riding high, basking in the previous year’s successes.
Leaving after eight years to join Colliers International seemed like the last thing anyone expected. It was the furthest thing from 65-year-old Harbert’s own mind.
“We had a wildly successful year,” Harbert said. “We hit number one, the revenue was through the roof. In the midst of all that you’re not thinking about leaving your firm or what’s going on with your career. You’re just not. You’re too engaged.”
As COO of the firm, Harbert helped build C&W into a premier office leasing brokerage in Manhattan, New Jersey, Weschester and Fairfield. Under his leadership, the firm established a well-balanced investment banking and consulting practice, too.
“When I got there in 2004, they were not very collaborative,” Harbert said. “But they became much more collaborative because, I think, they realized that they could change how they did things. And they did change how they did things. And I’m very proud of what they accomplished.”
But a fateful meeting with Dylan Taylor, CEO of Colliers’ U.S. operations, did get Harbert thinking about his options.
At that first meeting, during which Dylan spoke casually of a new opportunity at Colliers, Harbert said he “thought nothing of it.”
But the more Taylor talked, the more Harbert listened. And soon came a second meeting. Then a third.
“This guy was pretty persistent,” Harbert said. “The picture he painted of what he needed was very appealing to me. An east coast role really appealed to me. I’m an east coast guy. I’m a New Yorker,” Harbert, born and raised in Queens, said.
Harbert had been recruiting talent himself for years and, after several meetings with Taylor, he realized the he himself was the perfect recruit.
“The basic rule of recruiting is that people who are tremendously engaged, satisfied and still have goals to achieve generally don’t leave their post,” Harbert said. “When I recruit, I look for people who have that feeling that they’ve maxed out. They’ve accomplished what they could, but they have other things to do. I can say that, frankly, I felt the same way.”
As president of Colliers’ eastern region, Harbert will focus on tightening the company’s grip on the east coast. New York and Washington, D.C. will be focal points, he said.
The firm is looking to grow further in Boston, Atlanta, Richmond, Virginia, Philly, and Florida, to name a few, building on operations led by top brokers and executives like Leon Manoff, Bob Friedman, Bob Tunis and Michael Cohen, Harbert said.
“We have a great core to build around,” Harbert said. “When you build these things, you have the opportunity to go up against the big guys and take them out one by one, or you can build your business. This is a profit-driven business, we want to grow the revenues and make a profit. But there’s lots of ways to make money without being the number one firm.”
Harbert currently oversees roughly 240 people in the New York metro area, 70 in Boston, and 40 in D.C. He plans to add dozens more to the roster, and it is “reasonable” to expect a new Manhattan office some time in the next year, he said.
If the last six weeks at Colliers is any indication, it won’t be difficult to find top talent. Harbert said he’s already received calls from between 50 and 60 brokers inquiring about opportunities at the firm.
“I’ve got to beat them away with sticks,” he joked. “Apparently, I have a decent reputation and the fact that I made this personal choice to come here for my own opportunity has made a statement and resonated with people I’ve grown with in the business. While some of it is institutional, some of it is personal. So that’s very gratifying.”
Once Harbert is done meeting everyone at the firm and conveying what some of his goals are to his colleagues, he will fall back on what he knows best — dealing with people, as he’s done throughout his career inside and outside of real estate.
He has worked as a teacher and for non-governmental organizations. He ran a research institute at the City University of New York and worked for the Board of Education and the MTA, where he got his first taste for real estate in the city agency’s real estate department.
He also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, three master’s degrees — in political science, education and philosophy — and a P.H.D. in political science.
“If I ever write a book it will be called ‘Management as a Helping Profession.’ That’s just me. That’s how I approach things,” he said. “My style is to listen to people, support them, to get them to think about guiding their own future, from a vision of the future, as opposed to meandering through life based on what was done in the past.”
“My approach here at Colliers, and everywhere I’ve ever been, is to take what you have, because that’s the hand you’re dealt and you decide what can you make this into,” he added. “I’m having a great time. It’s a little bit like open-field running because there’s so much that we can accomplish. I feel energized about that.”