James Pitts, Head of Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group
This series gets inside the minds of CRE decision makers, the people who shape the industry by defining investment strategies, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.
When James Pitts founded Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group last year, he focused on staffing his new real estate services company with experienced minority and black professionals with the goal of becoming one of the largest minority-owned companies in the United States. Pitts is based in Atlanta but is now licensed in 22 states and has offices in Detroit; Dallas; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Denver; Los Angeles; and Philly.
Pitts has had a varied career in the commercial real estate industry, having worked for names such as JLL and Grubb & Ellis for 26 years. Pitts previously worked for Motorola, an engineer by trade, and earlier in his career led workplace strategy at Johnson Controls Global Workplace Solutions.
The following has been edited slightly for style and clarity.
Courtesy of James Pitts
James Pitts, Director of the Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group
Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said, “The time to buy is when there is blood in the streets”. Where’s the blood today?
Pitts: We are at a turning point right now. With the Fed trying to stem inflation by raising interest rates and the uncertainty Europe is facing from the Russia-Ukraine war and the impact on food and energy costs, we are in choppy waters. In addition, the People’s Bank of China announced for the second time this year that it will reduce the amount of foreign currency banks that banks are required to hold, potentially easing weakening pressure on the yuan, which has fallen to a two-year low against the US dollar is the last few weeks.
Uncertainty surrounding office real estate is rife in the US domestic commercial real estate markets as occupiers seek to understand where the “new normal” will settle in a post-Covid world. There is a lot of vacant/sublet shadow space on the market that is not visible. Amazon is withdrawing from its industrial presence. FedEx just announced that it is seeing its business slow down over the holiday season. Housing construction is cooling off quickly, which means anyone who’s bought recently could be upside down. The next six to twelve months will be very interesting.
One bright spot is what’s happening around electric vehicles, with the influx of business and investment in technology and infrastructure. It’s going to be a growth industry as the effects of climate change make it increasingly clear that our current way of using energy is unsustainable.
So for now, it’s better to watch and wait for opportunities than to enter the market and become a victim for the benefit of others.
You can quote me on this: “If there’s blood in the streets, don’t get out too early and add yours.”
Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right?
Pitts: Companies sometimes view Tier 2 relationships for diverse/small CRE firms as a more advantageous opportunity than it is. Unless the client and Tier 1 partner fully and thoughtfully engage, it becomes a check-the-box exercise, with the Tier 2 partner potentially getting less desirable projects and working three times as hard for the same dollar like the Tier 1 partner. This agreement does not drive the expansion of the Tier 2 partner’s business nor the transformation of the CRE industry into a more inclusive environment.
Courtesy of James Pitts
James Pitts, Director of Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group, along with his wife Anne Marie.
Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?
Pitts: That is hard. I’ve been in real estate for so long it’s hard to think beyond. I got a chance to play professional basketball after college in Europe but decided to work as an engineer and then played basketball for free three or four hours six days a week for the next 20+ years so maybe I would have should go to Europe. I love all kinds of music except classical and was used to DJing at big 70’s parties which was great fun. But my enduring passion is traveling and meeting new people. So if there’s anything I could do, it would be to work as a travel photographer and get paid to travel and connect with people all over the world.
Bisnow: If you could make one change in the industry, what would it be?
Pitts: Disprove the perception that choosing the largest global companies is always the safest and best choice for CRE decision makers. What ultimately counts is the quality of the team you work with.
Bisnow: What would you do differently from the beginning of your career?
Pitts: How many bites does it take to get into the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? First: Invest in real estate earlier. Second, get to the store earlier. Third, talk to wealthy people about how they are creating generational wealth earlier.
Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth caring for and who just isn’t a good fit for you?
Pitts: First, are you willing to come forward and ask for coaching? Second, are they willing to listen and follow the coaching, or are they just looking for validation of their current decision-making process? Third, are they willing to return someone else’s favor and pass it on?
Courtesy of James Pitts
James Pitts, director of Greenwood Commercial Real Estate Group, and members of his former Georgia youth soccer team at a 2022 state championship soccer game.
Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the Metaverse? Is it relevant to CRE?
Pitts: In my opinion, the Metaverse is great for gaming, leisure and learning. I have an investment in a Metaverse company. I think people with interests in selling the next thing sometimes overwhelm the usefulness of the metaverse.
Maybe I just don’t get it, but I’d rather be in Valencia, Spain, drinking real wine, eating amazing meals, and walking the streets feeling the cool Mediterranean winds swirling around than wearing a headset in my living room that has to be recharged every few hours. As Chris Rock said, you can drive a car with your feet instead of your hands, but why should you?
Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting effects of the pandemic on CRE?
Pitts: The unexamined expectation and requirement that people come to the office to work has been peeled off in some cases. Now that people have had the experience of working from anywhere and living mixed lives with results-driven work products, it can be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
Bisnow: As you know, there’s a massive conversation going on right now about bringing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address these voices and this movement in your own organization?
Pitts: Right now, the focus seems to be on entry-to-mid positions rather than C-suite level changes. Greenwood CRE addresses this issue through its nature and design. This conversation has been going on for more than 20 years and there still seems to be little progress in this area. Once people are truly willing to make that change, it will change rapidly. Until then – it’s a circular discussion – we will go back this way.
Bisnow: So that’s the weekend interview. What is your typical weekend routine?
Pitts: Up until three years ago, I used to spend every weekend traveling to football matches across Georgia as a coach of a top team in Georgia. After retiring from football I work most weekends to plan for the next week. Before work, I do a few workouts and a short and long run on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
When I get a chance, we drive our Airstream RV to Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga or Asheville, NC, sit out under the stars, unplug for a few days, and if I’m lucky, we’ll see us a soccer game or two on my iPad.