Divided Loyalties

Companies are starting to look twice at their real estate brokers' business relationships.

Brace yourself for a shock: your company’s real estate broker may not always have your best interests at heart.

True, this is probably about as stunning as, say, the revelation that securities analysts once wrote flattering things about banking clients. But, like the complex relationships of the pre–Eliot Spitzer banking industry, conflicts of interest in the real estate business are pervasive and costly, say experts.

Many of these conflicts are well known. For example, it’s common for a brokerage firm helping a company find office space to also work for landlords in the same market. This shouldn’t be surprising: the largest real estate services firms — a group that includes Trammell Crow Co., Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., and CB Richard Ellis Group Inc., among others — derive about two-thirds of their revenues from owners and investors and the other third from occupiers.

Other times, problems can be more obscure — when, for example, a real estate company recommends a vendor in which it has an undisclosed investment. Or when, in a sale-leaseback, a broker’s desire to earn a commission or win business from one of the investors calls the outcome of the auction into question.

Such problems are commonplace and will only become more so as the industry consolidates, claims Michael Silver, president of Equis Corp., a tenant-only real estate services firm based in Chicago (and a competitor of the larger real estate companies). In New York, for example, consolidation has created a situation where general brokers are representing many of the big landlords as well as tenants, says Silver. “There are sweetheart business relationships that companies never see,” he asserts.

Tainted Deals

Many companies now want to uncover those relationships. In the age of Sarbanes-Oxley, companies are less willing to tolerate murkiness in their financials, and this caution extends to corporate real estate. As more CFOs assume oversight of real estate decisions, some are examining their companies’ provider relationships.

One is John N. Spinney Jr., senior vice president and CFO of Investors Financial Services Corp., which provides custody and asset-administration services to financial services companies through its subsidiaries. A couple of years ago, the company’s CEO handed Spinney responsibility for the company’s real estate relationships. When Spinney’s team considered whether to renew the company’s lease in Boston’s John Hancock Tower, it decided that the company’s longtime broker had a conflict: because the firm also represented the landlord, it had little incentive to get the best deal for the company.

Spinney conducted due diligence on other brokerage firms, and chose one whose interests were more closely aligned with the company’s. In the end, Investors Financial Services did obtain more-favorable lease terms than what the previous broker had presented. “People may say that the conflict of interest isn’t a big deal, but I saw it in black and white,” says Spinney.

The problem that Investors Financial Services faced — dual representation by a single brokerage — is not new, of course. The reason it can work against the tenant’s interest is that the local broker may think that keeping the landlord happy is more important than trying to get the best deal for the client.

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