Shoe Leather and A Smile Broker battles real estate slowdown

April 18, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

His day starts at 7 a.m. The meetings begin at 8. The selling commences at 9. He has meetings in four downtown buildings before noon and over the phone negotiates a lease for offices in a fifth.

It's brutal on the shoes. It's bliss for the schmooze.

For commercial real estate brokers such as L. Bruce Matthai Jr. of W. C. Pinkard & Associates, it's just another day at the tail end of the recession, his first in 10 years in the business.

"It's been painful," he says. "People are nastier. They're fighting harder over a smaller pool of business. They get hungrier and grabbier."

The recession forced a lot of people out of the real estate business. But the 37-year-old Mr. Matthai learned to roll with the punches.

And he got hold of The Grail -- the listing on 100 E. Pratt St., the IBM-T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. building whose addition opened in 1991.

"Last year was my best year, and this year will beat last year," says the Gilman School graduate and former University of North Carolina lacrosse player.

8 a.m. A management meeting for the 28-story 100 E. Pratt building. Property managers, operations types and Mr. Matthai.

There are the usual wrangles with a new tenant over who will pay for what. These wrangles didn't happen in 1987. Tenants took what landlords gave them. Now a tenant is arguing over who's paying for the miniblinds.

The recession prompted more tenants to hire their own brokers to press their case.

"We call them cooperative deals, but they're really more adversarial. Some of the brokers have become overzealous," Mr. Matthai says later.

He takes the floor to report on sales at the distinctive building, which has leased 166,000 square feet of space -- the equivalent of 11 floors in its tower -- since late 1991. (By comparison, the amount of leased office space downtown declined by 40,000 square feet last year.)

Soon it will lease more, Mr. Matthai reports hopefully. A Chicago-based development firm has signed a letter of intent to move its Baltimore office, taking a floor and a bit more. This could be a million-dollar-plus deal over five years -- still, it's a long way from the letter of intent to a lease.

It all began, Mr. Matthai says later, with a cold call a year earlier.

"You have to make more cold calls," he said. "We're chasing more prospects, but spending less time on the ones that don't look like they're going to be profitable. We're working harder on the good ones."

Hard work is good. But luck helps, too.

As IBM, which occupies three floors of the building, has struggled, T. Rowe Price has been booming. IBM's plan to move out of two floors -- the kind of defection that has devastated other buildings -- won't be fatal. One of those floors last week leased to American Credit Indemnity Co., and T. Rowe Price on Tuesday signed a letter of intent for the other floor.

And to the luck and hard work, add some recession-era common sense. "We said we're going to charge $30 [a square foot, per year]," he said. "We did charge $30. But we'renot charging $30 anymore."

9 a.m. Bruce Matthai visits Bob Trio, a branch administrator at nearby Legg Mason Inc. While waiting, he chats up everybody who walks by.

That's part of brokerage work. His job is to know everybody -- after all, it's not just the corporate real estate administrators who decide to lease offices.

This is "people" work more than technical work. That's good, because Mr. Matthai isn't trained as a technician. He was an American studies major, and went to work at Gilman's development office after college. He met Pinkard Chief Executive Walter D. Pinkard Jr. during a fund-raising campaign.

Mr. Trio has a handful of things on his mind. One problem: Legg Mason's Towson office has been adding brokers and is running out of places for them to sit.

Mr. Matthai says he will try to find other tenants willing to move when their leases expire. Rents are so low so that he might save another tenant money while helping Legg Mason.

The latter is really the point -- Legg Mason is a big client, one with which Mr. Matthai has deals cooking in Baltimore, Towson, Bel Air and York, Pa.

"It's the way you've got to be to survive in the 1990s," he said.

10:40 a.m. After meeting with a group of young lawyers who are looking at a Water Street building, he returns to his office.

Pinkard's digs at 7 East Redwood St. are "owners' offices," the kind you get when you're spending your own money. A view of the side of the Maryland National Bank building. Inexpensive-looking furniture. Diplomas, family pictures and a forlorn plant.

Half a dozen calls are waiting. A Pinkard colleague, Dennis Malone, stops in with financial projections on an Eager Street building the firm is trying to sell.

The conversation turns to the state's bid to buy the office building at 500 N. Calvert St., one of Mr. Matthai's listings. It's another sign of the times -- everyone is looking for government deals.

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