As Bill Hanson recalls, the training program for a young, aspiring commercial real estate broker was rather simple in past decades: “Here’s a desk. Here’s a phone. Go get ’em, kid.”
Today’s approach is slightly more hands-on — and it’s not just the novices who are benefiting.
“They’re being brought along a lot faster, but they’re also making my senior people much better,” said Hanson, president of the real estate services firm NAI James E. Hanson. “They have skillsets that the older generation doesn’t have, it makes people more focused on what they’re doing (and) there’s a lot of synergies that go back and forth in those relationships.”
It was 30 years ago when Bill Hanson found his way into the family business — a decision that didn’t take much convincing.
“I honestly never thought about doing something else,” said Hanson, now president of NAI James E. Hanson. “It seemed like a natural thing to do for me to come into the family business, and it’s been a great experience for me to do that.
“The opportunity to work with my father every day has just been amazing. I know sometimes with family businesses, there are squabbles and that kind of stuff. I can’t remember ever having a cross word with my father, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.”
Bill Hanson’s father, Peter O. Hanson, serves as company chairman and is the son of company founder James E. Hanson. Peter also is the brother of Jon F. Hanson, the venerated chairman of The Hampshire Cos. in Morristown.
With a family name that’s synonymous with New Jersey real estate, it’s only natural to wonder if Bill Hanson’s own children will enter the business. He has a simple answer.
“Whatever it is, I want them to be happy — I don’t want them to be forced into this if this isn’t what they want to do,” he said. “They’re going to have to know something about the real estate business — it’s going to be part of their life — but that doesn’t mean they have to come here to work.
“It would be great if they did, and it would be great if they didn’t and they were happy doing what they’re doing.”
Call it a byproduct of the “youth movement” he has seen at NAI Hanson in recent years, part of an effort to position the firm for the years to come. The Hackensack-based brokerage — a third-generation, 60-year-old institution in New Jersey — is proud of its lineage in the commercial real estate sector, but it’s the future that is top of mind for Hanson and his team.
“We’re here with the idea that we’re going to be here for a long time,” said Hanson, son of chairman Peter O. Hanson. “This is a forward-thinking company that we’re trying to build to be sustainable, be competitive for a long period of time.”
With its focus mainly on northern and central New Jersey, NAI Hanson has grown from 15 employees only a decade ago to now more than 70. That team includes more than 40 salespeople, who helped produce a banner year in 2015 in which the firm brokered 317 sale and lease deals valued at more than $540 million.
Hanson, who started as a broker in 1986 and took over as president in 1993, said continuing that growth will depend in part on diversifying. The industrial sector has long been the cornerstone of NAI Hanson, accounting for 40 to 50 percent of its activity every year, and the firm is benefiting from the state’s red-hot, ever-tightening warehouse and distribution market.
But “every year, we’re doing a little bit more of other things,” Hanson said. The firm is active with office and retail transactions, such as the $58 million sale in December of a 244,000-square-foot, four-building portfolio on Route 17 in Paramus.
All while maintaining its identity as a family-owned, independent firm in an industry that has been dominated by consolidation. It’s able to compete with the bigger names due largely to its membership in the NAI Global network, which is made up of 6,700 professionals and 375 offices in 55 countries worldwide. For instance, the affiliation allows it to help clients outside New Jersey when the need arises.
“The industry has evolved from a lot of companies that would look like ours — family-owned, local real estate people — to the big competitors, and we know who all of them are,” he said. “If we were not part of NAI, I don’t think that we would be able to compete. We’d still be here, we’d still, I think, be successful, but we wouldn’t be able to compete at the level that we do.”
Managing to grow
NAI James E. Hanson may be most recognizable as a New Jersey brokerage, but the firm is counting on property management to be key piece of its future.
It already looks to be on the right track. The firm had just two people doing property management a decade ago, but that has grown to a team of about 15 that manages some 6.5 million square feet of commercial space.
“I think it’s part of what we need to do to service people fully,” said Bill Hanson, president of NAI James E. Hanson, later adding: “I just think it’s good business.”
Local knowledge and longevity is also indispensable, he said, noting that several brokers have been with NAI Hanson as long as or longer than he has. The firm is now trying to attract younger talent, which had been a tough sell for a generation that saw the market plummet in 2008.
But NAI Hanson has been more successful of late, hiring a half-dozen salespeople under 35 in the last three years, and Hanson sees new talent in the pipeline.
“You couldn’t feel it in the real estate business that you could go into this field to make money,” Hanson said. “(But) we’re well past that. And not in just our firm, but a lot of firms out there, you see a lot more young faces coming into it, which is terrific. The industry needs it.”
The renewed interest may in fact be tied the strength of the market. In the Meadowlands alone, where NAI Hanson does a significant amount of business, the firm tracked industrial vacancy at a mere 6 percent.
But Hanson and his team have been around long enough to know that it’s a cyclical business. That makes building for the future all the more important, positioning the firm to be competitive like it was in the most recent downturn.
“We’re not sitting here patting ourselves on the back,” he said. “I know another down cycle is coming. I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to happen, but I’m prepared for it and we’ll see it through again.”
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