David Johnson's career path certainly hasn't followed a straight line.
He earned a degree in architecture from Auburn University, working locally with Hecht Burdeshaw Architects in the early 1990s.
That was before he decided the slow, methodical pace of designing and drawing up floor plans for structures was more like "archi-torture" than fun.
So the Birmingham, Ala., native sought out a career counselor who said he might be pretty good at sales or marketing. That led to a pharmaceutical and medical sales job that put him on an upward track and a chance to relocate to Chicago. Having started a family, that was not appealing to him.
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So Johnson changed gears once again and in the mid-1990s, upon a suggestion from a friend, took an online real estate course, got his license quickly, and went into commercial sales and leasing.
That was with Doug Duncan and Jack Key -- shortly before they teamed up with Kelsey Kennon and Dan Parker -- which led to a stint with Fickling and Co. Recruited by The Jordan Co. in 1998, Johnson stayed with that firm's commercial arm for 13 years.
But in May 2011, Johnson made yet another career move. He partnered with fellow broker Jack Hayes to launch the KW Commercial office in Columbus. They also started their own G2 Commercial property management business at the same time.
Today, KW Commercial (Keller Williams) has expanded to seven members, with the area's economy beginning to pick up steam. The broker said he and Hayes closed on sales and leases of more than 1.4 million square feet of property over the last 18 months in Columbus and the surrounding region.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Johnson, 57, the son-in-law of prominent retired Swift Textiles CEO Bob Koon, about his job, its intricacies and why he literally loves making a living on commission. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to join Keller Williams?
My partner, Jack Hayes, through some (CCIM Institute) classes, met some Keller Williams Commercial people, and they encouraged him to check out the opportunity. This office was already set up (for Keller Williams residential) and the company has an excellent training program and is an agent-centric company. Another part of the decision was very easy. To do it on our own was going to run about $50,0000 to $55,000 in startup costs in year one -- to buy equipment, furniture and pay rent, and have your own little shop. To do it here was less than half of that.
So getting a brand in front of you was key?
The brand for any good agent, whether it's residential or commercial, is not so important. It's the person. We've got people in Columbus in this business on both sides, residential and commercial, that have been around for a long, long time that are their own brand. It's because they're good at what they do. They work hard. They can be trusted. It's the same ingredients in any good business. You've got hard working, ethical people doing a great job, and they're the ones that get called.
What is day-to-day life like for you, plenty of cold calls?
There was a lot of that at first. Fifteen or 16 years ago I did a lot of cold calling, a lot of mailing, a lot of self-promotional things that are very common to someone in this type of business. I don't do that as much or even at all now. ... We tend to identify specific projects that we want or clients that we want to build a relationship with, and that's the kind of cold calling we're after. It's much more targeted and very focused on what you want.
Think of it this way, we shoot with a rifle now. You start out in this business using a shotgun. Now we target what we want with a lot more detail.
So there can be some busy days?
One thing I like to do is schedule no more than half of the day with meetings or activities that you can actually plan out. That's because things will happen with projects, with clients, with things that are ongoing, that will fill in the gaps of your day. It's inevitable. We're client centered, so we're going to respond to what our clients want. People's lives are fluid, personally and professionally, and things change. As a result, plans change, needs arise, that you didn't know about 24 hours before.
We have a our staff meetings with our team here on Thursday mornings. I've got a lunch meeting downtown from noon to 1 with commercial brokers and we're at a property. It's something we do in the local commercial community once a month.
We also have a photography session today with our new team. Jack and I have grown from two in May 2011 to seven of us now. So we got another team photo taken and some shots of the individual agents.
Your livelihood is pretty much working on a commission?
In this business, almost everyone's an independent contractor. Typically, in a real estate business you have some core staff such as the brokerage accountant, and if you're big enough, maybe a marketing person, and a receptionist, that are full-time paid staff. But everyone else is a paid contractor.
For instance, at the Ledger you're a W-2 employee. You get a statement at the end of the year that says, this is how much we paid you and what you got in total salary and benefits. At the end of the year here, I write myself a (Form) 1099 saying this is how much I drew. So I don't get a salary.
Can that be unnerving?
(Laughs) It was earlier on. It's kind of like becoming a battle-hardened veteran. You get used to being shot at. It's still uncomfortable, but you don't think about it as much.
How is your job and work evolving?
One of the things that we do that we're expanding into -- and we've gotten good at it and built a small portfolio in and it's growing -- is property management. Brokerage is an up-and-down business. It tracks the economy very closely.
Property management is very steady. It's a meat-and-potatoes business that is very dependable. When I say property management, I mean taking on a 100- or 200-unit apartment complex, or a small retail center. We have some apartment properties in Macon and Warner Robins that we manage. We manage the Beacon University building, now Strayer University, and there are some smaller properties around town that we handle. ... All of that is another thing that fills in some of the gaps.
But office and industrial sales and leasing are your primary concerns?
Those tend to be our two main focuses. We do everything, because Columbus is a second-tier market where you can't really specialize in any one thing. That's because your clients tend to be a broad mix. We do retail, land sales, a little bit of development, office and industrial sales and leasing. But we primarily do two of the major five commercial product types, which are office and industrial.
What do you enjoy the most, office/industrial brokering or property management?
I enjoy it all. If they'd known such things when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I would have been diagnosed with (attention deficit disorder). Let's just say I'm very challenged to stay focused on any one thing for a long period of time ... That's because part of what I do -- back to what do you typically do during a day -- is at any one time we've got somewhere between 25 and 30 active projects. During a day, I'm probably dealing with as many as 20 of those projects, doing follow-up calls, emails, documents that have to be edited and sent back out, different things that have to be accomplished.
So you have to focus and refocus 15 or 20 times a day. For some people, that's crazy making. For me, I love it.
Do I love property management? Yeah. It's challenging and you're dealing with people that call typically because they have a problem. But if you keep in mind it's not personal, it's something they need help with, and you can do it, it's a nice challenge. So you do it.
So there's no similarities at all with this and doing architect work?
In architecture, this is one of the things I was able to identify that was tough for me. You work on maybe two or three projects a year, and you're taking them from A to Z, all the way from absolute start to absolute finish. It was mind numbing. There are folks that I went to school with and I worked with that thrive on that. But, for me, I felt like someone had locked me up. This, because of the pace of it, I love it. It keeps me engaged.
Any other reasons to work in this field?
Bobby Hecht said this about architecture when I started with them 20-something years ago. He commented that we're fortunate because we get to work with people in the best of times. They've got money, they're building, they're expanding, and we're in a business where you see people under better circumstances, and that's not always true with other businesses.
Well, with what we're doing now (at KW Commercial), ditto, we get to work with people and projects because the economy is outperforming, and Columbus certainly is.
Any advice for someone looking to get into your line of work?
Have two years worth of income because a requirement of this business, if you're planning to make a living at it, is to be patient. It takes a while to establish yourself because you're asking people to trust you with their money, with their business, with their livelihood. And you have to earn that.
Does anyone need a particular degree?
No, I don't think so. I think that anyone who's got a natural sense of curiosity, who wants to learn, can do this. You need to have a comfort level at cold calling, at meeting people. You need to be able to tell someone who you are and what you do in 60 seconds. Self confidence is important ... You can come from any background. The key element is the ability to work independently, work hard and be self motivated, because a lot of what you do in this business is with little to no direction.
Name: David C. Johnson
Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1975 graduate of Red Mountain School, Birmingham, Ala.; Bachelor's degree in architecture, Auburn University, 1982
Previous jobs: Architect with Hecht & Burdeshaw Architects, Columbus; associate broker with Jordan Hart Commercial Services, Columbus
Family: Denise, wife of 24 years, and sons, Carter, 22, and Walker, 17
Leisure time: Loves any kind of water sports; also enjoys bird hunting, especially turkey hunting
Of note: Community group leader and former youth leader at Christ Community Church; past chairman at The Carpenter's Way Ranch; former board of trustees member at The Methodist Home; advisory board member at Our House; Leadership Columbus alumni, 2000; past chairman of the Columbus Board of Realtors' commercial committee