One of the most enduring beliefs in the brokerage business is that the big firms’ research databases represent an irreplaceable asset. Clients, the logic goes, need to stick with the big guys or risk making decisions on incomplete information.
While that prevailing wisdom stubbornly endures, it is largely nonsense according to Craig Smith, president of boutique real estate advisory firm Ashlar Urban.
“The large firms typically try to use research and data as an iron curtain for their services. “Basically, if you use us you get this vault of information,” he said. “The reality of it is that 90% of that information is readily available to anybody who knows anything about commercial real estate and how to navigate the systems and/or subscribes to [research].”
The 10% of research that a big broker such as Ashlar Urban can’t duplicate is the proprietary base of its own transactions.
Over the past 11 years, Ashlar has carved out a niche as dominant niche in Toronto office leasing through the combination of its own database of 600-odd transactions and third-party research.
“Ashlar has always adopted the philosophy that there are professionals in the field, be it Altus, RealNet, and appraisal firms – service providers out there who are dedicated to providing that data on a much higher level,” said the Ashlar president.
Third Party Provider Mix
The 30-person firm utilizes Altus InSite, Iain Dobson’s Real Estate Search Corporation and RealNet. “Between (Dobson), Altus and RealNet, we have got what we need. We have got as much as everyone else.”
Using service providers means that his firm doesn’t have to maintain an in-house research department or worry that research students might get a critical number wrong. “I don’t have to worry about errors. Why hire 21-year-old kids to try and replicate a professional’s job? And that is what happens, with few exceptions there is usually one senior person and a legion of younger, new people to the industry who start in research.”
Lack of an in-house research capability has hardly hobbled Ashlar Urban. “We basically own the B office leasing market in downtown Toronto,” said Smith. “If you were to call me about industrial vacancies in Brampton…no amount of research is going to make me an expert on that. You have got to have research and data on the arena that you play in and what we focus on is urban office/retail investment sales and leasing.”
The firm’s position in the Toronto B office market gives it the other ingredient that backward-looking research alone will not provide, he said, real-time market valuations based on current transactions. “What is going on and kind of where the market is at a moment in time,” he explained. “We can tell you what that is the B market right now because at any given moment in time we are doing a dozen transactions. So we have our finger on the pulse.”
With about 7% market share of the overall downtown market, he generously compares his firm to BMW or Apple. “We’re not everybody’s cup of tea. In the arenas that we play I personally think we are the dominant shop in the sales of less than $40 million and B office leasing.”
Still, access to research is a major concern with potential clients, the Ashlar president said. “Every single time,” he said. “Our problem is not keeping clients, our problem is getting them away from the big shops.”
Ashlar Urban’s client list includes the likes of Blackstone Group (Slate Properties), Allied REIT, Dundee and Bell Canada. “In fact with the Dundee takeover we are the only broker still standing on the listing side,” said Smith. “We are landlord specific. We do tenant work but our focus is on landlord representation.”