CB Richard Ellis is Surviving The Storm

All of us or at least most of us that have been and are in the Commercial Real Estate Business wonder, how the brokerage houses are faring.  Thanks to the Los Angeles Business Journal, below is an update on LA County’s biggest and one of our best Commercial Real State Companies.  It’s a story of survival.

Los Angeles County’s biggest commercial real estate services firm looks to have made it through the recession, but it took a brutal downsizing to get there.

CB Richard Ellis Group Inc., the only publicly traded commercial real estate brokerage based in the county, laid off 2,000 employees over the last two years, slashed salaries and cut broker commissions.

It was ugly, but the actions saved the West L.A. company $550 million in operating costs last year.

“It is a very, very painful thing to go through, but it is a necessary action at all service firms,” said Chief Executive Brett White.

CB Richard Ellis still retains the title as the world’s largest brokerage and commercial real estate services firm, and has 29,000 employees globally. The company hasn’t detailed what it did on its home turf in Southern California, where it has 417 brokers working out of 10 offices. But it has described the local layoffs as “modest” in nature.

The worst of the carnage appears to be over. The company turned a $64 million profit in the fourth quarter after losing more than $1 billion in the same period a year earlier. Investors have noticed, tripling the stock price in the past 12 month to more than $17 a share.

Meanwhile, the company has pursued business created by the down market. For example, it beefed up a team that works with court-appointed receivers who manage foreclosed real estate.

“There has been a new set of clients that has emerged,” said Lew Horne, the company’s executive managing director for the greater Los Angeles region. “We’ve adjusted to make sure we are meeting their needs.”

Though CB Richard Ellis ultimately went through some wrenching cuts, starting in fall 2007, analyst Will Marks of JMP Securities LLC believes it was slow to act.

“They were not alone in waiting until the environment had weakened considerably before cutting costs,” he said.

But Marks said that once it became clear to CB Richard Ellis that “the industry was badly shaken,” the company made changes in earnest to pare costs and address debt issues. Broker commissions were reduced an undisclosed amount and nonbroker employees who made more than $50,000 annually took a pay cut.

The salary reduction didn’t affect brokers directly, but commissions – the bread and butter of the business – are a different story. White claimed that brokers were generally accepting of the reductions in commission.

“Many brokers told me, ‘I am surprised you didn’t ask for more,’” said White, who added that his company was far from the only brokerage to take such an action.

The company also raised money through equity offerings, including a $100 million investment from Paulson & Co. in June. That same month, the company sold $450 million in bonds and completed a $300 million stock offering in November. It used a portion of the funds it raised to pay off loans that were coming due. Over the course of the year the company pared down its debt by $546 million to $1.4 billion. But it has some downsizing left. It plans to close a Newport Beach support services office next year, with up to 60 information technology jobs moving to Texas as a result. A company spokesman said the decision was part of an effort to consolidate information technology work in Dallas.

Horne said local brokers have begun to see a change in the marketplace in recent months, with retail brokers the most active they’ve been in a year and a half. At this rate, the pay and commission cuts are set to be lifted in June.

Marks said that CB Richard Ellis’ position as the biggest player in the industry gives it a competitive advantage when pursuing distressed opportunities.

About 18 months ago, the company started a local group that specializes in selling real estate owned by banks. Led by broker Darla Longo, the unit started in September 2008, working on behalf of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to sell real estate obtained through foreclosure by IndyMac Bancorp, which was seized by regulators in July 2008.

Another local group, formed about eight months ago and led by broker Kevin Shannon, works with special servicers – companies that deal with loans requiring unusual attention, typically because of a default.

“Even in that maelstrom, in that crazy environment of 2008 and 2009, you are a firm that has been around 100 some odd years, and you must continue to execute your business,” White said.    Enjoy Your Day!

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