A screen shot of Black’s Directory, the new venture launched by Jim Black.
By Joshua Burd
Jim Black is a familiar name in commercial real estate, best known for the eponymous building directory that was once a staple for office brokers across the country.
He’s now hoping to make a similar impact with his latest foray into the business.
Four decades after founding Black’s Guide, the Monmouth County resident has launched a new online platform that allows users to search, sort and compile lists from a database of nearly 2,000 commercial brokers in New Jersey, allowing fellow agents to reach a specific audience as they market their properties. With contact information from more than 300 brokerage firms, Black sees an opportunity to once again be a resource for the industry.
He hopes to do so by tapping into a simple but critical need for real estate salespeople.
“Every brokerage firm has a broker list,” Black said, arguing that most firms do a poor job of maintaining their list, because “it’s a pain in the neck, even if they know how to build it.”
“My original concept was to provide a solution to a common problem,” he said.
The concept gave way to the platform, known as Black’s Directory, which launched last summer and is free to access. Users can filter the broker database by county, property type and other criteria, which Black said speaks to the idea of quality over quantity when it comes to creating a marketing list. The website also includes listings for developers and service providers, all of which can be sorted and crafted into a list that users can then “rent” for a mailer.
Based on the monthly traffic to start the year, Black said he expects the site to attract 10,000 users by year-end. He intends to monetize the service by offering companies preferred positions and highlighted entries, along with traditional advertising on each listing page.
“I think there’s a lot of different ways to support my research,” said Black, who hopes to expand the platform to other markets and add listings for property management. “And it’s just like Black’s Guide. I used to describe myself as a research company that was advertising-supported, because that’s all this is — research.
“I researched everything, but I couldn’t do that unless I received some revenue, and they wouldn’t give me any revenue unless I gave them an audience,” he added. “In some respects, that’s what this is — creating the audience that people will want to reach.”
Black prides himself on the fact that he has “always elevated the brokerage community.” After all, he began his real estate career in 1971 as a broker with Cushman & Wakefield. And he recalls compiling a makeshift book made up of marketing brochures from the available buildings in the region, which other brokers in the office would borrow to show their clients.
“We kept it on a memory typewriter and everything else was in our head,” Black said.
It was part of the inspiration for Black’s Guide, which he founded five years later. The book, a large, bound directory of office buildings that was published annually, launched in New Jersey ahead of what became an outright building boom of suburban corporate campuses, which lent itself to a revenue model based on advertising from building owners.
“The broker was my audience here,” Black said. “The only people that were using it — and the only people that my advertisers wanted to get to — were the brokers.”
Black had expanded the publication to about 10 other markets by 1988, when he sold Black’s Guide to McGraw Hill Inc. The deal coincided with him joining the publishing giant as vice president and general manager of real estate information services.
He also celebrated the deal with what he described as a gift to himself — learning how to shoot a shotgun — which unexpectedly led to a new venture in the world of directories. In 1990, Black launched a publishing company focused on outdoor sports, giving way to buyer guide directories for the shotgun, fly-fishing and archery and bow hunting industries.
He found similar success with a model of controlled circulation and advertising — operating the company for 13 years before selling it to Ehlert Publishing Group.
Black made his return to commercial real estate in 2003 when he joined CoStar Group, which also marked his transition to the world of digital listings. He spent 10 years as an executive with the commercial real estate data company, with roles that focused on both advertising and training and recruitment.
As he spent about four months compiling the data for Black’s Directory, Black said he “used every service and source I could that was legitimate,” from trade associations to industry rankings. He also got in his car, much as he did decades ago when he was compiling data for Black’s Guide.
“I went and out did roadwork — which is how I found all of my office buildings,” he said. “I was surprised how many I could find by just going to Hackensack and looking at leasing signs on buildings, and then going to Morristown, and then going to Montclair and Princeton and so on.”
Among other findings, the process was a reminder of just how much the brokerage industry had consolidated among the top global and national firms.
For instance, the private equity-backed firm DTZ acquired Cassidy Turley in 2015, only to then buy Cushman & Wakefield and merge under the C&W banner.
But Black also noted the abundance of small brokerage firms that continue to operate in New Jersey. Among the 318 on his list as of early April, more than half of those firms had three or fewer brokers, he said.
“If you think about that, that’s just extraordinary,” Black said.