Jeffrey L. Heller joined Avison Young in 2012 as a principal and the firm’s managing director in New Jersey.
By Joshua Burd
Jeff Heller left no room for interpretation.
“I knew nothing,” he recalled when asked what he knew about Avison Young in 2012, when the Canadian real estate services firm had just opened its New York City office and was looking to establish itself in the tristate region.
That changed soon after Heller’s friend and industry colleague Ed Walsh, who was considering selling his project management firm to Avison Young at the time, asked the veteran broker to accompany him to a meeting with the firm’s executives. Heller agreed, with the goal of scrutinizing Avison Young’s business plan on Walsh’s behalf.
“That’s when I started to learn about the company,” he said. “I wasn’t looking — and for that matter, they weren’t looking for me — but it just turned out that it was a nice match.”
Avison Young announced later that year, in fall 2012, that it had hired Heller as the managing director of its new office in New Jersey. A second splash came shortly thereafter when the firm unveiled its acquisition of The Walsh Co., giving it an immediate foothold with an office in Morristown and nearly 30 well-established, well-connected employees in the state.
Avison Young has not looked back — and it has its sights set on continued growth.
The firm recently surpassed 100 employees in the state. Last year, it expanded its footprint with the opening of an office in Woodbridge and made its latest high-profile but strategic acquisition in the region, adding seven brokers from the former Cresa NJ-North/Central LLC.
And while Heller declined to discuss revenue in New Jersey, there’s no mistaking Avison Young’s overall growth. The privately held, principal-led firm has increased its revenue from about $40 million a decade ago to more than $650 million, CEO Mark Rose told Bloomberg News in July, while it has expanded from 11 offices in Canada to 84 across North America and Europe.
Avison Young also announced last month that a top Canadian pension fund, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, has made a $250 million preferred equity investment to accelerate its strategic growth plan. That means additional acquisitions and recruitment, along with other benefits to its other local offices across the globe.
All of which should allow Heller and his team to continue on the course that began in 2012.
“I knew what we wanted to do, which was to become a multiservice real estate firm, similar to some of the bigger shops — but maybe not be that size, because bigger doesn’t mean better,” said Heller, a principal with the firm. “We wanted to be an elite force with the best professionals in each service line.”
Ed Walsh, who originally founded The Walsh Co. in 2003, announced late last month that he was leaving Avison Young. In a subsequent statement, Heller said: “Avison Young thanks Ed for his years of service and we wish him well with his future endeavors.”
Still, there’s no doubting the role that Walsh and his brother, Tom Walsh, played in launching the real estate services firm in New Jersey.
Along with the chance to partner with the Walsh brothers at the time, Heller was encouraged to learn that former Cushman & Wakefield CEO Arthur Mirante had joined Avison Young as its principal and tristate president. Heller, who had spent a combined 22 years at Cushman and CBRE, also saw the opportunity to take on a new challenge in his career.
“I led a production team all those years … so to lead and grow a group and control a P and L, that was a challenge that I was interested in,” Heller said. “I would not have done it unless I felt like the platform was there, that the leadership was there. “If it wasn’t there, I would not do it speculatively. There’d be no reason to do it. So a lot of those pillars were in the ground, but I felt like there was a fantastic opportunity to grow something and put my thumb print on it.”
With the project management and advisory team from The Walsh Co., Avison Young was immediately able to offer clients an important service beyond brokerage and avoid having to rely solely on transactions. It also gave the firm instant credibility: Based in Morristown, Walsh counted many of the state’s top developers and corporate tenants as clients, offering end-to-end development services.
By that time, the Walsh team was expanding and had about 50 employees in New Jersey, Manhattan and Boston.
“We saw the growth and we saw the opportunity to be part of something new and fresh,” said Tom Walsh, a principal and managing director of project management services for Avison Young, who continues to oversee that division for the firm. He also said partnering with Heller brought an added level of comfort to the move.
Avison Young expanded those offerings in 2014 when it acquired Kwartler Associates, a property management firm that became another in-house division based in Morristown. Two years later, the firm had grown to nearly 90 employees and 12 principals in New Jersey when it filled another service line, hiring a debt and equity team led by George Gnad.
The most recent acquisition, the brokerage team from the former Cresa NJ-North/Central LLC, came last year as Avison Young approached 99 employees and 17 principals, the firm said. It also coincided with the opening of its second New Jersey office, in the Metropark section of Woodbridge, which has the potential to expand the firm’s business by volume and geography.
Diversification has been and will remain a critical factor going forward, allowing Avison Young to offer its services either individually or as a package to prospective clients.
“Each deal takes on a life of its own. Each relationship has its own requirements or needs for the particular assignment,” Heller said. “Part of our special sauce is tailoring the services around the needs of the client.”
The firm’s brokerage activities have been and will remain equally important. As Walsh noted, Avison Young brokers in New Jersey and other offices have become “a built-in sales force … to help us reach further and reach more people,” allowing the project management team to develop a book of national business.
And while the availability of project and construction services can be a key selling point for brokers, Walsh was quick to say that it works both ways.
“While we can be instrumental and help, it’s working together and partnering that really makes us stronger than we would be on our own — either project management on its own or brokerage on its own,” he said. “We’re stronger together.”
Heller estimated that about half of the revenue from Avison Young’s New Jersey brokers, a team of about 20, comes from outside the state, thanks in large part to multimarket work with corporate accounts and other clients with large portfolios. He also notes that the firm has been deliberate about hiring brokers for specific niches, rather than simply trying to add bodies. The addition of Tom Giannone, Ron Ganter and others from the former Cresa team gave Avison Young a niche in tenant representation and life sciences, which Heller said will provide a key growth area.
But the firm still has clear needs in New Jersey, he said, including continuing its growth in debt and equity, retail and office brokerage, along with Heller’s top initiative of augmenting its industrial practice. That could come through a combination of organic growth or acquisitions, he said, which would allow the office to be “set up for the next generation.”
Other real estate services firms have also moved increasingly toward the so-called one-stop shop strategy, but Heller said that model works especially well with Avison Young because of the company’s partnership structure, its historical emphasis on different service lines and the monetary incentives to cross-sell.
“But beyond that, we have professionals here who know what the right thing to do is,” Heller said. “It’s not so much about their pocketbook. It’s about supporting the client appropriately.”