Orange County, Calif., is widely considered one of the "ground zero" markets of this current downturn. And the remaining land management talent that wants to stay employed is finding itself wearing many hats and adjusting to an ever-changing market in an effort to prove its continued value.
They are a sort who typically compete and distrust each other. But if you happened upon the group of 25-plus land professionals who gather socially each month around a large round table abutting an outdoor firepit on the patio of a local bar, you'd be hard pressed to observe a note of contention. Instead, you'd feel the comraderie that ties them together in spite of their once-opposing interests.
Today, they're a self-help group assembled from the ranks of public builders, developer powerhouses, key regional builders, and brokerage firms. And they're looking to each other for salvation.
Their unlikely allegiance was formed after younger members of land acquisition teams began to see their departments thinned repeatedly through layoffs.
Once flush with 10 to 15 members, the economy whittled away many senior team members. Across the region, land management responsibilities were left in the hands of a younger group who remained committed to the industry, but found themselves struggling.
"As people are getting laid off left and right, we are trying to figure out how we can stay alive," says Justin Esayian, a land broker with The Hoffman Group. "At one point, we were all competitors. The thought of passing off a land deal from [a public] over to [a developer] was unheard of. Now it comes down to jobs. The more of us that can make it through, the better for all of us. We are the generation that will be leading home building in Southern California for the next 30 years. It's a unique opportunity to build relationships and help move forward."
Against the concerns, advice, and, in one case, forbiddance of managers, they meet each month to share ideas and opportunities. "We often have to push our companies to try new approaches, think about what works and doesn't work today," says one member of the group who asked not to be named.
Clearly, they are a new breed. Most members say they are comfortable with technology, understand linear regression, are familiar with an array of business models, and have a grasp of finance. But in a group where the median age hovers near 30, what they lack is experience with a downturn. And in many cases, there is no one left on the corporate side to impart that wisdom.
To that end, the group looks for insight by inviting seasoned real estate veterans to attend its meetings as speakers. "We're looking for information that we can apply today as far as getting deals done and also how people are approaching strategies of land acquisition in this environment," says Esayian. "But we are also looking to generally hear what it was like in '90s, '80s, and '70s."
While most agree that the current state of the market is anything but fun, a continued commitment to the industry runs through the group. Those that view it as a great time to learn are taking away valuable insight. Many claim the allegiance has enabled them to broaden their scope of knowledge, and some see a benefit in the structure of their daily routines. "I came because I was curious. ...What was this thing all about?" says one member from a public home building company. "I ended up staying because it really is informational."
It may be unconventional to find brokers from the three most competitive firms sitting around a firepit together, but in an era dependant upon technology, the face-to-face interaction may eventually prove to be priceless. "Someday, we'll look back and say, 'I remember the crash of 2006,' ... and I'll remember who helped me through it," says one member.
"Is this really so different from what the older guys did a while back?" asks another. "We all knew each other, but rarely saw each other. [We used] e-mail, voicemail, and text messages. What's great is that we get to know each other here, just like they used to."
–Lisa Marquis Jackson