MacKenzie Succeeds by Sticking to its Roots
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is credited with introducing the phrase, “All politics is local,” into the lexicon of American politics, emphasizing that the success of politicians is directly tied to their understanding of the needs of the constituents they represent. The same can be said for business – if a business owner does not have a thorough understanding of the makeup of the community where the business is located, he or she is likely to fail.
As a locally owned, independent commercial real estate firm, The MacKenzie Companies is fully entrenched in the communities it serves, and its intimate knowledge of what clients need, combined with a passion to see Maryland succeed, has steered the company to success for almost 50 years.
“We Know Local Matters”
I spent an afternoon with nine members of MacKenzie’s leadership team at its headquarters in Lutherville, and it was easy to see why “We Know Local Matters” is the company’s mantra. Everyone at MacKenzie is truly committed to the success of the communities the company serves, and clients benefit from a company that stresses a personal approach to business.
In an age of frequent consolidations, acquisitions and mergers within the commercial real estate industry, MacKenzie has deliberately chosen to remain independent. When asked why this is important, Gary Gill, CEO of The MacKenzie Companies, says, “By staying a local company, we are able to be laser focused on Maryland, and we are committed to knowing every local economy,” he says. “Plus, being independent allows us to be nimble. The leadership team meets every two weeks, and we can make decisions in those meetings that can be implemented immediately – there is no need to ask anyone in another city for approval. We set the agenda for this company.”
Scott Wimbrow, president of MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, agrees. “We don’t have a manual we have to follow like many of the large national firms have to practice by – we are vigilant and can be very quick on our toes to find a solution. It’s more personal in Baltimore versus Los Angeles or Manhattan. That’s why we have clients who have been with us for 30 to 40 years.”
Gill adds that industry changes have also allowed MacKenzie to market itself to potential clients differently than some of its competitors by focusing on personalized service and as a vested partner in the success of the local economy.
“The consolidations over the past few years have been a great advantage to us,” he says. “It’s allowed us to better clarify as to who we are and what distinguishes us from national firms. We are a regionally practicing, locally owned firm; it’s not in our DNA to sell to a national firm. In Maryland, most businesses are small to medium-sized businesses. I jokingly tell people, ‘If you need an office in Shanghai, don’t hire us.’ It’s not what we do. Maryland has wonderful assets, and we are able to stay focused on Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region to be successful.”
Emphasizing that MacKenzie is a locally owned company, however, is not just a tagline or a clever marketing strategy. Because MacKenzie is integrated in local communities, its clients benefit from first-hand knowledge of how to get things done and how business works. “We know the individuals in the zoning and building departments, so we can advise our clients on how to best navigate the process. If you want to build a building in Baltimore and you have an architect or builder in Chicago, it will still get done, but it’s easier if I can pick up the phone and call the zoning department or a local county economic development office on behalf of our clients. I don’t know if you are going to get that in a national firm,” says Marty Copsey, president of MacKenzie Contracting Company, the firm’s commercial construction division.
Wimbrow agrees. “We are unique in that we have five offices in the region, and the brokers in those offices live and work in those communities, so they know what is going on in that local community. Negotiating a lease in Annapolis, for instance, is very different than in Baltimore if you don’t know the nuances of that market. We have five brokers who live in the Annapolis area, and we have an office there. It makes a difference if you are part of the local community.”
Establishing a personal connection and strong rapport with clients is also a focus at MacKenzie, and understanding the unique personality of Baltimore comes in handy. Tom Fidler, executive vice president and principal in the brokerage division, relays an amusing and enlightening anecdote about why being local matters. “I was at a meeting with a potential new client, a bank, and I was the last one to present,” he says. “The bank rep asked me, ‘Where did you go to school?’ I answered ‘Calvert Hall.’ He said he knew immediately that he wanted to work with me, as all the other presenters answered with what college they went to. Baltimore is the only city in the country that where you went to high school is more important than where you went to college,” he laughs. “That type of connection is what this company can offer that others cannot.”
Beyond having a broker who knows the market personally, clients also benefit from the fact that many in the firm have been with the company for 10, 15 or 20-plus years, so clients can rest assured that they will have a longstanding relationship with their MacKenzie advisor.
“We know the Baltimore metro area – we are not Chicago nor Los Angeles. We are a tertiary market, and in the Baltimore metro area, 80 to 85 percent of businesses are locally owned. In our industry,
a guy from a national firm in Chicago flies it to pitch a local company and six months later, he’s no longer at that firm, so the small business owner is dealing with someone from Cincinnati, St. Louis or Denver. At MacKenzie, you are dealing with a broker your son or daughter plays lacrosse with and someone you went to high school with,” says Fidler.
“At the end of the day, we are in the people business,” adds Brendan Gill, president of MacKenzie Management Company, the property management division. “If someone is out sick or on vacation, sometimes the client needs to reach someone who can make decisions quickly … our clients can always reach a division president or even the CEO if necessary. All of our business cards have our cell phone numbers on them, which is deliberate. We encourage our clients to call anytime, including weekends.”
MacKenzie aims to offer its clients the best of both worlds – a local firm with a personal touch, yet one that also offers a diverse platform of services that rivals what national firms offer.
Chris Bennett, executive vice president and principal in the brokerage division, says, “Local businesses in Baltimore know they are dealing with a one-stop shop at MacKenzie. I can go down the hall, and find millions of dollars in debt and equity from the capital and finance division, or I can go find a great talent in construction who values engineers. I don’t have to wait six weeks to put a team together. To have this diversity of demographics, talent, knowledge and professionalism … it’s what many of our clients are looking for in a firm.”
Like any business, MacKenzie also values the power of innovation and technology to stay current with business trends. As a company involved in real estate, MacKenzie has always relied on maps, and Datastory Consulting, MacKenzie’s data analytics and GIS mapping company, analyzes complex demographic data to better understand the market and helps advise MacKenzie’s clients through the use of visuals. Matt Felton, president of Datastory, says that Datastory’s role is “to show what the brokers know and create a meaningful visual that helps advance the conversation quicker. We can bring the scientific knowledge to the client in an artistic manner to help them better understand.”
“What Matt does is to put science behind verifying our instincts as a broker,” says Bennett. “For example, we had a client looking at a property in Hunt Valley and they immediately asked for the one-,
three- and five-mile ring demographics, which does not work in Hunt Valley, as there is no population density living north of there. I tried explaining that their market really pulls west from Owings Mills up to Bel Air and York, Pa., with everything coming through Hunt Valley. Datastory was able to create a trade area map showing this, as the client needed to see it visually on a map. He was so impressed that he now wants to use this methodology nationwide.”
Of course, knowing the Hunt Valley market personally was key. “It takes someone who understands Hunt Valley to come to that analysis. A broker from New York would just draw those three rings (one-, three- and five-mile radiuses) and conclude that there are not enough rooftops in that market,” says Wimbrow.
“People need a real estate advisor who knows the area like the back of his hand, but you also need scientific data. Matt brings the objectivity and subjectivity of real estate together, and the client can then interpret both sides. It makes us competitive on a national level because we can offer it all,” says Brendan Gill.
Collaborating for Success
As a full-service firm encompassing commercial brokerage, commercial development, property management, commercial construction, residential development, debt and equity capital, data analytics and GIS, MacKenzie’s different divisions seamlessly collaborate in a way only a local firm can. “If MacKenzie has a client with construction needs, we can get an answer to them from Marty in a day instead of weeks. That timeliness makes all the difference to our clients,” says John Black, president of MacKenzie Capital.
Robb Aumiller, president of MacKenzie Communities, the residential development division, says the tight-knit atmosphere between staff also contributes to the collaborative environment. “We all know each other’s families, spouses and kids and enjoy spending time together. There are people here who have been friends since high school. There is a level of trust here, and we know we will get the right answers from each other to better serve the client,” he says.
Having multiple divisions under one roof also allows MacKenzie’s employees to tap into the decades of knowledge and experience of its associates. Brendan Gill shares an example of this seamless collaboration. “I took over the management of a property in Perry Hall that for years was trying to market some excess land as a pad site. My gut told me that an urgent care center would be a better use. Datastory did a demographic study, and the maps validated a need for urgent care in the area and went further to predict an estimated amount of business coming to that urgent care center. I then went to Marty Copsey in construction, who had just built an urgent care center recently, and asked him what it would cost to build, so I could develop a project budget. Then I was able to go to John Black to determine the return on cost for our client, a private equity group, and determine a rental rate. The urgent care center paid the rental rate we asked, and we were able to create a 10 percent unleveraged return for our client.” Wimbrow adds, “Our out-of-town competitors would still have a faded leasing sign on the site that said ‘Bank Pad for Lease.’”
With an eye always on the larger economic picture, MacKenzie recognizes that successful businesses are the foundation for strong communities, too. “We are in the business of helping companies thrive, grow and be successful,” says CEO Gill. “If we help companies be successful, they will experience job growth and this region will have a strong economy.”
At the end of the day, it’s still all about personal relationships, which has been the bedrock since the firm’s founding in 1968 by Clark MacKenzie. Fidler recalls an early meeting he had with Clark MacKenzie, shortly after he was
hired 20 years ago. “Sitting in his office, he told me, ‘Make sure you do such a good job that when your clients see you on a Saturday, they will want to talk with you.’ I use that advice every day.”
CEO Gill credits Clark MacKenzie for establishing a culture of integrity in the firm. “A lot of our culture goes back from the tone he set early on. He is always looking for the ‘win-win.’ Even during a negotiation, he wants both sides to walk away happy. He values tradition but is always forward thinking.” I95