One of the East Coast’s most successful and diverse real estate and business acquisition firms John Lin is the president and CEO of CapStar Commercial Realty. Based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, CapStar is one of the largest commercial real estate and business acquisition firms in the region. John founded the company in 1994, and has grown it into a recognized leader in leasing, tenant representation, property management, business valuation and acquisition, risk management, market analysis, and green energy. Today, CapStar has listings in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and plans to expand nationwide. In 2006, John was listed as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Minority Business Entrepreneurs, an honor that was followed in 2008 with a Top 100 Minority Business Award. He has also acted as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Real Estate program and served as chairman of the D.C. Chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America. How did CapStar get its start? JOHN LIN: Well, the history starts from my basement. We had three agents. I started a new, different kind of commercial real estate firm because I felt the need of some clients looking for 24/7 attention. They need to look at buildings not just 9–5 on Monday through Friday, and also they need to have someone understand the culture and speak in different dialects or languages. So, I started my firm and created a niche. We were also doing business acquisition when we first started, which is quite different than most other commercial real estate firms. Overall, my company is really the full spectrum of commercial real estate services from leasing of retail to office, industrial warehouse, to ground. We do investment sales, property management, and business acquisition. My footprint is basically now in DC and Virginia for the last 20 years. Now, it’s starting to change because we developed more offices in China and other parts of the United States. We worked out a strategic alliance with other firms from Miami to Los Angeles, and we’re working on Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston. So I am looking at probably five to ten different offices nationwide in the major cities. So, soon, CapStar will be going pretty much nationwide, and internationally as well. CapStar is known as one of the most diverse firms of its kind—can you talk about how you’ve been able to achieve that level of diversity? Our team is from a variety of different backgrounds. They all have different professional knowledge. Recently, we started with a lot of the seasoned professionals, who have experience in sales but not necessarily in real estate. I would rather train someone who doesn’t have real estate knowledge. I think it’s easier to make it happen that way. For example, my senior VP, Jeff Hoffman, has been with me for 15 years. His background is that he was executive director of a nonprofit organization, so he had a lot of dealings with corporate clients and understands what they need. The other fellow, Mike Cullen, he was in camera sales. He had a sales background, but not necessarily in real estate, and he’s been with me 12 years. He’s really like the leasing and sales aspect, and the other group that came in recently in the last few years—a lot of them graduated from real estate masters programs, so they have the academic training but not necessarily the real street smart knowledge, so we had to teach them from scratch. And then on our team we have lawyers, we have a CPA, we have doctors—a lot of different professionals and they understand the needs of a certain type of current or future client, so we’re able to create a special team. That’s necessary when we need to take care of the requirements of the clients. Where do you hope to take the company in the future? I would like to see my company become a better-known brand. That’s one, and secondly I would like to see if my company has a presence in different states and different countries. Three is I would like to perhaps more than double the company size in three years. Your son James is also on the CapStar team. What’s it like working with him? It’s very interesting working with my son because he’s 26 right now. When he first came he was only 23, and at one time—I hate to say this to everyone—but I never thought I could teach my son. I wanted to give up, but he developed an interest and wanted to come into real estate, and I said, “Why not?” It’s like teaching my son how to drive. I would rather be on his side, next to him when he’s driving, instead of letting him go on the street, so if I see any bad habits or any problems I can correct them. After a few years, I think we developed a very good relationship. We’re more like friends and also colleagues than just a father and son who go out, because I take him to a lot of different meetings and conventions and we work like a team. Who would you consider to be your competitors? It’s interesting. The question would be “do I compete with other leasing companies, or do I work with them?” I never looked at the other leasing companies or other brokers as competitors—I look at them as my counterparts because everyone has a different level of expertise, and also their own relationships, and I always work with other firms and try to put a deal together. So yes, we do compete where we want to get a listing at the same time, but 90% of the time we actually work together because, if I have a listing, I need another broker to bring me the prospect and vice versa. I always tell the other brokers in my firm, I say, “You look at other brokers, just look at them as your sibling in your family, so if you fight and want to kill each other, you have to learn how to work with each other.”
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