The Collegian
Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Richmond Alumni in Real Estate

On the ninth floor of 503 Main St. in Richmond, behind door 901, is the small suite of Commonwealth Partnerships, a business started by University of Richmond alumni Andrew Ryan '06, Mike Gray '06 and Mark Hickman '07. Eight hundred eighty five miles away, Blair Brandt '10 sits in The Next Step Realty suite in Palm Beach, Fla., a quarter of a mile from the water, palm leaves shading his office window.

Commonwealth Partnerships, which launched in 2009, is a one-stop shop for the real estate industry in Virginia: from market research, branding and communications to government relations and client management, they do it all. The Next Step Realty targets fresh-out-of-college kids who are searching for a new city to call home. Brandt said he liked to think of it as selling a lifestyle: graduating from college, getting a good job, moving to a hot city.

The irony is that none of these entrepreneurs were business majors, they all said.

"Despite the fact that I never had class in the Robins School, Richmond really provided us with a good foundation to think creatively and to make good relationships so that we could start a business," Gray said. "You never know who's going to be an entrepreneur."

Brandt's home school, Jepson, taught him basic skills and diverse ways of thinking, he said. "I've always been told to 'Keep it Simple Stupid' or KISS, and the Jepson School takes this approach too by reaffirming some crucial fundamentals -- reading, writing, speaking in public," he said.

B-school grads or not, these fledgling business types all will say that business and losing sleep go together like Ben and Jerry.

How much do they sleep? At its mention, the small staff located in an office overlooking the James erupted in laughter.

"Very little," Gray said. "Andrew's gotten used to my 2:30 a.m. emails." For Brandt, who started his career in real estate while still at Richmond, there were nights where he would go to bed at 3 a.m. and get up to work out and go to classes at 8 a.m., he said.

"Passion. That's what gets you up in the morning," Gray said.

Despite the lack of shut-eye, there are advantages to being an entrepreneur, Ryan said. Being the boss is one. Ryan said he doesn't begrudge doing extra work for his business because of his sense of ownership.

It's not as bad as somebody who works a traditional job and has to work extra hours and isn't happy about it, he said. "Very few jobs are nine-to-five jobs anymore," he said. "This is definitely not a nine-to-five job. It is an every-waking-moment job."

But being the big man in the office has a down side.

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"There were those moments of 'Yikes! What am I doing? What am I getting myself into?' It's totally been worth it, and I know in the long run it will be, but there certainly are those times when you're just like what the heck am I doing?" Ryan said, laughing, "It's stressful and sacrifices have to be made. If somebody screws up it's not like you can point to somebody else and say, 'My boss didn't catch this!'"

"No. No. It's you. And it's your reputation on the line."

The paths these alumni took were as distant as their businesses are.

It was 2006 when the founders of Commonwealth Partnerships began to see that work in the real estate industry was slowing down. "You knew that something was coming; it ended up being a lot worse than anybody could have imagined," Gray said. "But at the same time we knew that real estate was such a fascinating industry."

As for starting a real estate business in a receding housing market? "I think the important thing is that we all had faith in the idea and in working together," Ryan said.

Still, business can be emotionally trying, Gray said. Every once in a while you'll have one of those nights where you'll be thinking about things: ways to grow the business and assist your clients. Sometimes that can weigh very heavily on you, he said.

But overall, Ryan and Gray said they had found their business extremely rewarding. "We've got a bunch of friends and fellow UR people who like their corporate jobs and are happy there, and are probably going to be there forever, and that's great," Ryan said. "That's wonderful for them. They probably think we're crazy. I think they're a little crazy."

Brandt's involvement in realty began in Palm Beach while he was still studying at Richmond in 2007, he said.

It was the night after Richmond's beach week. Brandt found himself at a cocktail party with his mother. Glasses clinked in the warm breeze as Brandt approached the owner/president of Christian Angle Real Estate. While the two chatted beneath the palm trees, Angle's Blackberry buzzed. It was a text from his assistant, who said she was quitting and moving to London. Angle turned to Brandt and asked him on the spot to work for him. "'I like you. You seem hardworking. I'll pay you $10 an hour from 7 a.m to 10 p.m. to be my assistant,'" he said. Brandt was all in.

The job required Brandt to make connections with Christian's clients in the competitive realty market in Palm Beach, he said. This meant he had to fly down regularly during his semesters at Richmond, he said.

"I was able to make nearly $50,000 while I was at Richmond, just doing work for Christian and through my real estate license," Brandt said.

When given the opportunity to graduate early, Brandt was faced with a choice. Christian gave him some advice: "The bottom line is this," Christian said, "you can spend $30,000 of your parents' hard-earned money and go back to Richmond and drink beer all day. Or you can come down here and make twice that, and get yourself into shape, become a professional, become an adult, become a real human being in the world and get some more business experience and make some more money." Brandt said he had decided the second option sounded better.

So he graduated a semester early, teamed up with friend Belton Baker, a 2011 UNC graduate, and came up with the idea for The Next Step Realty, of which Brandt is a CEO, he said. They sent out emails to college graduates and launched their website during spring 2010, he said.

"No successful business has ever been created from someone sitting at the dinner table, or thinking out loud, or sitting in a hammock looking up at the sky," Brandt said, explaining Next Step's quick launch. "Good ideas come from people doing things, not thinking about things."

But Brandt wasn't in the clear. Shortly after leaving Richmond, he got a call that told him he had not fulfilled the math requirement. So Brandt ended up back in Richmond, running his business from a dorm room in Freeman Hall, he said.

May term 2010. Brandt got back from class and opened the door on a small, box-like room. With only his bed and a desk, Brandt launched The Next Step Realty's revamped website. He logged onto Facebook and was thrilled to see the company's page had hit 1,000 fans.

"Some of the most exciting moments actually took place while I was in that dorm room," he said. "It was just kind of a funny story because here I am with an up-and-coming business and I have to go back to Richmond to take a math requirement that I should have taken freshman year."

Brandt said that everyone at Richmond had worked hard, but ultimately what he chose to do while he wasn't on campus differentiated him.

"Instead of going to have a beer with your friends for two or three hours, maybe catch up on emails or make a few phone calls or fly down to Palm Beach," Brandt said. "Whatever it is you have to do to pursue your professional pursuits, people who do that are going to come out ahead one way or another."

The Richmond graduates-turned-CEOs said they had been pleased with the rewarding chance to run their own companies and had mantras for other entrepreneurs to go by.

"Conquer your niche," Brandt said. "Own what you're doing. Once you have a brand, once people know who you are, you can do whatever you want. But never steer away from your original mission, if it's the right mission."

Contact staff writer Marina Askari at marina.askari@richmond.edu

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