by Christine Perez
Our popular 1-on-1 series continues with corporate exec Bret Bunnett and commercial property sales guru Scot Farber, both of whom have learned to deal with the unconventional “one-t” spelling of their first names. Their wide-ranging discussion covers everything from the infamous “Bunnett brothers” and selling blue jeans in Russia to overcoming adversity and the reinvention of Cushman & Wakefield.
As Executive Managing Director, Bunnett helps lead the Dallas office of Cushman & Wakefield, focusing on client development, service-line development, recruiting, and the delivery of the firm’s commercial real estate services to a growing portfolio. He began his career at LaSalle Partners, where he ultimately served as Regional President and National Leasing Director. He then co-founded Capstar Commercial Real Estate Services, which, through a series of mergers, became Cassidy Turley, DTZ, and, now, Cushman & Wakefield. He earned a BBA degree from Texas Tech University.
As an Executive Managing Director within Cushman & Wakefield’s Capital Markets Group, Farber oversees the disposition of investment sales properties for financial institutions, banks, special servicers, pension funds, REITs, corporate users, and private investors. He previously held sales and leadership posts at Grubb & Ellis, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Jones Lang LaSalle, among other firms. He began his career on the pension fund advisory side of the business. Throughout his career, Farber has completed more than 200 investment sales assignments with a market value that exceeds $4 billion. He earned a BBA degree in finance and real estate from the UT-Austin and an MBA in international business from UT-Dallas.
BRET BUNNETT: So, Scot, if I recall correctly, you started out at Texas A&M before switching to UT?
SCOT FARBER: That’s right. In high school, I was president of my Future Farmers of America chapter, and I thought I wanted to become a racehorse veterinarian. So I started at Texas A&M and was pursuing that until I realized it was going to be about 10 years of school. My entire family had gone to A&M, but I switched to the business school at the University of Texas. I’m lucky they didn’t disown me after that. The first few Thanksgivings were rough.
BUNNETT: I bet. So, how did you get into commercial real estate?
FARBER: I got a job in the training program at NCNB Texas, with the goal of getting into real estate lending. I was there maybe all of four months. I’m a little ADD, which is a good thing and a bad thing. But it was hard for me to just sit there and write memos all day. I had an opportunity to join Aetna, which was taking a ton of properties back, at the time.
BUNNETT: So, you were on the asset management side?
FARBER: Yes. And while working for Aetna full-time, I pursued my MBA degree at night. … I understand you grew up in Amarillo with five boys in your family. I’m not sure if I heard the rumors right, you were either famous or infamous.
BUNNETT: More infamous, I’m sure.
FARBER: I’d love to hear more.
BUNNETT: We lived in Southern California until I was a young teenager. My dad had an opportunity to open a business in West Texas, and we moved from Newport Beach, California, to Amarillo, Texas. My brothers and I didn’t receive a vote in the decision-making process. As you can imagine, it was a major culture shock. As a bunch of long-haired, surfer, West Coast boys, we didn’t find a lot to do in Amarillo, so we tended to get into some mischief. We became known as “those darned Bunnett brothers.” It was all in good fun. Ultimately, I developed some incredible relationships in Amarillo. Some of my closest friends go all the way back to those days.
FARBER: Among the Bunnett brothers, did you have a nickname?
BUNNETT: Not really. I was the one who picked nicknames for the other four.
FARBER: Where were you in the pecking order?
BUNNETT: I was second. But my oldest brother was kind of a wild man, so I took on the persona of the oldest in the family and pretty much became the leader. I drafted off of him, though, and I knew just how far I could push it and still get away with things.
FARBER: How did you get into the real estate business?
BUNNETT: After graduating from Texas Tech University, I had prepared myself to go to attend law school at SMU. Several relatives on my dad’s side of the family were attorneys or involved in politics on the West Coast, and I was going to be the one of Bill Bunnett’s five sons to go to law school. The problem was, I really didn’t want to be an attorney. As I was driving to Dallas, I kept thinking about how this really wasn’t what I wanted to do. Long story short, on my first day of law school, I went to the Dean’s office and resigned my position. The Dean could not believe it. My parents told me, “OK. It’s time for you to go to work. Next month’s rent is on you.” I ultimately found a position with LaSalle Partners in Denver, of all places.
FARBER: How did you get back to Dallas?
BUNNETT: I learned of an opportunity the firm had in Las Colinas, an empty office building now called The Point, which we still lease, some 35 years later. I was the 20th hire in Denver, and there were only five professionals in the Dallas office at the time. I thought it would be better to be No. 6 in an office as opposed to No. 20, when you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder. So, I requested a transfer to Dallas. I thought it was a brilliant move at the time, and things actually worked out.
FARBER: Is that where you met Johnny Johnson? You two have been business partners for a long time.
BUNNETT: A good mutual friend introduced us. Johnny had recently moved to Dallas, and by that point I had been with LaSalle for five or six years. Johnny really wanted to get into the commercial real estate business. In those days, LaSalle really had a pedigree that they were pursuing. I didn’t meet it when I joined, and Johnny didn’t meet it either.
FARBER: Johnny definitely didn’t meet it.
BUNNETT: [laughs] LaSalle was pursuing people with MBAs from Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, and the like, with eight to 10 years of professional experience. Johnny didn’t have that. He was an LSU grad. But what he did bring to the table was a terrific personality and exceptional sales skills. He didn’t make it during the first round of interviews, but then I ran into him at a wedding, on the dance floor of all places. I got to talking to him afterward and just felt he was a natural for our business. We brought him back in for a second round of interviews, hired him, and he and I have since been working together for about 30 years.
FARBER: Good relationship.
BUNNETT: It’s a terrific relationship, and I’m grateful for it, as I am for the long-term relationships with Chris Taylor, John Patterson, Trey Smith, and others. Relationships are a big part of what this industry is all about. You and I go back many years, too. We were both on the LaSalle Partners/Jones Lang LaSalle team.
FARBER: Some people probably don’t know that we worked together back in the late 1990s or so.
BUNNETT: You were part of the Jack Minter, John Alvarado, Scot Farber team.
FARBER: Right. It was Jones Lang Wooten before we all became Jones Lang LaSalle.
BUNNETT: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since those days?
FARBER: The biggest change for me was shifting my focus to specialize in deals valued at less than $50 million. Early on, I was working on big deals like Nation’s Bank Plaza [now Bank of America Plaza] and the Comerica building. I saw a niche out there that wasn’t being served: bringing institutional-quality service to smaller deals. It has been a great niche and a great business platform to run with.
BUNNETT: You and Tom Strohbehn have absolutely carved out a leadership position in that component of the market. The two of you have been together for how long now? Ten or 11 years?
FARBER: Something like that.
BUNNETT: How’s that dynamic working?
FARBER: It works great. Tom is a terrific partner and I really enjoy working with him.
BUNNETT: We talked about how I grew up with four brothers. I understand you’re the father of three boys.
FARBER: Yes. Your story of the Bunnett brothers resonates. I have the Farber boys.
BUNNETT: That’s awesome. And your oldest is at OU?
FARBER: That’s right. He’s studying overseas this semester, in Israel. My middle one finished up this year at Plano West and he’s now studying in Israel, too. Our youngest son is in his last year at The Academy High School, a magnet school in Plano.
BUNNETT: For the gifted and talented. Do you personally take credit for that?
FARBER: I’ll take part of it. … So what about you, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your career?
BUNNETT: I got out of brokerage early on, about seven or eight years into it. I realized that what I enjoyed most was building an organization, identifying people who are going to be successful in this industry and helping shepherd them into an organization. I enjoy making sure we’re designing and creating a place where people can thrive and be more productive. I’ve just always believed if you build that organization and provide people with resources and create an enjoyable culture, it will yield significant results. I also enjoy helping to win new clients and new assignments, big or small. … So tell me about one of your more challenging opportunities, and how you solved it and what you learned.
FARBER: Well, it seems like every one of our deals is challenging, in one way or another. At some point you’re a broker, at some point you’re a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or a mediator. So often it comes down to managing expectations throughout the process and making sure everyone is on the same page. Just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, something else comes up. It’s kind of like life. I’ve learned to roll with it, to not have expectations about how a certain deal is going to go, to stay open, and get creative. That’s one of my strong suits, problem-solving through a situation to get a deal closed.
BUNNETT: That’s a great skill to have.
FARBER: I have a question for you, Bret. You had your accident a while ago, and you’ve inspired so many people along the way. There are probably people in the business who don’t know what happened, and I’m wondering if you’d like to talk about that?
BUNNETT: I’m happy to. It happened more than 20 years ago. It was a diving accident in the Bahamas. We were boating off a remote island called Treasure Cay. I had just received a promotion at LaSalle Partners and went there to celebrate. I had been in and out of the water most of the day. I didn’t realize our boat had drifted over a sandbar. I dove off the bow and fractured my neck. I was rescue-flighted out of the Bahamas, which took about 10 hours, and taken to a hospital in Miami. I went through about two weeks of intensive care, had surgery, and started rehab. It took about nine months before I was able to return to work, but the company was good enough to hold my position. I don’t think anyone expected me to come back full throttle.
FARBER: And you have, by the way, even more than that.
BUNNETT: Well, I was not going to sit on the sidelines. I was 32 years old, much too young to go on disability. I had no interest in doing that at all. I could have taken a check for 70 percent of my salary for the rest of my life and didn’t want to do that. I was surrounded by great people and was with a good organization, and I just wanted to be productive again. It’s a very manageable lifestyle. It’s not quite as easy as it once was, but again, if you work with talented folks you enjoy being around and having fun with. it’s all very achievable.
FARBER: I appreciate you sharing that, because I know you’re a big inspiration for a lot of people.
BUNNETT: Thanks, Scot. … Speaking of inspiration, who are the mentors you’ve had in your career? It’s so important to all of us, whether it’s commercial real estate or another line of business.
FARBER: I was fortunate in that my dad and my grandfather had a small property management firm when I was growing up in Houston, so I’ve always been around real estate. I saw their work ethic and learned a lot from their approach to the business. My grandfather was a colonel in the Air Force, so it was always a “Yes, sir” environment. And at Aetna, Jack Minter was selling a lot of our properties, and he asked me to come work with him. I can vividly remember agonizing over that decision. I had a six-month-old baby boy at the time, and I was sitting in my living room and thinking about going from a salary to commission-only. I didn’t sleep that night.
BUNNETT: Or, probably, for many nights.
FARBER: Right. There were a lot of sleepless nights. But I’m grateful to Jack for providing that opportunity. He has helped a lot of people in this industry, mentoring them and helping them achieve success. Many people on the investment sales side have either worked with or for Jack along the way. He has inspired me to give back, and I’ve tried to share lessons I’ve learned with Tom and others.
BUNNETT: Jack has been an icon in the business for a number of years, and it’s interesting to see the differences in personalities between the two of you. It just goes to show you that any personality can succeed in this industry, with determination. Everyone is gifted with different skills and aptitudes. I think it’s important for young people in our industry to know that. You don’t have to be a natural-born salesman, necessarily; if you are diligent and determined, if you work hard and get along with others, if you’re a problem-solver, there are all sorts of opportunities.
FARBER: I know it’s a cliché to say, “Think outside the box.” But if a young person were to ask me for advice, that’s what I’d say, especially now. It used to be that it was hard to get deal information or sales comps. It’s not a problem anymore. So the question is, what are you going to do with that data? How can you help a client? Can you spot a trend ahead of time? Can you give someone advice before they see it coming? That’s where the value is. That’s where you can earn your stripes—and your dollars.
BUNNETT: It’s all about performance, problem-solving, and creativity.
BUNNETT: So, Scot, I understand you’re a hunter, and recently got into bow-hunting. I also understand you’re heavy into yoga. So how do you reconcile the two?
FARBER: That’s a great question. I’ve actually been shooting a bow since I was 12 or 13. It has always been relaxing and enjoyable to me. It’s not necessarily about the hunting; it’s about being out in nature. I don’t really care whether I’m out fishing or out walking or just sitting someplace out in nature. It’s being quiet and being still.
BUNNETT: How does that work with the ADD?
FARBER: [laughs] It’s really good medicine for me, to quiet the mind down. And as far as yoga, that’s a funny story. I got into it about 13 years ago. I lost a bet to a female co-worker, and had to take a 90-minute, hot yoga class. Five minutes in, I thought I was going to throw up; then I thought I was going to pass out. Thirteen years later, I’m not only still taking classes I’m also a yoga teacher, and I love it.
BUNNETT: That’s outstanding.
FARBER: Here’s a question for you: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever done for money?
BUNNETT: I grew up working firework stands, and I had a lawn-mowing business …
FARBER: I had a lawn-mowing business, too.
BUNNETT: I did snow-shoveling and leaf-raking. But when I went to college, I realized there was a more enjoyable way to earn money. I partnered up with one of my fraternity brothers and we’d throw parties. We go out to a place called The Strip outside of Lubbock and buy 15 or 18 cases of beer and have parties out in a pasture. We’d put notices up around the campus and charge $3 to get in. So, I was kind of a social chairman …
BUNNETT: Exactly. But we did quite well, and had a lot of fun along the way. What about you? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever done to earn money?
FARBER: When I was working on my MBA in international business, I had an opportunity to study for about a month in Russia. I maxed out my credit cards to pay for it, but then I had to pay off my credit cards. So, before I left on my trip, I went to the Salvation Army and bought all the blue jeans I could buy, for $2 a pair. And I went to Sam’s and bought all the cigarettes I could buy. And then I went to Cracker Barrel and bought all the summer sausage I could buy. I put everything in a big duffle bag and took it to Russia. When I was over there, I traded everything for Russian lacquer boxes and troika dolls and the like. Then I sold those things when I got back to Dallas, and that covered the cost. There’s a photo of me outside of the subway in Russia in 1992, trading Marlboros.
BUNNETT: That’s an awesome story. I love it.
FARBER: Great memories. … Switching topics, we’re all settling into the merger now. What do you want people to think of when they think of Cushman & Wakefield?
BUNNETT: I hope they think excellence. I hope they see exceptional people in the organization, working together to serve clients at the highest level. Our collective goal is for Cushman & Wakefield to be the preeminent commercial real estate firm in the city, bar none. We want people beating down our door to be a part of this organization. We want people here who never want to leave. We want them to have more fun, be better connected, and have more productive careers. We’re not there yet. We’re working hard toward that goal and we’re making a lot of headway. We have a terrific group of people. I think our clients and our competitors in the marketplace see that every single day.
FARBER: It’s an incredible opportunity, when you think about it. The mergers that have led to this point and the talent pool that has been pulled together, with many incredible top producers. The potential is still largely untapped. It’s only been a year or so; where it can go and where it can grow. There’s a real sense of momentum.
BUNNETT: I’m extremely enthusiastic about the future. This is a 100-year-old company, and it feels like we’re 18 months into an entire new iteration of the firm. People here inspire me. When you walk through the office, you see people working hard and smiling and having fun. We’re seeing more collaboration. We’re getting through some of the heavy lifting of the merger, and when we get that fully behind us, we’re going to be that much more successful. There are no constraints about how far this organization can go and the leadership position we can take in the market.