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Incoming Cresa CEO Jim Underhill Plans Bold But Strategic Growth

Former Head of Cushman's Americas Region Touts Employee-Owned Culture of Boston-Based Tenant Representation Firm
March 8, 2016
James M. Underhill, named Cresa's CEO after several months of serving as a strategic advisor to the tenant representation firm’s board, proposes to double the company's workforce and revenue within five years by strategically growing its U.S. and international presence.

Underhill, however, said Boston-based Cresa, which already has more than 1,000 employees in 60 offices in 75 markets, most of them in the U.S. but also globally, doesn’t aspire to be "big just to be big or for the sake of posting numbers."

"The most important lesson I learned from being with a larger firm is that bigger isn’t better," Underhill tells CoStar. "It's about finding the right size for what you do and for the clients that you’re pursuing."

Underhill, based in Cresa's Washington, D.C. office, said his five-year plan to double revenue and headcount is based on reasonable projections from an analysis of the company's presence in each of its markets, plus a few large markets where it would like to expand.

"We want to do one thing exceptionally well, which is tenant representation," he said. "Though we need more international growth, which we’re working on, we currently have great coverage in the major markets. We're generally focused on expanding within the locations where we already have offices."

"We’re the only company that competes on this level that’s 100% employee owned with no outside partners. We do what’s best for the business, not any third-party investor."

Underhill describes the current process as "a transformation that is the next evolution of the company."

"I’m excited by the opportunity, and I love the fact that everyone else is trying to be the biggest firm in the world, and that allows us to crisply differentiate ourselves," he said.

In fact, many large companies simply have too many people, moving well beyond the size and scale necessary to compete at the highest level into what Underhill calls an "overcrowding issue," with multiple professionals competing for business within the organization.

"If you’re a rising star in one of those companies, you may have a hard time finding growth opportunities and upside," Underhill said. "That’s why there’s so much turnover occurring today in the major firms."

Cresa will certainly be on the hunt for companies and talent to acquire, though acquisitions will likely be smaller and limited by the dwindling number of available independent pure-play tenant representation firms.

"Our focus will be on bringing in the right talent. I’ve seen from my advisory work activity that clients like the notion of a smaller firm," he said. "We represent Oracle, Twitter, Boston Scientific, and many other big-name firms, which demonstrates that clients don’t believe they have to work with one of the biggest firms in the world to receive great service."

Underhill spent the year following his departure from his position as CEO of the Americas for Cushman & Wakefield looking at a variety of opportunities, including the possibility of starting his own firm. Last year, he accepted a position as board chairman of Create, a Washington, D.C.-based technology startup.

Having known many of the Cresa leaders for quite some time, especially those in the Washington, D.C. office, Underhill was receptive when the company asked him late last summer to serve as a strategic adviser to the Cresa board of directors.

"I said, I’d love to, and it evolved from there to where we mutually said, 'this is a good fit,'" Underhill said. "They said they would be needing a CEO, so we went into the process knowing that."

Richard M. Rhodes, who served a duel role as interim CEO and managing principal of Cresa’s Mid-Atlantic region, will continue to lead the Mid-Atlantic region and serve on Cresa's executive committee and board of directors.
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