Partially due to CBRE’s policy as a public company of only letting office leaders speak to the media, but also due to the perspective he provides from running its Cleveland office for more than 30 years, David Browning is likely the most-quoted real estate exec in Northeast Ohio.
He captains an office that has grown from a small outpost of the national brokerage to Cleveland’s largest commercial real estate services firm, with a second office in Akron. Together, the shops field a group of more than 60 agents covering all commercial property types.
Several practices with national followings have been spawned or grown big time from there, such as its corporate services group. He has served as president of the Akron Cleveland Association of Realtors predecessor Cleveland group, among many civic activities. Browning grew up learning real estate from a grandfather who owned a Wisconsin property portfolio, met his wife, Mary, through an office deal in Chicago and joined CBRE at 21 while a researcher as a Portland, Ore., college student.
Where do you live?
Downtown at the Flats at East Bank. We sold our home in Avon and moved downtown because we could as empty-nesters. I gained more than an hour a day because I’m not on the road commuting. As a result, I’m probably better informed than at any time in the past when the day begins. We looked at several properties downtown and landed at Flats East Bank. When my wife saw the view of Lake Erie and the river, with a balcony, I knew that was it. If we move again, we’ll have to have a similar view — and definitely have a balcony. It’s great because we go to so many things downtown. It’s easy now to decide to go to a baseball game on the spur of the moment.
You’ve seen more than a few real estate cycles come and go. What have you learned through those experiences about the business?
My first had a great impact. That was during the era of double-digit interest rates, which was so difficult. I saw all these very experienced people in our Oakland, Calif., office who did not know where to turn. I’ve experienced at least four major downturns but nothing of that consequence until the Great Recession. You learn to watch the fundamentals. As far as the current situation goes, you wonder where it will blow up. Will we see multifamily overbuild? Industrial space is tighter than ever, and the office market is balanced. People say retail has been blown up. But we’ve had successful lifestyle centers. Trade wars are a concern. However, I do think we have a lot more run room in Northeast Ohio.
How do you size things up in Cleveland compared to when you first got here?
When I got here from Chicago in 1987, Cleveland was on a roll. What was happening in the Flats then was epic. The BP Building (now 200 Public Square) was just finished. There was soon construction of office buildings at Playhouse Square and Public Square as well as Tower City Center. Then, it was like the music stopped. We were in this boom, then everything stopped. BP was a major loss for the city. We had to do a lot of work to get things in place to get change in place in the city. There were some dark days. I credit Joe Marinucci (president and CEO of Downtown Cleveland Alliance) for working hard to get people together. Then came the shift in the market as millennials wanted to live downtown. That created the market’s resurgence. We have transformed 5 million square feet of office space into hospitality and residential space. Then East 4th Street Neighborhood got started. Then the (Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority) created the bus rapid transit on Euclid (the HealthLine). Now you walk around downtown and it has all come together. Downtown’s fabulous now.
If you weren’t a real estate executive, what would you likely, and like to, be doing?
I’d be in an entrepreneurial, service business. I started mowing lawns for people when I was 12. When I was 15, I started painting houses. With two of my best friends, we started a painting business. We spraypainted barns, buildings and houses. We turned it into a not insignificant business. We had a lot of fun. There is a pride from doing that. The guy who hired me at CBRE later said he hired me because he saw the entrepreneurial streak from mowing lawns and running a painting business.
What advice would you give college graduates looking to land their first career job in business?
It starts by being well read in current business affairs. I like to see people who are engaged during their college years. There are many successful people who are willing to spend time with young people because they want to help and give advice. If you are sincere, you will find people who will give you that time. And listen. The graduates I worry about are the ones who do that when they are in their job search. They’ve figured they were doing the college thing while they are in college and the job thing after.
What will the successful real estate broker of the future look like? Will artificial intelligence decimate brokerage ranks like so many other service industries?
Brokers will have to command the technology. But real estate remains a relationship business. You will continue to need to know people. It’s the same thing as how a good broker handles a downturn. Learn more about the business of your client. That will allow you to provide good counsel when they need it.
Bold Food and Drink
1121 W. 10th St., Cleveland
Both had tacos with chicken or beef, seven in total. The Nashville chicken taco was a tasty surprise. One had iced tea, the other soda.
Bold inherited the cutting-edge design of the former Ken Stewart’s in the Flats. Affordable food in a high-design setting is the result.
$40.40 with tip
Vacation place: Door County, Wis.
Pleasurable pursuit: Golf
Children? Four, all grown
Mentor? Several. There are mentors for different things.
Favorite part of Cleveland? Ohio City, Tremont and Gordon Square