Families in RE: Father and son find passion in commercial real estate



By Suzanne Heyn

Steve Corney just wanted his son, Chris, to select a career that made him happy. Of course, he’s ecstatic that Chris found happiness in commercial real estate, at Jones Lang La Salle, where Steve works as a senior managing director. But from the beginning, Steve wanted Chris to know he had options.

“You really have to love your job to stay in it,” Steve said. “You have to do it for the right reasons.”

Steve knows first-hand the importance of loving your work. After graduating from New York’s St. Lawrence University, he accepted a position in accounting for Johnson & Johnson. He loved the company, loved the people, but disliked the work.

“I had trouble making it to 5 o’clock,” Steve said. “As soon as I got a job I really liked in real estate, I recognized the difference. All of the sudden I would realize it’s 7 p.m. and I needed to go home. That’s something you worry about with your kids when they follow in your footsteps. Are you forcing them in the family business or are they following you just because they think that’s the only opportunity?”

Chris says he was never certain about entering real estate, although he always entertained the idea. He started working with his dad at 12 and continued through summers in high school and college. 

At the University of San Diego, Chris majored in business administration with an emphasis in real estate. “The more (real estate) classes I took, the more I realized it was something I had a serious interest in,” he said. “There’s no ceiling to what you can accomplish.”

Steve told Chris, “You can do whatever you want, and there are good opportunities here but if you don’t see it or don’t love it, then explore other options.”


Steve and Chris Corney.

“Chris really has a drive to make his way in the world,” said Steve. “He didn’t want to take a couple of years that a lot of the kids are doing these days to either work ‘just a job to have fun’ or to travel. He wanted to get right to it and start a career.”

Chris knows that real estate is a pipeline business, where leads and clients compound with every year of hard work. The reputation, relationships and skills that bring success take years to build, and Chris didn’t want to waste any time.

“He’s a 23-year-old kid and he’s interacting with CEOs and CFOs, and after a few minutes they forget about his age and look at him as part of the team,” said Steve.

Steve also received early exposure to the business — his mother worked in residential real estate. Originally from the East Coast, he worked for Coldwell Banker after leaving Johnson & Johnson. In 1982, Steve moved to Arizona and began working in property management with CBS Property Services.

Around 2000, Steve and his business partner, John Wyss, decided to narrow their focus and specialize exclusively in tenant representation. They had worked for a full-service brokerage and discovered they enjoyed representing tenants. Since, at the time, not many people practiced the specialty in Phoenix, Steve saw opportunity.

He and a few business partners investigated their options and identified Roger Staubach—who worked solely in tenant representation—as a good match. Steve and his partners teamed up with Roger, opening a Phoenix office for Staubach Co. in 2000. Soon after, they hired a fresh-faced college graduate, Pat Williams, who coached Chris in youth football. Now, Pat is Chris’ boss. “I think he’s used to calling Pat ‘coach’  which is what he really is to Chris once again,” said Steve.

In 2008, JLL acquired Staubach. “It worked out great for us and gave us a comprehensive global platform to handle our clients’ needs,” said Steve.

Chris, now an associate at JLL, is thriving in the role. “The more I learn, the more I enjoy the work itself,” he said. “At first, it’s challenging to not feel like you know what you’re doing, but it’s all on-the-job experience, which is really helpful.”

Steve is proud of his son. “For any dad, what’s his biggest dream for his son? Outside of health and happiness, it’s probably having the opportunity to work with his child,” Steve said. “It’s really neat to see your own son have that enthusiasm in his eyes, and to know what he’s feeling.”

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Families in RE: Father and son different, but very much alike

Rick Lee and son, Conner.

Rick and Conner Lee Cropped

By Suzanne Heyn

Dad Rick Lee is a jock. He played college football and loves all things athletic. Son Conner Lee is book smart, fluent in Spanish and travels to exotic places such as Colombia and Morocco.

“Unlike Conner, I’d rather travel to Europe,” said Rick, Principal at Lee & Associates, which as most people in the market know, does not own Lee & Associates.  “It’s interesting, some people in town think that because my last name is Lee, that I would’ve gotten a lot more business because of my name.  That has certainly not been the case and I have not tried to exploit the same name association with our founder from California, Bill Lee.”

Even though Conner and Rick couldn’t have more disparate interests, the two share one passion — commercial real estate.

Rick and Conner Lee.

Rick and Conner Lee.

Conner didn’t plan for this occupation. During college, he studied political science and Spanish. After graduating, he envisioned finding a job in politics, possibly in Washington, D.C.

But his first attempt at taking the Foreign Service exam was unsuccessful. During the next year of studying to retake the test, Conner accepted a temporary research position in his dad’s office.

The job shifted his goals. “I had really formed a great working relationship with the people at Lee & Associates and found that brokers were making good lives out of this exciting career,” said Conner.

Rick was thrilled. “I always wanted him to get into this business,” he said.

Rick started his sales career with IBM in Phoenix in 1976.  During his four years at IBM, Rick met several commercial real estate brokers who had previously worked at IBM and switched careers to commercial real estate.  Rick moved to Phoenix from the East Coast in 1976, planning to stay for five years and move back to the East Coast.  In 1980, Rick switched careers and went to work at CBRE.  After getting into the commercial real estate business, he decided that Phoenix was his home and never left.

“I went to work at CBRE, and started to do well, and I really loved the business.  I worked many, many hours before Conner and my other kids were born,” said Rick, adding that he often arrived at work at 4 a.m.  His first position was a runner, researching deals.  A year-and-a-half later, he struck out on his own.

Rick found that his four years with IBM gave him a competitive edge in the sales business.  He soon learned that his IBM sales training proved to be invaluable in the commercial real estate business.  “I loved the competition,” Rick said.  “All the brokers in town were kind of cut from the same mold, personality wise, but I thought I had a competitive edge based on my IBM sales training,” he added. “I was very driven to kick everybody’s butt in the business and prove that my extensive IBM sales training would help me get on a fast track to success.”

In 1996, Rick left CBRE to work at Lee & Associates.  In an industry of teams, Rick has always embraced his solo status. “While I never desired to have a partner, I enjoy working with all the brokers in my office,” he said. “I just chose to conduct my business that way.  It’s obvious today that partnerships in this business is a key to success.  I have been fortunate to be able to withstand the onslaught of the team concept in this business.  If I had to do it over again, to be competitive in this business I would entertain the idea of a partnership situation.”

Earlier in his career, Rick would close 100 deals a year.  “Today, I make 10 – 20 deals a year, but they’re usually bigger than the deals I made when closing 100 deals a year.”

He added, “I try and limit my client base to a select few groups that I can service by myself and know everything about a deal that’s going on.”

Conner works in the Research department at Lee & Associates.  He hopes to one day combine his interest in Latin America with his passions for international relations and real estate by brokering deals to help companies from around the world set up shop in Phoenix industrial space.

“I’ve always had an interest in international relations,” said Conner. “I saw how you need to be diplomatic in your negotiations, how you need to have a mutual respect for the people you work with and the people who you do business with.”  “Conner is the same, and I’m proud of him for that,” Rick added.

The importance of respect, he learned from his dad.

“I pretty much run my life the way I run my business,” said Rick. “It’s respect; it’s honor; it’s treat everyone equally, that includes staff and my clients.”

The two also know how to have fun. “I try not to take myself too seriously,” said Conner. He’s known for his impersonations of colleagues, and was invited to the broker’s bonus party one year for a brief performance.

Although Conner and Rick have a close relationship, they prevent familial ties from infiltrating their business dealings.

While Rick would love to train Conner in the business, it’s pretty well understood in the commercial real estate community that it’s best to be trained by people outside of the family.

Conner embraces his independence, but knows he can always count on his dad.

Rick knows Conner will be successful in this business. “He’s passionate and really wants to succeed, and hope to walk in some of his dad’s footsteps,” said Rick. “To be honest, I really hope Conner ends up kicking my butt in this business.  It’s extremely rewarding and the friendships and clients he will establish over the years will be rewarding beyond belief.”

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