Best friends in life form strong team in BB&T’s commercial real estate division

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Ken Leopard and Wes Lehrer have been best friends for three decades and now work side-by-side at BB&T. Photo by Will Crooks / Upstate Business Journal.

It’s not uncommon for friends to land in the same industry or even to work together.

But for two 7-year-olds to become best friends and remain so through high school, attend different colleges, head toward separate law schools, and then both pivot to finance, and without trying, and end up in the same office in Spartanburg and eventually the same team in Greenville? That’s rare.

Yet it’s exactly what happened with BB&T employees Ken Leopard, who covers the Upstate commercial real estate market, and Wes Lehrer, South Carolina commercial real estate manager.

The two were born and raised in Spartanburg, where they and their families still reside. Along with a Spartanburg office, they also spend a good amount of time in the Greenville office in the ONE Building at West Washington and South Main streets.

“There’s a lot of gratification and a lot of comfort that goes along with working with someone like Ken and a friend, and kind of winning together and challenges as well,” Lehrer says.

To add an even more interesting dynamic to the relationship, they were direct competitors for about four years – Leopard at BB&T and Lehrer at Carolina First – until Lehrer joined BB&T. But when Lehrer took the market president position in the Spartanburg office in 2010, it wasn’t as merely a colleague of Leopard’s, but as his direct manager.

“I knew that I would be coming and managing one of my best friends,” Lehrer says.

“What’s Ken going to think in the dynamic?” he recalls thinking. “Can it work – best friends to be working together, and having to manage and create fairness?”

Lehrer was prepared to turn down the job if his being Leopard’s superior would compromise the friendship.

Leopard says at the time, he was a high producer in the office but wasn’t ready for a management role, so he was all for it. This was Lehrer’s first management role, and Leopard was able to give him a roadmap of the office dynamics. But beyond that, the two worked to find a fair dynamic for the rest of the 10-member team, knowing favoritism from either one would cause conflict.

Lehrer says he combatted the natural tendency by including the entire team in decision-making, being fully transparent with his role, and actively looking for ways to support and engage with the other team members. The nature of their team is that the more success the individual members have, the more successful the entire team is, and Lehrer says he committed himself to that goal for each member, and not just Leopard.

Leopard also learned to treat Lehrer with a different level of respect, reserving the candor he might have with his best friend for a private conversation rather than in a team meeting.

They also discovered their individual strengths – Lehrer is more aggressive on the sales side and Leopard is a strategist – and allowed those to work in tandem rather than compete.

“We really bring out the best in each other,” Lehrer says. “Ken is good at numbers and analytics. I’m more on sales side. Work really well together.”

And with three decades of friendship comes a level of intuition and trust in each other that they say has helped lead their team to be highly successful. Along with supporting each other’s efforts, they each have the ability to protect the other from missteps. Or, as happens in high-pressure environments, if one of them looses his cool, the other is there to talk him down.

Their dynamic duo was threatened last year when Lehrer was promoted to his current statewide management position in September of 2017. After more than a year working apart, Leopard was just recently able to rejoin his friend on the commercial real estate team and take over the Upstate portfolio from a retired employee.

“The last 15 months has probably taught us to enjoy the present more because things will change,” Leopard says. “The likelihood we get to do this for another 20 years together side by side is probably pretty slim. So make the best of it because we just don’t know.”

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