Competitive athletes use discipline, competitive spirit to their advantage in CRE industry


Determination, discipline, a competitive spirit, and adaptability. These are traits that any competitive athlete would say are crucial to their success. But how do athletes use these traits after their career in sports is over?

Chris Butler, Michael Spiers, and Trey Pennington applied these traits to a career in commercial real estate. As athletes who achieved a high level at their given sport, each was driven to keep winning once their time competing was over. The parallels between competitive athletics and commercial real estate are abundant, and the careers that they are building are a testament to that.

Chris Butler
Competitive cycling,  2009-2017

Butler, originally from Hilton Head Island, has always had an eye for numbers. “I’ve always liked numbers and looking at real estate commissions. I got into investing before I graduated. I’ve always had my hand in real estate a little bit,” he says.

Butler attended Furman University on the Hollingsworth Scholarship, but his business goals were set aside for a newly discovered passion: cycling. As he started biking more and more, he realized that he had an opportunity to follow the sport into a career.

Since graduating Furman, Butler has raced on teams all over the world including BMC Racing Team based in Switzerland, Team USA, and many more. He has traveled to 40 countries for cycling and spent years living abroad and pursuing his passion for biking.

As he began slowing down, Butler wanted to reassess the time he spent away from his family and get back into business. Butler has spent the last year working as a broker with KDS Commercial Properties.

“As an endurance athlete you are so hungry to achieve, and you don’t want to be capped at anything,” Butler says, “Going up a mountain, you can always get better. Even if it takes a year to get 2 seconds faster. There is no limit and it’s the same thing in real estate. You can do as much as you want, I love that.”

Butler also explains the parallels between the type of teamwork it takes to be successful in both worlds. “When someone closes a deal maybe it’s his time to shine right now and it’s the same thing with cycling,” he says, “It’s not like a team sport where everyone wins after the soccer game, one person got the win today but the whole team helped and supported that and then tomorrow someone else will get the win. It’s the same here in the office.”

Butler was a specialist in climbing hills, which only accounted for about 5% of races, “I had to figure out a way to help the other guys shine by being supportive and positive and doing what I can,” Butler says. “It’s the same thing here, maybe I’m doing a deal but I’m coming to others for help even if they don’t get much back from it. We have that team environment.”

Trey Pennington
Football tight end at USC, 1999

Pennington grew up at avid Clemson football fan from Anderson but didn’t realize that playing football in college was an option until he was offered the chance to play at the University of South Carolina.

“It was a business decision, and it was a good fit for me in terms of academics. Football had been good to me, but I knew I wanted to use it to do something bigger,” Pennington said. He studied business at USC and went on to earn his law and MBA degree from USC as well. 

Pennington hoped to pursue accounting and law and eventually realized that he wanted something more entrepreneurial. “I wanted to be dealing with people a little more and I wanted something where the harder I worked the more I could get out of it,” Pennington said.

Now, Pennington is senior vice president of CBRE in Greenville and focuses on industrial services.

“A career in real estate is humbling,” he says, “When you grow up playing sports, not everyone can be the quarterback or super-star receiver. Everyone plays a role and I think it’s important to embrace that and that’s true for real estate as well. You need to embrace that role and grow in that role.”

Pennington says that football taught him many lessons that have applied to his career, and life in general. “You have to work with different types of people and work towards a common goal,” he says, “You have to learn how to be knocked down and get back up and learn to do the things that aren’t always fun but contribute to your goal. That self-discipline is critical. If you can take those things that football has to teach you and apply those to business, then you will be successful.”

Michael Spiers
Baseball, Clemson University, 1988-1991

Michael Spiers came from a family of Clemson baseball players, his father, brother, and son have all been a part of the same team in their lives.

As an outfielder, Spiers was on one of Clemson’s most talented teams in recent history, winning two ACC championships (1989 and 1991), was MVP of the tournament in 1991, and went to the College World Series that same year.

Spiers knows the lessons that baseball have done him well in his 25-years career with Windsor Aughtry.

“It takes dedication and adaptability. In commercial real estate, you have to adapt to your clients. You have to look at governmental agencies, engineers, attorneys, architects. You are always having to change your mindset and adjust,” Spiers says, “You have to be a good listener, in most things in life. You have to be able to take criticism and realize that you can’t do it on your own. You have to be able to listen to your clients and understand their goals. You have to do that in baseball and adapt from outfield to running bases and more.”

Spiers stresses the importance of relationships as well, “I have to build relationships that go past one transaction. You of course build relationships with your teammates too and have relationships that last forever. It is what makes you successful. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Timing is everything in commercial real estate, and patience is crucial to Spiers, “It takes a long time to put a deal together. Nothing happens overnight. It made the transition for me easier because you’re getting better every day even if you don’t see it in baseball, and you may not see all of those things you are working on daily to make that deal happen.”

Other CRE athletes you may know…

Emmitt Smith: Smith was selected in the first round of the NFL draft to the Dallas Cowboys and still holds the record for most career rushing yards in the NFL. Since his time in the NFL, he has bought and sold over 1,000 multifamily units in one market alone.

Joe Montana: Arguably one of the best quarterbacks of all time, Montana led the San Franscisco 49er’s to four super bowl trophies. Now, he heads a real estate development group, the Montana Property Group, known for the Santa Clara Centennial Gateway, a $400 million luxury hotel and entertainment development near the 49’s stadium.

Mo Vaughn: Vaughn spent 13 years in the MLB playing for the Red Sox, angels and the Mets. Vaughn hit 328 home runs with 1064 RBI’s (run batted in). Vaughn’s company, OMNI New York has renovated and manages over 7,000 low-cost units throughout New York, Miami, Boston, and more.

Roger Staubach: Staubach was a Heisman trophy winner and Dallas Cowboys great, as he won the super bowl twice during his time there has had the second highest QB passer rating of all time. During the off season, he worked at Henry S Miller co to learn about real estate, and eventually started his own firm that focused on residential real estate and developing office buildings.

Oscar de la Hoya: Hoya has a 36-9 record with 30 knockouts, 10 world titles, two Olympic gold medals and is considered one of the most popular fighters of his era. In 2005, he established Golden Boy Partners, which focuses on urban development in Latino communities.

David Robinson: Robinson is considered one of the best NBA centers of all time, he finished his career as a two-time NBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, And ten-time NBA all star. Off the court, Robinson formed a private equity firm with Daniel Bassichis, former Goldman Sachs member. It’s portfolio includes over $100m of upscale hotels, apartment complexes, and more.


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