[ ABOVE: J. Earle Furman Jr. atop NAI Earle Furman’s Greenville headquarters // Photographed by Jack Lukow ]
NAI Earle Furman celebrates three decades of building Greenville
A quick scan of articles on the attributes of highly successful leaders finds qualities like “grace under pressure,” “committed communicator” and “unwavering supporter of staff.” If entrepreneurism intrigues you, you can read articles like these, or you can sit down for a chat with J. Earle Furman Jr.
Collaboration, mentoring and shared success may be buzzwords today, but they were not part of the lexicon of the ’80s and ’90s when Furman, the founder and chairman of NAI Earle Furman, launched himself into entrepreneurism.
Possessing an effortless charm, soft-spoken demeanor and a penchant for storytelling, Furman tells of his decision to strike out on his own after 15 years with The Furman Co., the firm started by his great-grandfather. It was 1986, Furman was 39 years old and he had no grand plan other than an intention to start a “simple business, in that there was not a lot of clutter and I did what I wanted to.”
“Looking back on it, I must have been a little naïve,” he admits.
“Simple” included small, and he began in a “9-by-9 windowless room where I had to move a chair to open the door.”
“I never intended to grow,” he recalls. “I was going to be a cottage industry.” But success – and growth – came anyway. “I kept growing and growing, almost without a plan,” he says.
The unplanned growth included a number of people calling who wanted to join the firm. Ford Borders, a company stockholder and broker, notes that Furman had a “strong family name and a strong character. People liked and respected him. That’s why he was getting these calls – then and now.”
A foundation of collaboration
By the mid-’90s, the firm had moved several times to accommodate a growing number of brokers and staff, and Furman had begun to think about sustainability. “I realized that the business was all me. If I got hit by a bus, it would be over with,” he recalls. The foundation of his company began to take shape at a convention in San Francisco in 1996, and culminated later that year when Furman and three former colleagues, P. Randall Bentley, Ford Borders and William Burgess, agreed to become partners and formed Earle Furman and Associates.
“The capacity we joined together to form was formidable at that time,” Furman says. “It was filled with very capable people.”
That awareness is a central ingredient in Furman’s recipe for continuing success: “Surround yourself with people who are likely better than you are.”
The next four years of the new partnership attracted the interest of a major player in commercial real estate, NAI Global. Affiliating with NAI Global in 2000 globalized the firm. “It gave us a platform where we could seem to be seamless with other providers throughout the world,” Furman says. He adopted a wait-and-see attitude in the beginning, but today it is clear that NAI opened doors and markets, and offered resources that have been important to the firm’s growth.
With 180 members and 375 offices in every major U.S. market and across every continent of the world, NAI provided confidence for brokers and clients that “they have connections waiting for them wherever they might operate,” Furman notes. “That sort of collaboration absolutely works.”
Training the next generation
A second foundational idea was the firm’s approach to the systemic business problem of putting the right people in the right places doing the right things.
CEO Jon Good is a beneficiary of the tradition-busting idea of mentoring, which Furman describes as the “mentor milestone.” The four founders each took on the training of a junior broker. Eventually, three of those juniors became partners and, in turn, embarked on their own mentoring relationship. And it continues.
“Training the next generation was a real big growth driver and stabilizer for our company,” says Good, who counts Furman as his mentor and credits him with being the most significant influence in his career.
Not a traditional real estate model
While expanding partnerships and mentoring sounds pretty traditional for many businesses, it is not in real estate brokerages. Borders, one of the four founding partners who remains at Furman’s side today, calls it “a model like no other around here or at most brokerage companies in the U.S.” The move to add partners and to mentor young brokers to success as potential partners brought stability, cooperation and opportunity. The firm currently has 17 partners and 80 brokers and staff.
Traditionally in the industry, offices are “run by a player-coach – somebody who is doing deals and trying to grow the business at the same time,” notes Chief Operating Officer Jason Richards. “Their growth is stifled.” Richards adds that the “player-coach” does not get to do what they love, “which is making deals.”
Good describes the firm as an open and welcoming place for ideas and opinions: “Because we are set up this way, we can take the best part of everybody’s brain and it goes into the solution at the end.” To which Furman adds that honest feedback is “demanded.”
“As far as ‘yes’ people – not here,” he says emphatically. People need to feel that they can speak freely when they need or want to, Furman insists. “We actually drill it into people in our meetings and in our mission, which requires us to have fun and make money.”
These ideas about growth, structure and collaboration have brought something special to NAI Global as well. “The CEO of NAI Global always acknowledges our firm and cites Earle’s approach of bringing in partners and sharing success as a best practice,” says Richards, who attends conferences and is active in the organization.
“This industry is dominated by corporate-owned firms or one to two partners in a family-owned firm,” Richards observers. “Many of those owners are now in Earle’s peer group, and they want to make the change that Earle started more than 20 years ago.”
Assessing the last 30 years, Furman chooses not to identify big deals or projects. “Milestones,” he concludes, “are not only deals but directions you have taken.”
The conscience of the company
Many businesses talk about a commitment to the community, but NAI Earle Furman lives it. Not just with sponsorships and matching employee donations, but with the sweat and toil of its staff.
Last Thursday, the company held its annual Community Outreach Day, when everyone from the chairman on down is invited to participate in a community improvement project. Last year, working with Rebuild Upstate, more than 50 employees of the firm spent the day building a ramp, repairing a bathroom and porches to two homes in the Staunton Bridge community.
This year, 71 staff partnered with TreesGreenville and The Friends of the Reedy River to clear out underbrush, mulch, plant trees and create flower beds along the banks of Greenville’s Reedy River and the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
NAI EARLE FURMAN TIMELINE
1986 – Earle Furman Jr. leaves The Furman Co. and opens his new commercial real estate business in a “9-by-9 windowless room.”
1996 – Furman evolves into a partnership organization. Three partners – P. Randall Bentley, Ford Borders and William Burgess – join the rm, which now has 14 brokers and 10 support staff.
1997 – The firm launches the first of six divisions, Property Management.
1999 – The rm affiliates with NAI Global and rebrands as NAI Earle Furman.
2003 – More than $100 million in transactions is reached for the first time in the firm’s history. The company also moves to its current location at 101 E. Washington St.
2006 – Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the rm doubles its transaction value to a new milestone of $219.3 million.
2009 – The managed property division now has 5 million square feet of commercial space under management; the firm as a whole has 50 members.
2011 – A multifamily division is launched to focus only on apartments and capitalize on a new trend toward rentals.
2012 – NAI Earle Furman opens an office in Spartanburg.
2014 – An Anderson office is added to the firm. Kay Hill becomes the firm’s first female partner.
2015 – A record 584 transactions are completed, accounting for $328.9 million in sales.
2016 – The NAI Earle Furman team, now with 17 partners, 80 brokers, six divisions and three Upstate offices, celebrates its 30-year anniversary.