John Crossman: Educating the Future

CPE talks with John Crossman, president of Crossman & Co., about his efforts to develop future real estate leaders at the student level, his employment of social media and other efforts.

John CrossmanJohn Crossman has taken a career in commercial real estate to exceptionally contributive heights. Not content to focus solely on the success of the company he helms, the 42-year-old Floridian takes the time to speak to college students, volunteer and fundraise for non-profit and social justice causes, all the while maintaining a focus on faith and family.

In an online video, Crossman explains his philosophy: “Some people have a perspective that if you’re a leader, you’re a king. You put a crown on, and people serve you. I remind myself that in my leadership, I’m a servant. Staying focused on serving my clients and serving my employees, serving the industry and serving Florida state: That’s my lot in life.”

It sounds like a full plate, but the president of Crossman & Co. has an impressive legacy to maintain. His father, the late Rev. Kenneth Crossman, was a Civil Rights leader influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. Education and service were strong values in the Crossman household—values John Crossman carried into his real estate business.

“There are lots of reasons to do it, but I feel morally obligated. If we weren’t helping out in the area of education within our industry, we’d really be doing something wrong,” he said in a recent interview.

Crossman & Co., which John co-owns with his brother Scott (who founded the company in 1990 and serves as its CEO), is a major retail leasing, management, development and marketing firm in the Southeast, with more than 20 million square feet of inventory in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Since leaving Trammell Crow Co. in 2006 to partner with Scott, Crossman has focused much energy on educating the real estate leaders of the present and future. He has been a longtime member of ICSC, serving in numerous leadership roles. And he delivers as many as 10 lectures to college students each year, in Florida and around the country. Additionally, Crossman & Co.’s Web site has a special section just for university students seeking industry insight.

“We want to become known nationally as the best company that’s a resource for college students or anyone in the U.S. looking to getting into real estate,” Crossman said. As a result of lecture videos posted on YouTube, he’s been contacted by students from around the U.S. and universities as far afield as China with requests for advice and speaking invitations.

His passion for education is motivated in part by his own positive experience at Florida State University, where he determined real estate would be his career path and also captained the track team. He’s the youngest member to be inducted into the Florida State University College of Business Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed this year. And he has endowed two scholarships named for his father: at FSU and Bethune-Cookman University.

Drawing heavily on pop culture—especially his favorite sitcom, The Office—Crossman’s lectures to students are engaging and exceptionally real world. One of the most popular focuses on five ways to stay hired and five ways to get fired. It’s peppered with real world anecdotes about people and circumstances he has encountered in the world of commercial real estate.

View a video of Crossman speaking to students.

Hiring young talent is also a priority at Crossman & Co., where numerous students have started as interns and gone on to build successful careers. After each of his lectures, Crossman encourages the students to connect with him on social media. He’s fully engaged on Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, and encourages other commercial firms not to shy away from the brave new world of online media.

CPE talked to Crossman about his focus on education and many other topics in a recent interview.

Q: In your lectures, you encourage students to contact companies where they may want to intern, and Crossman & Co. has had many interns. What makes the experience of working for you unique?

A: We hire a lot of interns and put a lot of responsibility on them that other companies don’t. We really empower them. Sometimes you intern and your job is to get coffee. We’re not like that. I’ll meet with the mayor and I’ll bring an intern with me. If they apply themselves, they really get a vast experience here.

Q: Have you ever thought about being a full-time professor?

A: I have been asked occasionally to consider pursuing a full-time career as a professor. But I think I’m a better guest lecturer than I am a full-time professor. It’s kind of like the difference between being a dad or a cool uncle; I like having cool uncle status. I think the lecture series is the better way to impact students as opposed to being an adjunct professor.

Q: What advice do you have for students considering a real estate career?

A: Real estate is like a lot of careers: It takes time. The earlier you get started, the easier it’s going to be on you. It takes time to build up the knowledge and time to build up the client base. In major markets, the more specialized you are, the more of an impact player you are. It’s a pretty major advantage if you have a specialized focus earlier in the process.

Q: One of your emphases in working with college students is attracting a more diverse talent pool to the real estate industry. Tell us more.

A: I’m working with Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, both historically black colleges that lack real estate degree programs, to start real estate clubs and get students interested in real estate. I feel good about the general connectivity of college students to our industry, but I think we’ve got to make more of an effort for diversity. There are a lot of talented people that graduate with degrees in marketing, or MBAs, and they are very bright people who happen to be diverse, but they go into other careers. We want the best and brightest, and I think that by not exposing them to our industry, we’re not always getting the best and brightest.

Q: Social media is important to you. How are you using it effectively?

A: Back in 2008-2009, my two nieces, who were teenagers then, asked me, ‘Uncle John, why aren’t you on Facebook?’” I didn’t even know what Facebook was. As I learned more, I decided that John Crossman the person and Crossman & Co.  were the same thing. So when it comes to Facebook, I do put pictures of my kids up there, but it is a pretty fluid relationship between my identity and the company’s.

Second, I have a specific message to deliver. Sometimes people don’t know what to post on social media. Through my lectures, to industry peers as well as students, I’ve always had content to post that people can connect to and learn from. Third, I have a defined market. There’s a very specific group of people that I’m trying to connect to, so that really helps. And finally, I was willing to take risks. A lot of executives work for publicly traded companies, or they have boards, and they’re not going to risk getting out there and trying something. We figured, we’ll push the envelope. We’ll try something and see what happens.

Q: Has that approach been successful?

A: It has. A couple of times we have been like, “Whoops, that didn’t work; let’s try something else!” But a year after we launched our social media, we had a call from a Fortune 500 company who wanted us to come and teach them how to do social media for their business. They said, “We see you as an expert. Can you come to our offices and teach us what we should do?” So we did. I had never taken a class, never read a book on the subject, and I had a college intern helping me on the project. We simply focus on our core messaging and our core market. It’s something that has really worked for us.

Q: You invite the students you speak with to connect with you online. What is the reason?

A: They see us as a resource and often connect to me and connect to our company. We post scholarships and other things of interest to them. They’re interested in real estate, which is great, but we’re also building a base for future customers. They’re part of our target market.  Twenty years from now, if we have had a consistent presence in the university world, connecting to students who are interested in business and real estate, I think that’s going to be a really good thing. I don’t know why our competitors aren’t doing it.

For the students, I tell them, if you’re trying to get a job with a company or you want somebody to be a mentor of yours, become a fan of theirs. That’s something you can do to help promote that company: by saying good things about them via social media.

Q: You’ve been a lifelong runner, from track as a high school and college student to road races today. Does that experience relate to real estate?

A:  I run 5Ks now, and my coach always says, “Halfway through the race, you should feel exhausted. That’s normal.” Business is the same way. If you’re trying to be very successful in business, it’s exhausting. It’s painful. That’s what it is. Anything in life that’s great, you have to suffer for.

When you live passionately, you’re going to get hurt. From a stupid thing like your favorite football team losing, or more important when you’re raising your children and they get sick or they have something bad happen to them. Part of life and relationships and business and parenting is suffering. It’s a vital part of the experience.

CPE: You have a long list of community service activities. What are you focused on right now?

A: I recently discovered the International Justice Mission, which fights the sex slave trade industry, through my church. How does this industry exist? It’s just so unacceptable, and we have to eradicate it. People of faith and people not of faith—100 percent of people, whether atheist or agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—agree that human sex trafficking is totally unacceptable.

This a personal issue for me. I have two daughters and two sisters, and I think we need to provide a safe environment for women. Justin Timberlake posted something on Facebook recently that said, “Real men don’t buy women.” I think I may wear that on a shirt in my next race. I’m working on awareness and fund-raising support for IJM.

I’m also active in the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, which sends chaplains to prisons globally and has proven to reduce recidivism rates dramatically—in some cases from 90 percent to just 13 percent. I work with Florida Hospital and the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. Housing, food, hospitals, jails are all core things that are important for me.

CPE: Let’s finish up by coming back to real estate. How’s business? What’s happening with retail and commercial in the Southeast?

A: We provide services to retail landlords, so our clients are anybody that owns a shopping center. If you own a shopping center anywhere in the Southeast, we provide all the services you need. Lease, manage, sales, fee development, construction management, receivership—anything in the stack of services the landlord would need, we can do.

We’ve been growing with our clients. As they expand, we expand. As our clients go to other states, we’re going to other states with them and growing into new markets. We recently opened an office in Boca, and we’ve got one in Miami and in Atlanta. The market has been good and getting better, which is exciting. We still have some properties with some challenges, but I think we have a competitive advantage because we’re so focused. We have very few competitors who do exactly what we do.