Workplace Wunderkind: Avison Young’s Jonathan Larsen Opens Doors for Corporate Occupiers

As a freshman at the University of Washington, Jonathan Larsen figured he would follow in his uncle’s footsteps and practice dentistry. Instead, he took to heart his uncle’s suggestion to pursue a faster-paced—and ideally, more lucrative—field.
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In 2015, Jonathan Larsen arranged a 15-year lease extension for Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, a longtime client, at the US Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles (above). The deal expands the law firm’s footprint to 215,000 square feet on nine floors. Photo by OUE

As a freshman at the University of Washington, Jonathan Larsen figured he would follow in his uncle’s footsteps and practice dentistry. Instead, he took to heart his uncle’s suggestion to pursue a faster-paced—and ideally, more lucrative—field. “Like selling Boeing airplanes,” Larsen recounted, “or commercial real estate.”

Larsen went with the latter, and after 30 years of launching and running offices in downtown Los Angeles for several of the industry’s largest brokerage firms, it’s safe to say he made the right choice. Since 2015, he’s been calling the shots as a principal at Avison Young, overseeing the firm’s efforts across a broad swath of Southern California, including its West Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Tri-Cities and Ventura County regions. His client list reads like a who’s who of banking, insurance, education and media firms, and it keeps growing, thanks to Larsen’s track record of blockbuster deals, industry-wide recognition and his affable personality.

Larsen’s unselfish approach to deals was instrumental in the mission of Guy Banks, vice president of real estate at Cogent Communications Inc., who lauded Larsen’s razor-sharp industry knowledge.

Since 2007, Larsen and Banks have worked together on nearly 100 new leases and renewals, and Banks intends to keep up the momentum. “I’m kind of hoping he never retires,” he joked. “At least, not until I do.”

Climbing the ladder

When Larsen started at CBRE as an associate vice president in 1988, it was in many ways a different era. Brokers at his office did not yet use computers, so in order to survey potential opportunities, he would walk around downtown L.A., armed with a voice recorder and a telephone directory. Then he would return to his office and work the phone, making around 100 cold calls each week. Within three years, he recalled, “I was taking about five to 10 meetings and doing an average of two to three deals per week. My goal was to find a niche where I could excel.”

At CBRE, Larsen quickly made a name for himself, closing his then-largest deal in 1990: a 20-year, 100,000-square-foot lease at 770 Wilshire Blvd. on behalf of the Los Angeles Community College District. It was also downtown L.A.’s biggest lease that year, earning Larsen recognition as his office’s top broker of the year. Betraying a streak of humility, Larsen likes to credit his big break to chance. “Had it not been raining that day—which is rare for L.A.—more people might have been out and about, and another broker might have gotten the deal,” he speculated. “We were right in the middle of a recession, too, so I consider myself very lucky.”

A turning point arrived in 2001, when the Los Angeles Unified School District sent out a request for proposals for firms to represent it in the acquisition of a new headquarters location. Edging out a field that included 27 other candidates, Trammell Crow Co., which Larsen had joined as a principal in 1995, was awarded the contract. For Larsen, it was a game-changer. “I went from doing 500-square-foot leases to 100,000-square-foot deals,” he recalled. “Then, this 1 million-square-foot deal took me from being the top broker in L.A. to one of the top brokers in the country.”

More than a quarter-century into his real estate career, Larsen was called on to handle one of the most difficult situations imaginable for an office broker. One day in December 2014, he received a phone call at 5 a.m. from the COO of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith—Larsen’s client of seven years—informing him that a raging fire had destroyed the national law firm’s downtown L.A. office.

mission_scorecardYeoman service

It turned out that Lewis Brisbois’ building was actually collateral damage, rather than the arsonist’s target. The Los Angeles Fire Department determined that the blaze originated at a nearby seven-story apartment complex, and when it spread to the law firm’s 16-story office building, the extent of the damage required Larsen to find a suitable 240,000-square-foot space for his blue-chip client with virtually no notice. He needed only a week to secure quarters at the US Bank Tower, a downtown L.A. landmark and the tallest building west of the Mississippi until 2016.

Larsen’s yeoman service in the crisis did not go unnoticed. He was asked to find Lewis Brisbois a new location in New York City, and in September 2017, he cinched a 15-year, 100,952-square-foot lease at 77 Water St. in downtown Manhattan. The firm now occupies four full floors of the nearly 547,000-square-foot office tower.

As the needs of his clients change, Larsen remains flexible in order to keep them satisfied. Today’s workforce is multigenerational, Larsen has observed: Employees “want different types of space, whether it’s communal work benches or private offices.” He’s also noted that more of his customers have turned to secondary markets in search of more affordable rental rates. Amid rising valuations, he believes tertiary markets—such as Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and Spokane, Wash.—will soon become more attractive destinations, even for large corporations. For the time being, however, Class A office space still wins over his clients as a key tool in recruiting and retaining highly skilled talent.

One of his fellow Washington Huskies, the retired NBA star Detlef Schrempf, attests to Larsen’s generosity. After being out of touch for some years, the college teammates reconnected at a fundraising golf tournament in Los Angeles. Following the event, Larsen welcomed every guest into his home, including several of his clients, Schrempf recalled, as well as “the staff and some people he didn’t know. That’s just his personality. He’s created a brand of trust and integrity, and that’s why people stick with him.”

Originally appearing in the November 2017 issue of CPE.