When insurance brokerage Frank B. Hall & Co. was looking to lease space a few years ago at the 911 Wilshire office building in downtown L.A., the company's broker and the landlord's rep locked horns over lease terms.
The conflict centered on money and how much risk each side was willing to assume. And Lynn Williams, a broker with Cushman Realty Corp., was pushing hard for her client. "We were being very aggressive," she recalled.
That intensity didn't go unnoticed by the other side. "I felt she was trying to improve her deal beyond the point we could accommodate them. We ran out of ideas, and it got heated," said Mike Croft, then a partner with Maguire Thomas Partners, which was subleasing the office space.
Nothing unusual about difficult negotiations over a lease transaction except that in this case, Croft and Williams were engaged to be married. And despite the tough talking across the conference table, they are today husband and wife.
Croft and Williams are hardly alone. L.A.'s sprawling real estate industry includes any number of couples who work together at the same firm, in related businesses or, as with Croft and Williams, in competing businesses. While few of them actually sit across the negotiating table from one another, what they all share is a high-stress, demanding profession and the challenge of constantly reliving their office dramas when they get home in the evening.
How they deal with work issues, particularly when it involves adversarial positions, is largely dependent on their temperaments, said William L. Wallace, a Santa Monica psychologist who works with couples. Some tend to avoid conflict, others are accommodating, and still others are volatile.
"There's no problem with having work in common if two people have a real investment in it," Wallace said. "It is great if two people are really competent and enjoy their work and can share. But if one feels inadequate, it can create problems."
Solutions to such problems are as varied the relationships themselves, as discussions with four of L.A.'s commercial real estate couples demonstrate.
Jack and Connie Mahoney
They first met through a real estate deal. She worked for the seller of an apartment building in Houston, and he was buying it on behalf of L.A.-based Summit Commercial Properties.
A year later, he called her for lunch.
After they married in 1989 and she became a commercial broker, she sold him another property in Houston. They moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and Connie went into the title insurance business. Since then, she has handled the title insurance on a number of Summit's deals, mostly for shopping centers and office buildings. Most of her deals are not with Summit.
"I'm careful with how I deal with her. She has to give us better service or pricing so it doesn't look wrong," said Jack, who is president of Summit. "My partners are sensitive to that and I'm sensitive to them. There can't be cronyism."
At times, he has even gone with a rival's services. Once, when she was a broker, she brought a building to his attention as a possible acquisition, but the seller wasn't really ready. Several months later, another broker brought back the same deal and it went through.
"She said, 'Why didn't you come back to me?' She was upset about it. It was a large commission," Jack recalled. "But she understood the point what could I do? I have to play the game fairly."
Despite the occasional conflict, both said they enjoy sharing their profession.
"By having Jack come home every night and tell me about his deals, it's helped me understand the real estate market in L.A.," said Connie, who is vice president in Fidelity National Title Co.'s major accounts division. "It's an advantage to understand the market and who's getting ready to sell or refinance. We have a lot of competition in this town."
Jack said they're both type-A personalities, but are not workaholics or competitive with one another.
"It is shared interest. It's a little synergy as well. We talk real estate and we ski together. The more you have in common with someone and share their interests, the more fun the relationship can be," he said.
Michael and Gail Bloxberg
Both work at brokerage Grubb & Ellis Co. in Sherman Oaks and probably spend more time together in a week than most couples do in a month. They carpool together and work at desks that are next to each other. On the weekends, they ride bikes together or paddle their double-kayak.
"There's a standard remark people make to us how can you do it, be together all day?" Michael said. "They're kind of amazed, particularly on the male side."
The Bloxbergs, who have been married 13 years, started working together after Michael retired as a banking attorney in 1994. Gail already had been in the profession for a number of years. After they handled the sale of a skilled-nursing facility in Long Beach, the two decided to team up and eventually found a niche in the sale and leasing of health care facilities.
The two have complementary skills. With his legal background, Michael tends to handle the contracts and documentation, while Gail takes on more of the matching of clients with properties.
"We each know our strengths and weaknesses. We each do our share. It seems to balance," Gail said. "We have a good time."
Sandy and Helen Fishman
The Fishmans have worked together at Charles Dunn Co. since 1985 though since Sandy does investment sales and Helen is a leasing specialist, their paths may only cross over the lunch hour. They do refer business to one another, however.
"Too much togetherness I don't think is good for anybody," Sandy said. "Fortunately, we've always been able to complement each other."
But the two, who are both managing directors in the sales and leasing group in the Woodland Hills office, weren't always equals. For about 10 years at two other firms, he was an office manager and she was an agent in the office "which made it a little difficult," Sandy said.
There were times when she took issue with policies or decisions he made.
"Policies are made with everyone in mind," Sandy said. "There were times decisions I made may not have been in her best interest. If I had said, 'I can't do that because of Helen,' I wasn't being objective She probably suffered by me being a manager."
For example, when calls would come in for a listing or someone looking for space, he would not refer it to his wife. Or he may not have settled disputes over commission splits in her favor.
Helen agreed that her husband was able to objectively look at the situation itself, "as opposed to the players involved."
"I knew what he was doing was because of his position," Helen said.
Besides, they say, there are distinct advantages to a partner who understands exactly what you have to go through on a daily basis.
"Working together in the same industry, we know the ups and downs, so we have empathy for each other's problems," Sandy said. Added Helen: "We can get into specific deals, instead of general information. The downside is, sometimes you want to leave that behind. Both of us respect that."
Mike Croft, Lynn Williams
They have landed on opposite sides of the table three times in the past 12 years.
That's not too surprising after all, she represents top-tier law firms and corporations and those are precisely the kinds of tenants his firm, CommonWealth Partners (and Maguire Thomas before that) want. Fortunately, they don't conflict too often, since he is mostly involved in investment and development and she does tenant representation.
Beside the Frank B. Hall deal, Croft and Williams were adversaries in transactions involving First Interstate Bank and L.A. Cellular. The couple said they always inform all players on both sides of the deal of their relationship. So far, no clients have objected.
Not that either Williams or Croft would want to back out anyway. When Williams' boss, John Cushman III, learned that Croft was representing the landlord in the First Interstate deal, he told her there may be a potential issue, Williams recalled.
"I said, 'Mike will have to recuse himself,' " she said.
They immediately notified First Interstate, which didn't have a problem with it.
"The reality is, Lynn is a professional and she goes after us as hard as anyone else maybe harder to overcome any perception there might be a conflict," said Croft, CommonWealth's chief executive. "Lynn and Cushman are very aggressive. I view her being on the other side with mixed feelings. Both of us are creative and want to get the deal done. Sometimes things get pretty heated. You may yell at each other during the transaction, but you're each representing your best interests. I expect her to do the best job she can for her client. She doesn't expect me to go easy on them because we're married."
Williams and Croft most recently met across the table in L.A. Cellular's $105 million headquarters development deal. Williams was part of the Cushman team representing the company in its search for a site. CommonWealth was one of four firms bidding to develop the project. After about 18 months of being put through the paces and two requests for proposals, L.A. Cellular selected CommonWealth to develop its headquarters in Cerritos.
Being on the opposite sides of the table does place extra stress on their relationship. But they usually avoid the temptation to continue arguing a particular point at home "We just may not be as nice to each other," Williams joked.
Actually, they said it is easy to separate business from their marriage.
"We're more interested in how our daughter did on her spelling test," Croft said.
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