After more than a decade in commercial real estate, John Zinati had settled into a comfortable career as a leasing manager at a well-known locally owned Ottawa firm and could have simply counted down the days until retirement.
Instead, he chose a different path. In 2016, he launched Zinati Realty, a boutique brokerage that serves mainly owners and landlords in the office, retail and industrial sectors.
Since then, Zinati has brought on two more brokers and is looking to expand his team further as the industry slowly works its way toward a post-pandemic future. Looking back on his decision to leave the security of an established firm for the uncertainty of life as an entrepreneur, he has no regrets.
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“I was just faced with too many limitations, so I made the decision to go out on my own,” Zinati explains.
“Being nimble and quick and working closely with these owners to get their spaces filled or get their buildings sold is really rewarding.”
Zinati is one of a growing number of local real estate executives who’ve left comfortable, secure jobs at established big-name companies to start their own brokerages and advisory firms.
Many of these owner-brokers point to the freedom of being able to make their own decisions and do their own deals without having to answer to corporate bosses as a major factor in making the leap.
“I think commercial real estate brokerage in the boutique setting is one of the last few places where you can just earn more with a little bit more elbow grease,” says Darren Fleming, the CEO of Real Strategy Advisors. “There’s so much upside.”
Before launching his own firm, Fleming spent seven years as managing director of Cresa’s Ottawa office. His lengthy real estate resume also includes four years as a sales representative at Colliers International and a one-year stint as a leasing agent with Montreal-based developer Canderel.
In 2016, Fleming sold his shares in Cresa, left the company and enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
The following year, he launched Real Strategy Advisors, which provides advisory and brokerage services to office tenants in the tech, professional services and not-for-profit sectors.
He’s never looked back. Too often, Fleming says, strict corporate policies at bigger firms put entrepreneurial-minded brokers in a straightjacket. He points to an example from early in his career, when an employer told him he was storing too much sales data on a company server.
“I think I’m addicted to being an entrepreneur and being my own boss,” Fleming says. “Are there days when you wish someone would sign off on payroll other than you? Yeah, but it’s worth it in the end.”
Graeme Webster is a partner at Ottawa’s KOBLE Commercial Real Estate, a firm that brokers mainly off-market and unlisted office and industrial transactions for buyers such as entrepreneurs and well-heeled professionals looking to build up their investment portfolios.
He and fellow partner Marc Morin founded KOBLE seven and a half years ago after cutting their teeth for more than a decade at large, well-established firms. Webster says he thrives on the feeling of satisfaction he gets from navigating clients through deals that can set them up for retirement or attain assets that can be passed on to future generations.
“Our focus is to help people establish that family legacy,” he says. “Real estate is really just the tool to allow them to do that.”
Now at six employees, KOBLE recently brought Ottawa commercial real estate veteran Richard Getz on board as a senior adviser. The firm is also looking to hire someone to oversee its business operations as it continues to expand.
Webster says that despite the overall uncertainty facing the industry at the moment, KOBLE is thriving. The firm has more deals in its pipeline than at any other time in its history, a development he attributes largely to the city’s reputation for being a safe haven in times of economic turmoil.
“It’s a place where when there’s volatility, people want to jump in (the market),” he explains.