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Greg Smith and the Soul of Urban Visions

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The Human Factor: People-Centric Conversations with CRE Leaders

By Theresa Torseth, Founder/Managing Partner, Human Securities Executive Search

In The Human Factor, we will explore the people side of real estate. Through a series of interviews with CRE industry leaders conducted by 20-year executive search veteran Theresa Torseth, you will hear how its people—their values, culture and ideas—shape companies and successes.

THERESA TORSETH: 
To start, let’s look backwards a bit. Your family has had five generations of leaders here in Seattle. Prior to starting your own company, you were part of your father’s business, Martin Smith Inc. Yet when you went out on your own, you really started Urban Visions from scratch. What were the cultural elements or the values that you brought with you from those experiences—and which did you choose to leave behind?

GREG SMITH:
I didn’t leave any behind. I guess it began with my upbringing. There are values I was taught through my parents and other people in my life that I’ve admired: honesty, integrity, hard work, humility, a sense of humor and the idea that people are equal. Respect all people and treat people the way you’d want to be treated. So those are the qualities that I’ve tried to emulate. I try to lead from the front and walk the talk.

I would say our soul is embedded in Seattle

THERESA TORSETH: 
When you started Urban Visions, did you consciously have a culture in mind and written values you wanted to bring forth or did those emerge over time?

GREG SMITH:
I think culture and values constantly emerge, so I don’t like the idea that you’ve reached Nirvana because nobody has got it figured out. Life continues to change and socio cultures change. I love that! You’ve got to stay open minded. As the younger generation grows up, they think differently than earlier generations, and I love that dynamic environment. We’re only eleven people, and I like that size because I know everybody in my company, and everybody in my company knows me. I know the personal lives of the people. I believe that to be a good leader you’ve got to be empathetic, you’ve got to be vulnerable, and you have to be transparent and authentic. So I treat people that way, and that’s what I expect back from them. I think that’s really contagious.

THERESA TORSETH:
As Urban Visions’ pipeline continues to grow and you add people to your team, how do you vet people for characteristics important to you like authenticity and vulnerability?

GREG SMITH:
I’m not a big resume person. The resume is good enough to cover the basics, but I rely more on word of mouth and on people I meet. We’re a team. I happen to be the leader of the team, but there are lots of leaders here. We’re small, and we’re open to meeting people that way.

But if our first introduction happens to be a resume, we can say, “Okay you’ve got most of the skills but come in here and talk? Can you look somebody in the eye?” I think it’s a matter of talking to people one-on-one and getting a good sense of who they are, what they want to do, and if their values line up with ours. It isn’t just me making the decision of whom to hire. In fact for the most part now it’s not me. Pretty much everyone in the company will meet whoever is coming in, so it is a team decision.

THERESA TORSETH:  
The sense of “team” is clearly important to you.
 
GREG SMITH:
Yes. I view our team as much bigger than just Urban Visions. I think that in order to be successful in real estate, our team is your community including our tenants. When we’re building a building, it’s the architects, it’s the engineers, it’s the general contractors, it’s the subcontractors—and the same values that are important to me and to us have to be important to those people as well, or we don’t work with them. And so I think creating a great team is much bigger than just our company. It’s what we stand for, and it’s the people who we surround ourselves with and whom we want to be around. I think that’s an important part of our story.

THERESA TORSETH: 
Let’s take that a little bit further. Real estate has a reputation as a transactional business, but you have a reputation for the relationships you’ve built. How do you ensure that your team keeps it relational over transactional?

GREG SMITH:
Because I can tell when it’s not. When it starts becoming institutional or cold or win/lose, I generally hear about it. And that isn’t what we’re about, so I will get involved and try to resolve that particular issue. There are not very many of those, because I think we’re pretty good at staying relationship-focused, but when they arise, we try to defuse the issue or put it back together again, or sometimes you have to just sever the relationship. So sometimes that’s what we do, too.

THERESA TORSETH:
I’ve heard you previously speak about creating spaces that really encourage people to be more creative, happier and more productive. 

Greg Smith:
Right, we do.

THERESA TORSETH
So what do you do in your own company—beyond the physical space—to stimulate that creativity, happiness and productivity?

What I’ve witnessed so much in business—and especially in family businesses—is how many leaders fail to pass the baton

GREG SMITH:
Well, we work hard and we play hard. That’s my style. We tend to attract people who are ‘Type A’—people who love what they do and are really into it. We’re not siloed, so if one person needs help, the response from the team is, ‘What do I need to do? How can I help?’ We have tons of interaction internally every day. We also have a company retreat, and we will make moments where we can just sit and enjoy each other and laugh and relax.

I take time to sit and express my global thinking with the team. I have found that the more the people around me know what’s in my head about where we’re going or what I’m thinking about or what am I worried about, the better it is for the team.

THERESA TORSETH: 
In 2006, your son Broderick joined you in Urban Visions, and he has been taking on more and more responsibility.

GREG SMITH:
Yes. He really runs the day-to-day operations now.

THERESA TORSETH: 
So you’re leading from the front and are therefore the holder of the torch of the values and the culture. How do you pass that torch as Broderick gains more influence?

GREG SMITH:
What I’ve witnessed so much in business—and especially in family businesses—is how many leaders fail to pass the baton. (This is really your area of specialty.) Whether it’s their ego or another reason, they just can’t let go soon enough to be able to keep their key people from leaving to start their own company or doing their thing.

Then you throw in the complexity of the family business—which I think is the coolest thing ever—but it also can be a challenge because it’s family. I’m fortunate because Broderick has his own style. Everyone has their own style, so I’ve learned not to jam mine on anybody. That’s just my style, and it works for me. I recognize where I’m weak, and I tell my team. Broderick has his strengths and he has his weaknesses. Just like everybody else, we all have things we are working on.

Broderick is doing a sensational job, and I really am proud of him as a person. I think what he’s going to do in his future is going to be amazing. And we’ll do it together—I don’t ever see myself retiring. But I’m more about vision and more about big ideas and relationships and letting him continue to grow, and he’ll have his own style.

THERESA TORSETH:  
You each have your own style, yet they say the soul never dies. If that’s true, what is the soul of Urban Visions?

GREG SMITH:
I would say our soul is embedded in Seattle. I love Seattle. I love the energy of Seattle, the spirit of Seattle, and I really believe our soul comes from that. I sometimes try to explain to people not from here why Seattle is a place that continually creates the most disruptive, out-of-the-box kind of businesses arguably anywhere in the world except maybe Silicon Valley. But look back at the big companies here. It started with Boeing and Paccar and Nordstrom’s and Microsoft and Amazon—the list seems endless. There’s something in our environmental DNA here that perpetuates that kind of unique thinking. I love that, and I’d love to put it into words, but it is difficult. I really think it boils down to our environment. It’s our clean water, blue skies, green trees. Seattle is a great natural setting. We’ve created a culture of pioneers here who are not about conforming to the rest of the world.

So when I think of our DNA here at Urban Visions, I like to think about designing real estate that is good for the community. And it’s not only community like Pioneer Square or Pike Place Market, but also the Seattle community as a whole. At the end of the day I want Seattle to retain those special qualities and be an example for the rest of the world to follow. That’s our core. You can do it with style and grace and a smile. You can be successful, you can be humble, and you can do game-changing projects. That’s what I think is our soul.

THERESA TORSETH:
What is the single human factor that you believe will have the greatest impact on the success or failure of Urban Visions going forward? 

GREG SMITH:
Thinking outside the box. As soon as you climb inside the box, you’re on your way out.

THERESA TORSETH: 
Well, it doesn’t look like you’ll be on your way out anytime soon. Here’s to your continued success!

About the Author

Clients repeatedly turn to Theresa Torseth for her rigorous hiring process, revealing interviewing and astute assessment of the nuances of people. By applying these attributes to both the candidates and her clients, she gets to know the organizations she works with—the organizational structure, product delivery and the specific weave of the human interactions. In the end, it’s her genuine curiosity and caring that make a difference.

Theresa has led over 250 mid to executive searches in commercial real estate, manufacturing, consumer brands and not-for-profit leadership. Over 90 percent of searches come from referrals or repeat clients.