Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 29, 2019

Different path to commercial real estate success

Najjar applies strategies from residential Realtors to tap new opportunities

Commercial Realtor Anne Najjar compares her chosen profession to the gut-wrenching experience of riding a rollercoaster.

It’s unlikely many of her colleagues would disagree. Often subjected to even more ups and downs than residential agents, commercial Realtors must have the patience of a samurai, the stamina of a horse and a boxer’s ability to get up after being knocked down and continue fighting.

“You can have a great year and believe you’ve made it, and then you’ll hit a year when deals don’t happen,” she says. “You can do everything in your power to succeed, but you’re at the mercy of factors and variables you can’t control.”

It’s not an easy job. But it is Najjar’s chosen profession – and she looks no worse for the wear. That’s because she’s not only patient, enduring and a fighter, she’s learned to innovate in ways that have helped her to become one of the top commercial Realtors in Chattanooga.

This ingenuity materialized early in Najjar’s career, soon after she was “thrown to the wolves” without any training. (Najjar doesn’t just have a knack for leasing retail and office space; she also has a gift for dramatic metaphors.)

Fresh out of real estate school, Najjar quickly discovered she had a lot to learn. Her fellow commercial agents found out, too. “I leaned on everyone around me who had experience,” she admits.

Najjar also started taking commercial real estate classes in an effort to find her footing in a market that loomed before her like a concrete and steel jungle.

Then Najjar was struck by a realization: None of her commercial colleagues were using the local residential agents for referrals. So, she began visiting their brokerages and attending their meetings and slowly built her business from the connections she made.

Najjar then discovered another untapped vein of gold in Chattanooga: property owners who were trying to sell or lease a building on their own. In other words, the commercial equivalent of residential FSBOs (for sale by owners).

“I started calling for sale by owners and for lease by owners,” she says. “That’s something resident agents do but not commercial agents.”

Eventually, Najjar was thriving on referrals. But even as she developed as an agent, she continued to learn hard lessons, including the slow-burn nature of commercial deals and how long climbs on a rollercoaster tend to end in a sudden plummet.

Najjar sets the stage for a recent deal that went south.

“I was working with Heidi Hefferlin and Craig Kronenberg (of HK Architecture) on a Southside property. They were the developers on the project and brought me on to help with pre-leasing,” she says, referring to the former industrial property at 1601 Holtzclaw Ave.

One group of investors wanted Najjar to pre-lease a certain amount of the property before they signed up, so the pressure was on. After Najjar brought in Branch Technology as a tenant, she “worked, worked and worked” and “negotiated, negotiated and negotiated” for several weeks before finally coming to terms with the investors.

The closing table looked as good as ready, but then the investors told Najjar and HK Architects that they wanted them to sell a portion of the property first.

Since the investors had initially wanted them to lease the entire space, this came as a surprise. But more than that, Najjar had only two days to meet their demand. “There was no way I was going to get that done, so we had to begin looking for other investors,” Najjar adds.

Najjar’s next set of investors balked at the wording of a single clause in the purchase sale agreement. Attorneys became involved, but the owners of the property wouldn’t budge, terminating yet another potential deal.

Najjar looks weary just from telling the story. But despite the frequently exhausting nature of commercial real estate, it’s the agent’s job to stand strong in the maelstrom.

“You have to do your best to create a win-win situation,” she says. “If I know what each side wants, then I can do that. Basically, I’m a matchmaker.”

To be left empty-handed after six months of negotiating and priming investors crushed Najjar. “I had poured so much sweat equity into that project and got nothing out of it,” she points out. “That’s commercial real estate.”

So is what came next.

A new investor, MiKen Development from Nashville, purchased the property with an eye on converting it into a mixed-use development. MiKen retained HK Architects, as well as Najjar, giving her a shot at filling the commercial portion of the space.

Najjar recently negotiated her first deal on the revitalized project: selling a sizable space to the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer, a local nonprofit that serves children with cancer as well as their families at no cost.

In the end, Najjar says none of her work on 1601 Holtzclaw Ave. was wasted. Even when she was negotiating deals that ultimately fell through, she was forming relationships that would benefit her in the coming months.

“Some incredible architects and developers brought me onto the project and supported me,” she says. “Now I’m part of a great team that’s working together to create a new community. That’s commercial real estate, too.”

Commercial real estate is also about the ability of individuals to leave their mark on a community, Najjar adds. Sometimes, as she drives through Chattanooga, she’s proud to see her fingerprints on different developments.

From helping Evergreen Development acquire land for the Riverfront, to working with Evergreen and Lamp Post Group to find a home for Chattanooga Whiskey, to stocking the retail spaces at Museum Bluffs Parkview with businesses, Najjar is building not just a portfolio but a legacy as a commercial Realtor.

“I’m able to say, ‘I helped to build this community,’” she says. “I can tell people, ‘I brought this here.’”

Najjar’s story didn’t begin with commercial real estate, though. In the chapters that preceded that period of her life, she was shaped by both favorable and devastating experiences into the kind of person who could tackle one of the toughest jobs in real estate.

Najjar grew up in the 9 Mile Road stretch of Detroit, which is a stone’s throw from the city’s once notorious 8 Mile Road, but says she attended a girls’ preparatory school and was a fortunate child.

Najjar also describes herself as a free spirit and that she briefly gave this part of her a loose rein after graduating from high school.

“I wasn’t ready to enter another institutional environment. I needed to have the freedom to discover myself,” she recalls. “So, I played, traveled and roamed around for a while.”

When Najjar did return to school, she made up for the time off by earning her undergraduate degree in three years at the University of Michigan. At that point, she intended to attend law school and someday prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence.

However, her husband at the time, an interventional pain management physician, was hired to start a clinic in Chattanooga, so Najjar wound up further south than she’d intended and not close enough to a law school for her tastes. So, she started a family instead.

A divorce eventually split up that family, which by then included two children, although Najjar stayed in Chattanooga so her son and daughter could be near their father. Then tragedy struck when Najjar’s ex-husband was injured in a mountain biking accident and became a quadriplegic.

“That made it necessary for me to succeed in commercial real estate,” Najjar explains. “I was responsible for keeping my kids in private school and supporting everyone, so I put my nose to the grindstone and made it happen.”

Najjar didn’t set out to become a real estate agent. When she began taking the required classes, her objective was to save money when flipping houses. But then a fellow student suggested she try commercial real estate.

“I didn’t want to sell houses,” she says. “But commercial real estate interested me because it’s business-oriented.”

Najjar hung her license first at a local Prudential office and then switched to Real Estate Partners when owner Darlene Brown approached her to start a commercial department.

Brown opened the doors that allowed Najjar to become involved in the development of downtown Chattanooga and the rise of mixed-use projects in the city. “Darlene was the catalyst for my interest in downtown growth,” Najjar says.

Two years later, Najjar moved to the Raines Group to brand herself with a purely commercial brokerage. During her year with Maj. Gen. Bill Raines, she learned the ins and outs of property management.

Then Marc Lundberg, the team leader at Keller Williams, tried to lure her to his company. Or, as Najjar says, “Recruited and recruited” her.

Although initially reluctant, Najjar ultimately caved and spent two years with Keller Williams. While she says the company is a good fit for many agents, it wasn’t for her. So, when Lundberg left Keller Williams, so did she. In November 2017, they formed Prestige Property Brokers.

“We wanted to create a brokerage where the agents can focus on their clients and be the best possible representatives for them,” Najjar says. “We have an open-door policy in our office, where Marc and I are there whenever the agents need anything from us, whether it’s advice, education, support or just to chat.

“We also wanted to develop a family of agents, not a group of agents. Our agents trust each other and lean on one another. They’re committed to professionalism and integrity. And they know everyone’s name, family, hobbies, goals, struggles and successes.”

Najjar’s work family recently celebrated a new level of success for her when CoStar, a provider of information to the commercial property industry, named her one of the two top industrial leasing brokers in Chattanooga in 2018. Called the CoStar Power Broker Award, the honor is based on the amount of square footage leased.

While the award gives Najjar bragging rights, she’s more focused on expanding her business model. In the past, she’s focused heavily on sales due to her fondness for working with buyers, especially those who are new or growing businesses.

But Najjar notes representing buyers is “iffy,” so she’s started listing more properties. She adds the combination of listings, sales and leasing will yield more business than sales and leasing alone.

“You can focus on one thing in larger metropolitan areas. If I was in Nashville, I could focus on industrial or retail,” she says. “But in Chattanooga, I have to do everything.”

Actually, there is one thing Najjar doesn’t have to do in Chattanooga: deal with concerns about her being a woman in what has traditionally been considered a man’s domain. She apologizes to those who anticipate otherwise when they learn about her being a commercial Realtor, but that has not been her experience.

“People want to hear me say this is a man’s world and that it was impossible to break into this business, but everyone has been very nice to me. The commercial agents here have great mutual respect for one another, and really have each others back,” she says.

“So, while I may be a woman in a man’s world, I don’t feel prejudiced against. Maybe that’s because I’m six foot one and wear three-inch heels.”

A bigger surprise might be that Najjar has ample time outside of work to devote to her family, community and even herself.

At home, she’s enjoying the company of her daughter, Sophia, who recently graduated from Lake Forest College in Illinois and has returned for a yearlong sabbatical before studying to become a forensic psychologist.

Mother and daughter enjoy relaxing on the “big southern porch” that fronts Najjar’s Highland Park home with Juno and Peanut, Najjar’s two dogs, and her cat Moxie.

Najjar’s son, Nicholas, is attending Middle Tennessee State University, where he’s studying to enter the music business.

For someone who had no desire to sell houses, Najjar likes spending time at hers. While there, she loves to garden, cook and host parties. “I’m a regular Martha Stewart,” she says, laughing.

When Najjar does venture out of Highland Park for something other than work, she can sometimes be found at Kyle House Fitness, an interval training studio that combines cardio, weightlifting and yoga.

She’s also been known to volunteer at local nonprofits. She’s currently on the Friends of the Chattanooga Public Library board and is eager to become involved with Austin Hatcher.

At the end of the day, Najjar says life has its ups and downs as well, but as with her work, she says good things can come of out those seasons spent in a valley.

“My ex-husband’s accident had a huge impact on our family financially, emotionally – in every sense of the word. It was huge. But it also helped to define us.

“We became better people for it. It made us accountable for our actions, too, and gave us a different outlook on life. We don’t make excuses for anything anymore.

“I would say life can be tough, but that’s OK because if you grab what’s out there, make the most out of it and learn from it, then you’re going to become a better person for it.”