Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 14, 2020

Kurtts tackles new terrain with commercial real estate

Kurtts and his wife, Lindsay, during a 10-month sojourn in New Zealand. - Photograph provided

Riley Kurtts spent 10 years climbing the ladder of success as a collegiate outdoor recreation educator. After reaching the top rung, he looked down to see he was only a few feet off the ground.

Realizing he wanted more wealth than his current profession would ever allow, he climbed down and started up a different ladder – commercial real estate.

As a commercial property agent with less than one year of experience, Kurtts is still only a few feet off the ground, but as he looks up he sees endless rungs – and he says all he has to do to climb them is put in the work.

In his interview with the Hamilton County Herald, Kurtts discusses the challenges of a jarring shift in careers, being the new guy in a complex and competitive field, and the joy he still finds in venturing outside.

You spent 10 years in your first profession. Where in life does that put you as you start your new career?

I’m in my 30s, so I’m a little past knowing it all but coming into trying to figure it out.

How did you turn your passion for the outdoors into a career?

"Although I was raised in the estuaries and brackish waters of Mobile, Alabama, I’ve always had a passion for topography and hills. So, I left Mobile as soon as I could and went to Ole Miss.

"My goals were to have as much fun as possible, go to class and see where life led me. One day, I saw signs for rock climbing. We didn’t have rocks in Mobile, so I signed up for a climbing trip. That world just opened up to me.

"Life unfolded and I became the outdoor guy at colleges. I worked at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Louisiana State University. I’d work at a college for a few years, gain experience and take it to the next place."

How did you end up in Chattanooga?

"While in college, I became a raft guide and spent my summers on the Ocoee. I’d pass through Chattanooga and always say I wanted to live here at some point. After doing outdoor education for 10 years, my wife, Lindsay, wanted to be somewhere new. So, I got a job with Outdoor Chattanooga and started to form my new life plan."

How did commercial real estate become a part of that plan?

"Partially based on Lindsay’s recommendation that I make more money, I looked into various career opportunities, and commercial real estate stood out to me. You have a unique opportunity to forge your own path while helping to transform your community into something new."

How did you connect with Robert Fisher?

"I was hiking down the trail of becoming a Realtor, seeing what flavors were out there, when Keller Williams drew me in. After a few meetings with people here and letting them know I wanted to commit to commercial, some people suggested I talk with Robert."

There’s a lot to learn. Do you see that as an inhibitor?

"Robert is helping me to navigate the complete world of commercial real estate, which is allowing me to do everything there is to be done. Chattanooga is too small to specialize in one particular asset class, such as retail or industrial, so I’m not only being involved in all types of deals but also all types of properties."

What were your first impressions of your new job?

"That it’s not easy to learn the business while doing the business while earning the business."

What’s been the most challenging part of becoming a commercial property agent?

"Managing the ups and downs of not knowing if I’m going to earn someone’s business. Every morning, my wife tells me to go make a deal, and every evening, she asks me if I made a deal. The hard part of this is going out and doing that on my own."

Has anything about your new work turned out better than you initially thought it would?

"For the first time in my life, I’m cold-calling people. It’s not going as badly as you might think. Once I get started, I enjoy it. You never know what the person on the other end of the phone is going to say, and I sometimes feel like an investigator as I try to learn about a property, how the owner is using it, what their plans for it are, and so on."

Talk about your first transaction.

"I sold an investment property with office and warehouse space and multiple tenants. It was interesting to sell someone’s investment in a way that allowed their money to grow. They were able to put the money into a 1031 Exchange – which saved some of it from going to Uncle Sam – and then leverage that to obtain a larger loan. That, in turn, allowed them to acquire something bigger and build their wealth through real estate."

What has the shift to commercial real estate been like for you after working outdoors for 10 years?

"One of my finer attributes is I can find adventure in anything. I can find adventure in going to the grocery store to buy a pint of ice cream, or I can find adventure kayaking on North Chickamauga Creek.

"It’s been interesting going from a career that’s about managing the kind of risks that could result in me falling and hurting myself to a career that’s about managing the kind of risks that could result in me falling and hurting my wallet.

"But I’m still dealing with people in unique and challenging situations and helping to manage the outcomes."

What have been the most enjoyable aspects of your new work?

"Networking, developing relationships, learning about people and their needs as it relates to their businesses or properties.

"I like to attend lectures. The Chattanooga Design Studio hosted a lecture on spatial justice. Chattanooga deals with several challenges in that regard with blighted areas versus areas of renewal versus areas of growth.

"I enjoy one-off events like that because they allow me to meet new people. I’m not going to run into someone every day who has a building to sell or wants to buy a commercial property.

What are your thoughts after doing this for eight months?

"Commercial real estate is an extremely challenging field – more so than the general public perceives. You have to have a thick skin and always be ready to switch tasks and shift your thinking.

"And like I said, there’s a lot to learn. I’m not a legal expert, but I have to understand contracts. I’m not a roofer, but I need to understand roof types. I also have to know about zoning codes, floodplains and grease traps. There’s a plethora of stuff you have to know to effectively represent your clients."

Have you set goals for yourself?

"I’ve set a financial goal for the first time in my life. I’ve never done that. I’ve always just enjoyed my job and done the best I could. You can’t really ask for a pay raise at a university. But now I have a financial goal, and through that lens, I’m able to see what I need to do in terms of volume.

If you wanted a new adventure, you found one. What’s been your greatest adventure?

"Living in New Zealand. Lindsay and I quit our jobs, cut our cable and phone bills, left Popper with her parents, went to New Zealand and lived in a van for 10 months. That gave me a taste of retirement. It also motivated me to work harder to someday reach that place of relaxation and less need again."