Jill Schmitt used to envision herself searching for relics of ancient world cultures but instead found her niche helping businesses find new digs.
After earning a degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Memphis, Schmitt followed her mother, noted commercial real estate broker Mary Singer, into a career in commercial real estate.
“Once I got my degree I realized it was hard work for 13 bucks an hour,” said Schmitt, who joined then-CresaPartners as a broker in 1999. “It just so happened that I was raised listening to dinner conversations about rental rates and square footages. It was an easy occupation for me to get into because I knew a lot about it.”
Schmitt is now senor adviser with Cresa Nashville, covering the Memphis and Nashville markets, and she also is a local broker for Commercial Realty Group. She represents only tenants who wish to lease or buy commercial property. She said she’s never looked back from her decision to switch vocations, and advises others to think about the real world when choosing a degree.
“Business translates into whatever you want it to be later on,” Schmitt said. “It’s harder to get those liberal arts degrees to move.”
Schmitt got her real estate license and took CCIM (Certified Commercial Investment Member) and continuing education courses but chose to put off her master’s degree to start a family.
There was a bit of a learning curve at first, learning the ins and outs of refrigerated warehouses and clearance heights for industrial distribution centers, but she found the challenges enjoyable.
“When you’re first starting out you’re eager and everything is new,” Schmitt said.
The market was strong for most of her first 10 years, but when the economy tanked, she still found plenty of work in helping her clients renegotiate their leases or downsize. The point, she said, is to maintain good relationships with clients and be available to their changing needs over time.
Since Schmitt doesn’t represent building landlords, she is responsible for generating her own clientele, many of whom are referrals. While she works in the office, industrial and retail sectors, office has been her main focus.
Asked why tenants necessarily need a broker to walk them through leasing negotiations, Schmitt said that many business owners are unprepared to tackle the details of the transaction, making what is usually a long process take even longer.
“It’s like trying to represent yourself in court,” Schmitt said. “You don’t know all the legal jargon. You don’t know what to think about or what to ask for. It’s the same with real estate. Unless you’re doing it day in and day out, you don’t know what the market is. You don’t know what the person down the street or across the hall is paying.”
And that’s critical in today’s recovering real estate market. Though the overall economy is becoming stronger, Schmitt said that it’s still a tenant’s market. Landlords are still willing to offer concessions to get good tenants.
What’s more, she said, many of the businesses that waited out the worst years of the recession before looking for commercial space are now actively looking. Others who lost their jobs and started home-based businesses are also now in the market for space.
“We’re seeing that retail is really starting to move ahead right now because they were the ones who were hit the most dramatically,” Schmitt said. “It wasn’t as dramatic in the office and industrial market.
“What’s really interesting is I’m seeing a lot of home-grown businesses want to come into the market and try again. I’m rooting for the small family businesses. People had to think outside the box when everyone was laid off. That forces creativity that you don’t necessarily see in times when everyone has a job at a big company. A lot of them were able to create something and they’re ready to present it to a larger market.”
Schmitt expects the market to lean toward tenants’ favor until a complete recovery is made, but she thinks that may be another year off at best.
The Poplar Avenue corridor, particularly in East Memphis, remains the hot spot for retail space, and Schmitt said that rental rates there have not fluctuated as much as other parts of town like Downtown. For industrial space, Northeast and Southeast Memphis are prime areas.
Schmitt also sees opportunities in turning former big box spaces into nontraditional uses like churches or schools, even though that sometimes means convincing the landlord that it’s a good idea.
“Part of the reason I love what I do is because it’s fun to think out of the box,” Schmitt said.