How to Invest in Commercial Real Estate

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Episode #037 - How to get into Commercial Real Estate Development w/ Josh Chesney from Cyntergy

by Criterion, Braden Cheek, Brian Duck
July 29th 2021

If I told you that every 1 out of 10 commercial real estate developments actually gets built would you believe me? Today our hosts Brian Duck, Braden Cheek & Joel Thompson from The Criterion Fu... More

one of the benefits of synergy right now is we can get to that concept level really quickly so that makes it pretty inexpensive for the client upfront. Uh we've developed a lot of tools over the years to where we can get in and do some layouts fast and have a minimal fee up front and we'll just do that basic conceptual design fee and we won't have the whole contract and everything. You're not on the hook for any of that. So we really try to make that separation because for every One project that we actually do and take all the way through, there's another 10 that we did the concept on and it just didn't work financially by the way, you guys have hit your one for this year, that's that's ours. So anybody else. So it's already taken anybody else already done. Your master? Hello? Hello. All right, how's it going? Welcome back to how to invest in commercial real estate today. We have josh Chesney, a special guest from Synergy, he's a principal and chief development officer of Synergy. So josh, tell us a little bit about you. I mean, Synergy is is an architectural firm.

Um but there's a lot going on in there. Sure, yeah, we are an architecture and engineering firm. So we have uh architecture and interior design. We also have mechanical, electrical, civil fire protection. Um I'm probably leaving somebody off, but we've got all all disciplines in house and uh we have about 142 people. Uh yeah, we're kind of at our, at our max right now, we've never been this big, so we've kind of raised and we've grown and contracted a little bit here and there, but now we're 142. We have a dozen interns this summer too, so oh my gosh, it's a pretty full summer staff, so which puts us over 150 people. So, man, so a background in synergy, what are they mainly doing? What I mean? Are you guys staying with what you've started with or you guys branching out into new stuff? Um, I know we're using you for our office building, your design, build the criterion building, but I know you've been, you know, some other crazy Stuff. Yeah, actually we started out in 1997, so we're almost 25 years old.

Uh, we started out, we branched off of a firm that did a lot of Walmart. So we started out in the Walmart World, we still do About 35-40% of our revenue is Walmart. So we still have a nationwide Walmart program. And then we diversified, we thought, you know, we don't want to have all our eggs in one basket. So we diversified it into some more government stuff. So we have some federal and state, local government contracts. And then about six or seven years ago we decided to really start to focus on the local market and so that's what got us into more of your type of project, the office, the retail, uh, churches and schools and that kind of stuff in in the Tulsa market. So that's more of our regional teams. So that's really the three levels of design that we have its energy interesting. So I know you have a cool story on how you got hired there, won't you share with us how you got hired? Its energy? Yeah. Actually I was uh freshman at O. S. U. Back in uh It was it was in 2000, early 2000. It's Oklahoma state for Oklahoma state.

And I was in the hall, the architecture buildings standing next to a friend of mine. And one of the professors came up with the business card of one of my partners now and said, hey, I went to school with this guy and he was giving it to my friend because I was too young to have an internship. And my buddy said, yeah, I actually have an internship this summer, but maybe josh wants it. And he handed it to me. He looked at me and I never met this professor and he looked at me. His name is mo and he was ended up being one of my favorite professors. But he looked at me and he stared at me friends and I'll vouch for you. All right. Deal. That's hilarious. So I called the card, got an interview and I was in the first intern class at synergy in the summer of 2000, what you're what call it, what your college were you? Uh 2004 when I graduated from Os you. So so you were just a software when you got that job, is that right? Yeah. Yeah. I was about to go into second year, which is a little early for architecture school. But yeah, when you walk into an interview and you say I don't care what you pay me, I just want the experience, you usually get the job because they don't have to pay anything. That was a good opening line. So what do you do for them now?

So now I'm a principal. So I I am an owner of the company as a four or five years ago and I'm the chief development officer. So I'm involved in a lot of the upfront conceptual design of the project, really going after clients and trying to develop those relationships before the projects hit. And then I try to stick with the project all the way through the further we get into a project, more architects and engineers we bring into it. So my role kind of goes down from there, it's more of just a client relations thing after that. But a lot of the business development guys in town uh really just want to do business development and then as soon as the client is on the hook they toss it over the fence and someone else does the concept and all that stuff. But I really think that to get a good concept, you have to be the guy who has the relationship? So if I have a relationship, there's no way that I could walk into the office and tell an architect who has never met, say you guys for example, hey, these guys are young and energetic and they want a cool building.

So yeah, you know, it just doesn't work like that. So I really want to stick all the way through the conceptual design uh and make sure that that part is nailed down with the client before I back out a little bit. And even then it feels to the client a lot of times that I back out completely out of the project, but I'm in the office all the time and so are architects are constantly coming to me with, is this, is this what we were thinking about in the initial concept is this, does this agree with what we were doing initially. So I still have a lot of consulting kind of, I guess you could say even though I'm not doing a whole lot of the work, but uh we can vouch for that because our project is just about completed and you've been involved the whole way. So yeah, and we're really not far off that conceptual design either. I mean, if you put the original design you did versus right. I mean the completed docks were pretty close, we're dangerously close and judges done a great job, you know, completing that. So you have a commercial real estate person and they're looking to do a new development, uh, when do you advise they engaged the architect?

Um for us, it's easier the earlier they can get us involved. And on that note to, we want to get the contractor involved as soon as we can. And I know a lot of contractors want a pre con Fi or something like that, but a lot of times it's worth it just because you know that you're actually on the same page when you kick off the project, um we, we can get in and do, you know, various levels of design where there's just a napkin type sketch or if it goes all the way into renderings and you guys have seen what we do with VR and videos and all that stuff too. So there are all these levels of concepts that we can do before we really get the project going. Uh, but I would recommend as soon as possible to get the architect of all. So, if let's say I have a project, I, I know I wanna, I've got this 10 acres and I'm trying to decide, hey, you know, how many multi family units can I put, is that something that you guys help with early on just to kind of lay out the property before you get into fees or or is it immediately you're kind of trying to get an engagement letter and and working on that kind of rough clotting.

Yeah. I'm just wondering, you know what that early stage looks like if someone's wanted to just get a concept, you know, kind of just generally before they spend too much money and because they don't know what they can fit on there. Yeah. Yeah. Well I think, I think one of the benefits of synergy right now is we can get to that concept level really quickly. So that makes it pretty inexpensive for the client upfront. Uh, we've developed a lot of tools over the years to where we can get in and do some layouts fast and have a minimal fee up front and we'll just do that basic conceptual design fee and we won't have the whole contract and everything. You're not on the hook for any of that. So we really try to make that separation because for every One project that we actually do and take all the way through, there's another 10 that we did the concept on and it just didn't work financially. So by the way, you guys have hit your one for this year, that's that's ours. So anybody else? So it's already taken already done. Now, can you guys do a concept without engaging civil or do you need civil to understand that the layout of the land in order to to work your concept.

Well, that's one thing that I like about synergy is the fact that we have civil right next door. I mean right down the, down the hall for myself. You could do it without civil, but I wouldn't recommend it. Um, I like to get their input just because you just never know what's what's sitting there. If there's a blue line stream that I'm not paying attention to or you know the site, it's such a mess sometimes that we need to make sure we get that nail down first. So I've done a lot of concepts without civil. But those are just basic sites that I know these are free and clear in their good sides. If we have anything that has any kind of question, it's nice to have the civil guys just take a look at it because they can do their research and it doesn't take a lot of time. But that's good. Go we're gonna go kind of thing. Yeah. So you know that that brought brian and I a lot of comfort and and going with you guys is the vertical integration. I know, I guess it's not that common and I didn't realize that because we were dangerously close. But just hiring a civil person because that was the first thing on our mind is, hey, you know, we need to make sure our land is good.

We need to make sure we can fit what we want to on it. And um, you know, we had a meeting with you and you're like, hey, we can do that and it just seemed easier, but I mean there's gotta be other things than just, you know, 11 contact person advantages. I mean, well a lot of advantages you guys don't even see uh you just kind of feel it in the pocketbook because we don't have to like go out and hire all these different engineers and a lot of times there's a mark up on all of those with us. It's just all integrated into one team. And I and I talked like, yeah, this is the best way, but like I said, I was hired as an intern from college and never saw anything else. This is what I've known. But when I look at other firms and just think, man, I can't imagine, I just designed this big cantilever on this building, I think it will stand, who do I call? I gotta, I gotta find a structural engineer instead of walking down to the structural engineer and say, what do you think about this? Well, it needs to be about two ft thick, thicker than you've got, you know? So there's a lot of that back and forth that happens in the conceptual design, that three water cooler talk.

Yeah, for us, it's just, it's just how we work and that's how I've grown up working. So I can't understand how someone else could do a concept and, and not actually have that, but it does help us a ton, I would think another benefit of the vertical integration is just, and tell me if I'm wrong that you can not only do the concept, but you can provide information on budget at cost. So whoever's doing the development can, can get a handle for me, I'm gonna be able to, if you tell me how much it's gonna cost, I know how much I can rent things for and I'm gonna be able to back in the budget that way, but I don't always know how much it's gonna cost. Is that something you guys can can kind of provide to help give the project confidence to move past the concept. Yeah. Speaking of one of the disciplines, I knew I would leave off construction administration is also part of our deal to. So even when we have a contractor, which we want to get a contractor as soon as we can. But even when we have that contractor number, we always take that number to our CIA guys and say, what do you think about this? What are you seeing in the market right now? And the contractors, if you have the right contractor, they're going to be on top of it even more than we are.

But it's nice to have that assurance of uh we'll just, we'll just check it just to see what it's like and uh and that's what they deal with every day that our director of CIA is actually an architecture grad. So he comes from the architecture side, but he just likes boots and being out in the field. Yeah, hopefully you don't have a contractor that's going to underbid it and get you on ADDers. So if you have a number from someone like you that you don't really care what the cost is, you just, you know, you want the project to happen, but you're kind of an unbiased third party so that that gives him confidence on the back of the cost. And if there's no contractor involved, we can also do the conceptual fee estimate from the beginning. Okay. It seems like an inherently challenging position to be in because there's there's a lot of weight on materials and what you're actually drawing. You know what I mean? Not only from the developer but the the contractor to, and it's I think it's easy for contractors and architectural firms to getting quarrels because it's easy to kind of point the blame on, you know, the other person.

And I I guess how do you make sure that, you know, you're designing something that a looks good, you know, when somebody else has control over, you know, different things and and how do you make sure you can always design something that, you know, gives it a higher probable chance of being built. I mean, it's just, it's a lot to work through there. I think one of the keys in the concept is just to stay away from proprietary systems. You know, if you can, if you have a material that you want to use, so bad that it has to be sole source from one guy, then you're probably gonna be in trouble when the, when the cost comes out, just make the if you can just create a design that we can sub about these materials and make them work based on what our budget is. Um, I think that makes a lot more sense. When you start to get into the proprietary, you can only get a sole source here. Then that's when you run into cost issues. When I can say, all right, let's let's open this up to the bidders and see who's got an alternative. That could actually make sense here. You know, and still looks good. We've we've done some installations on projects in the past where we didn't see an actual installed project.

And we had, we had value engineered it down to a level and we put it up and we're upset about it. So as of a few years ago, our new rule is if we haven't seen it installed somewhere, we're not going to suspect that product, We don't, we don't want to be surprised in the field by the contractors and Oh no, that's what it looks like. Well, it didn't look like that in the catalog. Yeah, Okay. That's that's what we do is we go around and if somebody's gonna suspect something, we go see it first. So, you know, you said you have a lot of national work. You said you're doing more local working, uh, you know, just a spectrum of, of what you, what, you know, projects you guys have been apart on, you know, some, maybe on the smaller in some, you know, maybe on the insanely big. And I know walmart is obviously a big one and a lot of engineering and, you know, geographically just just everywhere. But, um, you guys have been a part of some massive, cool stuff. We don't know how much you can talk about either. Yeah, I mean, we've been a part of a lot Walmart has been an awesome client for almost 25 years. Um, it's just kind of been our baseline backbone of the company.

It's been consistent. We've got a team now in place that just kills it. And it's fun to actually, because I don't, I don't touch hardly any of that because if I did, I'd mess it up. They're so good at it now that they've just got this system and it's fun to watch. It's fun to watch the success that they have to, because wal mart just came to us the other day and they want to get us into another program that they have just because of the good work that we've done over the years. So it's fun to see that grow. But on the kind of on the local side, we did that. One of our kind of breakout projects was first Presbyterian Church downtown. It was a $32 million edition, 2, 19 twenties, neo gothic limestone. I was scared to death to do it. There was a lot of replication in that. Yeah, we did a full laser scan of the existing facade just so we could figure out the details of everything. So learning how to detailed limestone, you know, I was just a couple years out of college and that was, that was, that was a tough one. But as we got through it, it was, it was pretty amazing to see the finished product and I think I've seen it is very impressive and once, once you get done and now we're coming up on the 10 year anniversary of that project, which is crazy to see.

I took our interns through it a couple weeks ago and it's still fun for me to walk through and talk about the project just because of how much fun that one was good, you got to be a lot of satisfaction and in a project like that, seeing it from the development stage and and actually getting it done a lot of pride in that, I would think. Yeah, it is and we work a lot with mid America industrial park right now and so kind of on a different spectrum, you got the churches, this is more of an industrial side, but we did the district, which is the 30,000 square foot retail development out in Prior? And it's one of our, it's the best retail we've ever done. And it's so cool, it's got this community room that they call the bunker and it's got this big outdoor stage area, the brewery, Fat toad brewery is being built right now, so it's gonna be, it's gonna be an awesome spot. You have to drive out there. Yeah, and I think a lot of people will, it's kind of a destination kind of thing, once they start getting tenants filling it up, Covid kind of hit it as far as selling retail, but uh once that starts to fill in, it really is going to be a cool destination precision equity has uh 4.5 acre retail hard corner site here in Tulsa.

We may have to let you take a look at it. Okay, well, I really appreciate you coming on today, man. Um real quick. If you want to see some of josh's work, some of synergies work, you can go to the website, is it just synergy dot com? Um Synergy dot com. You can go to our website, the criterion fund dot com Under properties. Um there's literally a virtual tour of our building, you can put it in the Oculus and everything when I show people that it blows their mind every single time I put somebody in a virtual reality headset and they can punch through our, our building. And the first question is like, oh who did that? I don't even know that was possible. And it's like, I don't know, it's possible either. Talk to the guys that synergy. I mean it is ridiculous. That is fun. I'm glad you guys like it. And that's, that's one of the first things are one of the last things that I've learned here. Synergy is always hire people smarter than you, my whole goal right now or younger Turkey or both. There you go. Younger and smarter. So well, I appreciate it. Again. Anyway, we'll catch you next time on how to invest in commercial real estate. Thank you guys.

Episode #037 - How to get into Commercial Real Estate Development w/ Josh Chesney from Cyntergy
Episode #037 - How to get into Commercial Real Estate Development w/ Josh Chesney from Cyntergy
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