By the time Brandon Carnegie was in his early 20s, he’d had two knee surgeries and a back injury thanks to football.
His days playing cornerback at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where he landed after a standout four years at Novi High School, were over after his junior season.
He played in 18 games and recorded 30 tackles.
Now 32 and a new father, Carnegie has ended up professionally where many former high-level athletes who competed in college, the Olympics or professionally have ended up: commercial real estate.
Former athletes in a variety of sports attributed their success in business attire — whether in brokerage or advisory services, for example — to the lessons learned in their uniforms during their younger days.
"The business is tough," said Carnegie, senior associate in the Advisory & Transaction Services division in the Southfield office of Los Angeles-based brokerage juggernaut CBRE Inc. "It’s 100 percent commission in many instances, and not getting a paycheck every week can be tough so you’ve got to be able to withstand a lot."
In certain aspects, Carnegie said, he learned a lot from playing cornerback and applying those lessons on the gridiron to brokerage — which involves a lot of deals in the pipeline that end up in disappointment by not closing.
"If you get beat on a play, you still have to come back the next series, clear your mind and just start over," he said. "It’s all about confidence. If you don’t have confidence, you could be the best ever, but if your confidence isn’t there, it’s just tough to get out there where the receiver knows where they are going but you don’t know where they are going."
Playing the game
In some ways, Steve Gordon is the professor emeritus when it comes to hiring high-level athletes.
He views himself as Coach Gordon — or perhaps the player-coach — speaking in mantras about knowing when it’s practice time and game time, leaving it all out on the field, going the extra mile.
Gordon, the head of Southfield-based Signature Associates Inc., said he has recruited more than 100 former athletes to his firm over the last several decades, although he has lost count of precisely how many have come through his doors following successful sports careers only to make their way in commercial real estate.
Gordon is notorious in commercial real estate circles for keeping odd working hours. His days start at midnight in the office and he works into the afternoon, peppering some of the daylight hours with meetings as well as his own athletic activities, such as raquetball. Many of his executives start their days before dawn.
"I’ve always looked for athletes with brains," Gordon said. "We look at this like a sport. We get them trained. They learn the playbook ... I’ve always found that with the competitive nature of this business, that athletes do very well."
One of them is Peter Vanderkaay, a three-time Olympic swimmer who won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, swimming on the 4x200-meter relay team that included Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Klete Keller. He again took gold in 2008 in the 4x200-meter relay, as well as a bronze medal in the 200-meter freestyle race in Beijing and another bronze in the 400-meter freestyle race in 2012 in London.
At 37, his competitive swimming days are now behind him, although he still hops in the pool and has offered commentary during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games for WDIV-TV (Channel 4).
These days, Vanderkaay is a broker specializing in east-side retail space, also dabbling in the industrial and office sectors.
"It’s competitive, it’s a grind," Vanderkaay said. "Swimming is similar to brokerage, in a sense. I’m a 1099 contractor and I think most agents are. What I put in is what I get out, in terms of training or work. They play similarly. If I’m not working hard for my clients, I’m probably not going to get great results."
A shared goal
Tori Manix knows who she wants to work with. In some instances, the principal in the Southfield office of Plante Moran REIA, a division focused on real estate investment advising, can tell without even meeting the person.
Manix, who played volleyball at the University of Pennsylvania and was captain her senior year and won two Ivy League titles with the team, knew right away she wanted to hire Kristin Mixon as part of hers.
"I didn’t even need to meet her," Manix said. "I saw her resume. I was like, ’There she is. I want her.’"
That resume includes eight years in the U.S. Army, time she spent flying UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters and leading companies and assault platoons. She also graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she played softball, as well as the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. She started at Plante Moran REIA in June as a senior consultant.
"Being part of a team and everyone working hard and having a shared goal and working to achieve that goal is something that I’ve always enjoyed, and I think that’s part of what led me to go to West Point," said Mixon, a Dearborn native.
"Being a Division I athlete at West Point has its own unique challenges because it’s already really challenging, it’s physically demanding. Time management is really challenging, and the academics are super challenging all the time every day, and it’s supposed to be that way. That’s part of the experience."
For Manix, the family real estate tradition — and athletic tradition — runs deep. Her father, Douglas Manix, is president of the Kirco Manix construction company. Her brother, Adam, played baseball at Kalamazoo College and is now director of corporate real estate for the firm.
But Tori Manix has been blazing her own path in real estate and was a Crain’s Detroit Business 20 in Their 20s honoree in 2018 a few years after her athletic career ended and her professional one began.
"They tend to have really good work ethic," Manix said. "They are used to getting up at 5 a.m. to go lift weights before going to class, and they are able to be organized and understand what it takes to get the job done. The other thing I’ve found is typically they have some sort of competitive element to them. They want to rise through the ranks, they want to get their name out there, they want to be good at their job and good at what they do."
Win, lose or draw
Signature and Plante Moran aren’t the only places that have had a string of former athletes on the payrolls.
In the Southfield office of Colliers International Inc., which has its headquarters in Toronto, Managing Director Paul Choukourian has recruited a pair of former professional hockey players — he declined to identify them — plus plenty of other college athletes.
"You just know they are driven, that they’ve got a good work ethic," Choukourian said. "To be a college athlete, that takes drive and commitment and beyond, so that’s what always does it for me. It’s not a slam dunk, no pun intended. When you interview an athlete, they have to have the desire, the skill set and frankly, the passion for real estate."
The business isn’t for everyone, and a financial support system is often required to stay afloat during the first couple of years in the industry — which is one of the reasons the industry remains overwhelmingly white and male.
"You’re going to be working your butt off and you’re really not going to get much reward in terms of financially," Choukourian said. He estimated the first couple years, brokers make between $25,000 and $50,000 and sometimes have to rely on what’s known as a "draw" — basically a loan made against future commissions, in the 5 percent to 8 percent interest range.
In effect, that means that some brokers could finish their first year or two on the job essentially in debt to their employer just so they can make ends meet.
Anthony Toth is one of Choukourian’s hires.
Now a vice president, Toth played shortstop and second base at the University of Michigan from 2007-11, before a broken tibia two weeks before the Major League Baseball draft effectively ended any shot he had at going pro.
"I quickly had to find something else to do, and got into commercial real estate right away," Toth said. "A reason why student-athletes are so successful in brokerage is it’s a career where you truly get what you put into it. There’s no ceiling. In order to be a high-level athlete in any sport, the internal, insatiable drive to be successful and the best at what you do has to be there."
At Cushman & Wakefield in Southfield, a handful of staff are ex-athletes.
Brian Piergentili, executive director of the local office, said he played football at Wayne State University and a handful of others on his staff played baseball, hockey and golf at the collegiate level. His company even landed former Detroit Red Wing Darren McCarty as vice president of business development for a spell in 2016.
"This is such a competitive business with lots of pressure (and it’s) a high when you win," Piergentili, who also coaches football at Livonia Stevenson High School, said in an email. "(Takes) a unique (sicko) to do this work, I guess. You have always seen athletes in sales historically, really. After their playing days, I think this might be one of the few things that gets them competition with the chance to make big money (or flame out).
Real estate hall of fame
A number of big-name professional athletes have gone on to big careers in real estate.
Among them are Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who worked as a commercial real estate broker during the off-seasons in the 1970s and eventually founded The Staubach Co., a brokerage house that ultimately sold to what is now Chicago-based JLL for $613 million.
Another former Cowboy, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, began investing in real estate in the 1990s and ultimately formed his own company, having worked in brokerage and construction, according to a 2018 story in the Dallas Morning News.
NBA Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a Lansing native and Michigan State University and Los Angeles Lakers legend, has been involved in real estate investment throughout the years in Los Angeles and other areas. And Ndamukong Suh, the former Detroit Lion who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has been accumulating a real estate portfolio since early in his career, sometimes turning to local adviser Gary Shiffman, the head of Southfield-based REIT Sun Communities Inc. (as well as Warren Buffet.)
BisNow also noted in February the successful real estate investment careers of former NBA greats Shaquille O’Neal (he has been involved in affordable housing in Colorado and other real estate deals) and David Robinson (his REIT, Admiral Capital Group, has more than 10,000 apartments and 1 million square feet of office space), as well as MLB legend Alex Rodriguez (he owns thousands of apartments). Former NBA players Baron Davis, Anthony Tolliver and Josh Childress all became involved in commercial real estate, as well, BisNow reported.
A constant competition
Jessica Guthrie is new to Michigan, having attended the University of Minnesota, graduating earlier this year with a degree in finance and risk management. But the former four-year Minnesota cheerleader is not new to the grind that comes with the commercial real estate industry.
Guthrie, who is a new analyst in the Royal Oak office of JLL, said her time cheering on the Gophers — at football, basketball and hockey games and various other appearances on weekends — taught her valuable lessons about time management and hard work.
"Also a drive to always be your best and put your best foot out there," she said.
In the next few years, she hopes to transition from her role, which involves things like preparing offering memorandums and broker opinions of value, into a brokerage position in either office or retail.
"It’s also a constant competition," Guthrie said of the industry. "You want to impress potential clients and you want to get them to go with you. So, (commercial real estate) was a really good fit and a really good transition from what I loved about college, cheer and being a student-athlete to be in the working world."
Credit: Kirk Pinho, Crain’s Detroit Business