Rita Tené Ellison | Associate Director | T. Dallas Smith & Company | Putting customers first in CRE


DA: Welcome to TEN, the Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host, David Abrams. In this episode, we are connecting with Rita Tené Ellison, associate director at T. Dallas Smith & Co. In this episode, we learn about Rita’s career journey, which started out in her junior year of college with an internship at T. Dallas Smith & Co. Upon graduation, Rita was offered a full-time position at that same firm, but respectfully turned it down to pursue other opportunities at larger firms. As of November of last year, she rejoined T. Dallas Smith & Co. Rita acknowledged the uphill battle African Americans face in the industry and share how T. Dallas Smith & Co. has a mission to involve more women of color in their business. She does believe that hybrid work is here to stay. However, she says it is not new. Employees are wanting flexibility now more than ever, and employers are responding by empowering their team resulting in improved productivity. Rita is firm in the belief that an office presence is critical to support culture and engagement. Buildings are not just a place to work and are beginning to offer more of a lived work environment. Using the office lobby as an example, she points out how they are now becoming places for people to collaborate, socialize, and more. She explains that access to local amenities is becoming more of a driving factor in real estate decisions, causing smart landlords to become more attentive to tenant needs and respond with appropriate programming. With a client-first mentality, her firm has maintained a consistent approach throughout the pandemic in responding to the evolving needs of their customers. We’re excited to share this podcast with you, so be sure to subscribe to TEN so you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. And now I’d like to welcome Rita to the show. I’m really glad you could be with us today. How are you?

RTE: I’m doing well, David. It’s a pleasure to be here.

DA: Likewise, I’m looking forward to our conversation and I’d love to start with a little bit about your journey to your current position role. How did you get started in the business?

RTE: Well, my commercial real estate career actually started during my junior year of college, 11 years ago, entering here at T. Dallas Smith & Co. This company is essentially introduced me to the industry. My internship broadened my aspirations by exposing me to a multitude of career paths within the industry. Upon graduating, I was offered a position, which I respectfully declined. At the time, I was young and very eager to further my experience at a larger firm. And, honestly, David, looking back today, it was the best decision I made for myself. Since then, I’ve held numerous roles in the industry, which have all helped me develop my skills to be able to represent my clients today. I did accomplish my goal by working at numerous large firms. And as of November of last year, I rejoined T. Dallas Smith & Co.

DA: Wow, I love that. Did they come after you? Did you go after them?

RTE: It was a mutual love interest.

DA: Right, well, that’s great. You know, so it was meant to be, eventually did happen. But in the interim, it allowed you to, you know, have other experiences as well.

RTE: Exactly.

DA: Great. So why do you think you were so uniquely suited to this opportunity? What has helped you to become successful?

RTE: I believe that everything in my life has prepared me for this role essentially. As you know, there is less than 4% of African American in this industry, and we, you know, narrow it down to women of color, that number dwindles even more. So let’s face it, it’s not easy to do this in our industry, which is why the mission here at T. Dallas Smith & Co. is to expose this business to more people of color. In addition to that, of course, my tribe, my mentors, my family, have all just been vital in my life, in my success ultimately.

DA: Good, and maybe just before we move on, just tell us a little bit more about your specific role. What do you do day-to-day?

RTE: I’m a broker.

DA: Okay, all right.

RTE:  Pure tenant rep broker. That means I only represent the tenant and not the landlord. On a day-to-day, I make calls, look for other clients. My current clients keep me very busy and I’m very grateful for that. But yeah, just try to see how I can improve my clients’ life and others in a business.

DA:  All right, well, I think looking through that lens, I’m really excited about the conversation that we’ll continue, and have you share from that perspective some of your thinking around what is so important in our industry today, the return to work, and understanding the role of the experience for the tenant. So I’m really excited to be able to tap into that perspective. And, you know, there’s been a lot of commentary around the return to work and some extreme opinions being expressed. Some are confrontational, often polarizing. You know, we really believe, my team and I, that now is the time to live and work in the world as it is right now. We really can’t continue to project into the future, both the industry nor the occupier, about what the world might look like or will it return to, you know, the old normal. Perhaps this is the new normal, and this normal now includes Covid. It’s not a post-Covid world, it’s a world living with Covid. So I’m just curious what your thoughts are. What does this mean for the commercial real estate industry? And from your perspective, what does this mean for occupiers who are still looking at, you know, as space as an important part of the workplace ecosystem they’re trying to create?

RTE:  David, I believe that hybrid schedules are a permanent part of the workplace forecast and it’s here to stay. At the same time, it’s important to address that remote work is not a new thing. And it has its positives and negatives, of course. Now more than ever, workers are requiring flexibility and employers are meeting this demand in unprecedented ways, let’s just admit that. Studies have actually shown that, you know, empowering employees to make their own scheduling decisions are directly tied to productivity, and I don’t believe the recession is going to change that, or the pandemic, or anything like that. But me being a firm believer of office space, I believe that the only way to build culture, employee engagement, or just an environment that fosters productivity, is by having an office presence. So to answer your question, no, you know, the hybrid model is here to stay. And I do believe that landlords are starting to realize that as well. And they’re also realizing that the building is not just a place to work now, and the wise ones are repositioning their assets, making more into live-work type of environment, and that’s important.

DA: Yeah, I love that. I love seeing, you know, what we’re seeing is, you know, multifamily big buildings, becoming more office-like, and office buildings becoming more home-like.

RTE:  Exactly, exactly. Being able to have this reimagined space that serves both business and a social purpose. For instance, a lobby is no longer the traditional lobby. It’s now a place where people can collaborate, grab a cup of coffee, sit down, grab, you know, a bite. So things like that are now just happening in the market, and it’s certainly shipping things.

DA: You know, I remember years ago, there was a trend with lobbies of buildings that they were pristine, right? They were virtually empty. There was little or no place to sit. They were large. It was just, you know, and again, just such simplicity. And then, even pre-pandemic, we started to see, like we saw in a very large downtown property in Toronto for example, they put in a high-end coffee provider and it literally changed the dynamic, the experience, the feeling of that property literally overnight. And there’s been no looking back, and that was pre-pandemic. And I think we’re going to just continue to see more and more of that. You’re right, the lobbies are untapped, in many cases, opportunities.

RTE:  And, David, to your point, there’s a building here called Ponce City Market. It’s owned by Jamestown located here in West Midtown in Atlanta. They’ve done such a wonderful job creating this beautiful ecosystem of amenities that just draws people, not only there during the weekdays, but also during the weekend. And by the way, they have some of the highest rents here in Atlanta. Closer to 60 bucks a square foot.

DA: Wow, wow.

RTE:  Yeah.

DA: So, listen, representing the tenant, the occupier, what kinds of things are you seeing? What are they asking for? What are they looking for when you’re out on tour and presenting them with space options?

RTE: Again, just being able to have this, a building that offers this type of atmosphere, this energetic atmosphere, as mentioned, again, buildings are no longer just a place to work. They’re looking for a place where their employees can, you know, during their lunch break, go downstairs to a nice restaurant and be able to have, you know, a meeting with their friends or a potential client, a place full of amenities, a nice gym. It’s no longer just about a conference room or, you know, how big your office space will be, but more so about the amenities of the building now. What is surrounding your building? What are the neighborhood amenities in addition to that? What are the proximities to, you know, the coolest parts of town? Is there transit near your buildings? Things like that are becoming more of a driving factor in decision making today.

DA: Right, well, I think that’s a perfect segue into our next question. You know, recognizing that the pandemic has certainly recalibrated the market, and again, these trends probably started pre-pandemic, but, you know, really accelerated during the pandemic, helping to recognize that buildings are really places for people. You know, it became very obvious when the buildings were empty, you know, how they just weren’t what they once were. And so if people are the real asset, not the building, you know, we’re seeing now tenant experience, workplace experience, fast becoming the new differentiator and now driving real estate decisions. So, you know, used to be that they looked at location and class of building. And now they’re looking at, “Okay, what else does this building offer?” So I’m just curious, you touched on some of the different elements that you think are important, any other thoughts on how you think building operators ought to be thinking about creating the best customer experience for their tenants? What else do you think they need to be doing to meet the demands of your customer?

RTE:  I think the wiser landlords have become more attentive and they’re a lot more engaging with their tenants. Even within our own building here in Atlanta, I can give you an example. We have tenant appreciation events all the time. A property manager, I mean, they’re fantastic as far as, you know, engaging with the tenants. Just yesterday, I met with actually our property manager in regards to a tenant drawing pool we’re doing for a nonprofit in the building. So things like that, that are engaging with the community, and just being able to align with your tenants essentially. I know another building that I recently I was in contact with mentioned that they’re doing a porch experience drawing pool like, for their tenants in their building. So I think it’s about finding creative approaches.

DA: Right, and I think that’s where, again, you know, building operators recognize they need to come out of their office and come out of the day-to-day, you know, operation of the building, which is all essential, and begin to think more customer focused, customer centric, doing more listening, and understanding what their tenants really need. And I think you touched on a lot of that in your comments. Let’s take a short break and we’ll be right back.


DA: We’re back with Rita Tene Ellison, associate director at T. Dallas Smith & Co. Again, I’m really glad you could be with us today.

RTE:  It’s a pleasure, David.

DA: Awesome. So listen, living through a pandemic has been really challenging for so many people. And as much as I think there’s opportunity that we’re going to talk about coming out of it, I think we need to recognize the challenges that we have all lived through. However, we really do believe that now is the time to be better, do better, and build something better. We can no longer use Covid as an excuse. So can you share any details about your business or some part of your business that is being reimagined to reflect the reality of where we are today?

RTE: David, fortunate for me and our firm, our motto is client first. That’s been the way we’ve been doing business for the last 15 years, and that’s not going to change. Every client is unique and Covid, the pandemic, has reflected that on a higher level. But as far as the way that, you know, changing the way that I do business, every day is different, every day is unique, and having this consistent approach kind of helps my foundation, it helps ground me essentially.

DA: Right, have you found the demand for space or the demand for certain kinds of space changing as a result of, you know, the situation today?

RTE:  Absolutely. We are seeing tenants taking smaller spaces, you know, in the market as a result of the pandemic. But, at the same time, clients also realize that having an office space is important and not just completely getting rid of it. So as we’ve discussed already, everyone has adopted this hybrid model where their employees are coming three days out the week and working two days from home. But on a footprint, you know, on a footprint level, we’re seeing smaller footprints.

DA: And in terms of how they’re designing those spaces, any observations from that perspective?

RTE: Yeah, absolutely, as mentioned, the spaces are now more collaborative than ever. As we touched already on it, even the lobby is no longer a lobby, which is more so a place that, you know, that’s energetic, that’s open to collaboration. So even within building designs, we’re seeing how that’s shifted because of the pandemic. And I think it’s here to stay, these are all positive changes, so yeah.

DA: I agree, I think, listen, you know, it certainly has presented many challenges for the industry. But I think, overall, some of the outcomes, some of the new directions that the industry is heading, I think are actually really positive. And I think that, you know, commercial real estate, will still be alive and well many years into the future, but it’s going to look different. And those that are recognizing that and are prepared to change, I think are going to, you know, really reap the rewards.

RTE:  Certainly, as you know, we mentioned earlier, buildings are becoming more of these lifestyle workplaces serving both the business and a social purpose.

DA: Excellent, you know, as part of our conversation, we always like to get to know you on a personal level as well. So our closing speed round is an opportunity to do just that. So our first question is, can you share one way in which the pandemic has changed your outlook on life?

RTE:  David, the pandemic has affected millions of people, as we know, and I’ve personally had, unfortunately a lot of people that I know personally affected. So I can say it’s helped me slow down, truly be in the moment, check on the people that matters, that I value the most. And yeah, and not just push it off till tomorrow, but truly take the time to check in and be there.

DA: Right, excellent. And what travel destination do you miss most?

RTE:  miss traveling period. But now we’re getting back to that. Traveling internationally, obviously, you know, that was affected tremendously. But now we’re getting back to that, so I hope to take a trip this year back home to Cameroon. So yeah, that’s a trip I look forward to.

DA: I hope you’re able to do that. Anything new on your bucket list that you’d like to experience?

RTE: Hmm, I don’t know, maybe represent the next, I don’t know, Fortune 100 company looking to come here in Atlanta. That’s always a big goal of mine.

DA: That’s aspirational, I love that. And what’s your favorite technology that is new to your life?

RTE:  Hmm, new to my life. Let’s see, oh man, these QR codes. These QR codes are genius. I recently discovered that you can add someone on LinkedIn with a QR code and at networking events. Oh God, it’s been just a tremendous difference.

DA: Very good, that’s actually something that’s sort of old, but new again, I think it was here, not so popular, and all of a sudden it’s come back.

RTE:  Exactly.

DA: What is your personal choice for days spent in person working with your colleagues versus working from anywhere?

RTE: You know, I’ll tell you a funny story. Sometime last year, I believe around November or December, we had a Covid scare after our holiday party. A couple people, I believe a couple kids and their families, got Covid and we had to shut down for a couple days. And literally by week two, all of us were contacting our leadership, like, “Come on, man, open the office. Like, this is ridiculous.” But I love, absolutely love coming in. I come in just about five days a week. And, you know, what’s crazy? Everyone here, we’re pretty much, we’re fairly young here from 30s to, you know, upper 50s, we have a strong presence in the office. We like coming in the office, we like the collaboration. So yeah, I think people like to work from home until they work from home for about six months, and then it’s like, “Oh, right, get me out of here.”

DA: Yeah, yeah. I think the reality is we’re going to continue to see people fluctuating between the two. You know, you spoke about it earlier, giving people the flexibility to make the right decision ultimately about where they can be most productive. And I think companies that recognize that, you know, are going to do just fine. I think those that declare, “You have to come back,” or that, “we’re never coming back,” you know, I think those companies are going to suffer long term. And I think people will make the right decision. And, to your point, I think buildings and the physical workspace does offer a unique opportunity that is very difficult to replicate virtually. And I look forward to buildings continuing to be a part of, you know, this new workplace ecosystem. Yes, there are many other options, but it’s still a great place to be. And I know that as I’m continuing to work remotely, the times that I’m able to come back into the downtown core and meet with people, you know, in offices, you know, I love it. And I have a meeting this afternoon, which I can’t wait to get to. I find it truly invigorating. And, for me, the built environment is still, you know, really an important place to be.

RTE: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more.

DA: Yeah, Rita, thank you so much for being a part of this important conversation, for representing your company, and for representing, you know, the clients that you serve and some of their thinking. And I look forward to this being the first of, hopefully, future conversations, and let’s definitely stay in touch.

RTE: Thank you, David, it was definitely a pleasure to be here.

DA: All right, you take care now.

RTE: You as well.

DA: Bye. I want to thank Rita Tene Ellison for joining me on this episode of TEN, and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings being a part of a robust ecosystem, helping to build great companies, that they’re vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms, and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to TEN for more conversations with leading CRE industry professionals and experts who all have something to say about tenant experience and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you. So if you enjoyed this episode of TEN, please share, add your rating and review us through your preferred podcast provider. 

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at david@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work and live, thank you.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Antonia Cardone | Americas Lead | Total Workplace | Cushman & Wakefield | The value of being together in the workplace

Season 4 / Episode 1 / 41:46
In this episode, Antonia shares a number of reasons people want to be in the office. In the past, being in the office was about having access to “stuff”, whereas today the new emphasis is on socialization and collaboration. She suggests that while amenities and environment are important, the “value” of being together is the real driver of spending time in the office.

Antonia Cardone | Americas Lead | Total Workplace | Cushman & Wakefield | The value of being together in the workplace

Season 4 / Episode 1 / 41:46
In this episode, Antonia shares a number of reasons people want to be in the office. In the past, being in the office was about having access to “stuff”, whereas today the new emphasis is on socialization and collaboration. She suggests that while amenities and environment are important, the “value” of being together is the real driver of spending time in the office.