The World Leader in Commercial Real Estate Tells a New Story

In 2015, a technology race among the biggest real estate firms was accelerating, with each striving to win business and serve clients using the latest digital technologies. Executives at CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate firm, looked around at the competition and realized they needed to take a major step forward on digital strategy—and do so quickly.

That was when CBRE set its sights on taking the lead in an industry-wide digital transformation. As part of its strategy, the company incorporated a geographic information system (GIS) more directly into its client work. CBRE created Dimension, a groundbreaking application that has enabled CBRE professionals to turn data into compelling visual stories, transforming how clients select office, retail, and industrial sites; recruit employees; and choose vendors and tenants. An agile, hyper-fast, high-tech platform, Dimension drew comparisons to a Ferrari from CBRE professionals. Now that the company had the platform, it needed a driver to navigate the new capability.

Into that role stepped Tahirah Mahan Thomas, a marketing executive who had already been with the company for nine years and was known for her relentless work ethic and charismatic leadership. When the company asked if she’d be willing to lead the project, she admitted she had hardly heard of GIS. But she leapt at the opportunity.

Under Mahan Thomas’s stewardship, Dimension has become one of the most powerful tools in the CBRE sales professionals’ kit. When using Dimension, win rates increase significantly, and brokers use the platform in client presentations more than any other technology save PowerPoint.

Mahan Thomas’s talent as a digital storyteller and versatile communicator helped drive adoption of the new technology. She showed how to pair the visual expressiveness of GIS-based maps with data-rich location insight to create narratives that speak to clients’ business needs.

Laura O’Brien—executive vice president of operational excellence at CBRE and a champion of Mahan Thomas’s work—sees that as a core component of the technology. “The fact that we can tell stories using Dimension enables our sales professionals to really dig deep with the people in front of them,” she says. “They can take clients on a visual journey of discovery, with interactive story maps. That’s the magic.”

Once upon a Time in Ohio

Born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised in the suburbs outside Cleveland, Mahan Thomas knew from an early age that she was a natural storyteller with a knack for presentation.

“When I was a little girl, I used to make up ads,” she says. “I’d jump out of the shower and suds up my hair into an ice cream cone and make up shampoo commercials.”

That habit was in part a family inheritance, shaped by her upbringing. Her mother was an educator, working as a school psychologist and administrator, and her father spent his career in the radio broadcasting business. “My dad is a big storyteller. When we would be on road trips, he would make up stories and tell them to us. My uncles are big joke tellers.”

Tahirah Mahan Thomas, vice president and head of CBRE Advisory Services Marketing
Tahirah Mahan Thomas and her CBRE colleagues incorporate storytelling into location planning.

She graduated from Georgia State University, where she studied journalism and communications and earned a minor in marketing and theater. Afterward, she hopped between Atlanta and Houston, joining CBRE in 2006.

The world of marketing suited her instantly. “My personality is very motivational, being a cheerleader,” Mahan Thomas says. “I like to talk. I like to present. I’m social. Marketing was a natural fit.”

Long before Dimension landed on her plate, she recognized that storytelling was at the core of the real estate business. While it is an industry powered by numbers—square footage, lease rates, ZIP codes—CBRE’s brokers needed narratives to engage clients’ imagination and help them see the future. By reaching people on an emotional level, she saw, you could figure out how to better serve them.

“Storytelling is a huge part of the human tradition,” she says. “Before we wrote, we sat around fires and told stories. It’s how we educate. It’s how we connect with other people. It’s how we learn.”

Choosing a Digital Leader

Mahan Thomas was hand-picked to lead Dimension’s adoption by O’Brien, a senior executive, 28-year veteran of CBRE, and former broker herself. Following the pioneering work of Peter Patnaude, who began the GIS evolution at CBRE, O’Brien volunteered to integrate the new technology into the brokerage organization. At first, it seemed like a simple task. Nearly everything CBRE did began and ended with location, and the company’s US mapping center already generated as many as 70,000 maps a year. Dimension appeared to be a fairly straightforward digital upgrade of what had traditionally been an analog process.

But through her initial conversations with GIS specialists inside the company, O’Brien realized the task was more complex and that the platform had capabilities that went far beyond the PDF and paper maps the salesforce was then using. With GIS-powered location intelligence, companies could identify otherwise unseen patterns in data, and those patterns could strengthen site selection, reshape the mix of merchandise in retail stores, pinpoint up-and-coming neighborhoods, and predict which combination of vendors would create maximum revenue in multi-unit buildings.

“That made me realize that what this needed was a special leader,” O’Brien says. “This wasn’t just our same old mapping center hiring a few more people with new skills. We needed someone who was really willing to dig in and see the opportunity not just then, but for the future. That made me think to explore our marketing organization for someone who excelled at highly visual presentation modes and wasn’t afraid of trying new platforms.”

After hearing Mahan Thomas’s manager describe her as a visionary, O’Brien had a feeling she’d found the right person to lead Dimension. Just as important as Mahan Thomas’s marketing skills was her ability to be a servant leader. “She would listen to the need first, figure out how to serve, and do everything she could to knock it out of the park,” O’Brien says.

When O’Brien asked Mahan Thomas if she would take on the project in early 2016, the answer was an emphatic yes. But the new leader realized she had a lot of work ahead of her. She had heard the hype around Dimension, but the transformative potential that people kept talking about wasn’t clear to her. She thought it was just about dots on a map.

A Mapping Paradigm Shift

The moment the power of Dimension clicked for Mahan Thomas was when Marko Haarma, the GIS director at CBRE, first showed her a commute-optimizer tool. Using data from a client that was considering relocating its headquarters, CBRE created an interactive map that let the company’s executives pick various locations and instantly see the average commute time, distance, and costs for their workforce to reach each site. What in the past would have required hours of work designing and printing dozens of paper maps could be accomplished in real time and changed on the fly, on a single screen.

“Up to that point, I was thinking, ‘How am I going to get people excited about this?’” Mahan Thomas says. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, my friends, we are about to make some magic here.’”

Working with O’Brien, Mahan Thomas devised a strategy for driving adoption of Dimension within the company. They began by working one-on-one and in small teams with the most forward-thinking brokers in the company’s retail and industrial sectors. As those early adopters started winning business through Dimension, demand grew within the departments and spread throughout the company.

O’Brien and Mahan Thomas also incorporated Dimension training into popular internal education programs to teach sales professionals how to weave a location story. The training walked them through the process of narrative building by posing questions such as, Who’s the client? What’s their challenge? What are they trying to do? What datasets can we build?

Mahan Thomas helped brokers bring location intelligence to life through storytelling. “The subject location is the main character and the surrounding data points are the supporting characters. They are working together to do something special, whether it’s solve a problem or create an opportunity.”

Unlocking Narratives with Psychographics

One of the best examples Mahan Thomas found for this approach came as the company was advising the owner of an outdoor, mixed-use shopping center in Texas. The center’s occupancy had declined and wasn’t producing the expected results. Through Dimension, CBRE was able to pull aggregated data and dig into the psychographics (a more psychologically nuanced form of demographics) to understand the center’s average customer and their corresponding shopping behaviors. CBRE discovered that the center was actually drawing a more diverse demographic, including shoppers who were willing to commute and interested in retail experiences that involved the whole family.

CBRE developed a new management strategy based on the data about who was coming and what they desired. That insight unlocked a host of creative solutions, including video-equipped, pet-friendly amenities; branded towels to dry off kids who went splashing in the fountains; and on-site concerts and yoga classes. Nine months later, the mall was 90 percent leased and the amount of time customers spent on the premises had jumped to 135 minutes from 97.

For Mahan Thomas, who often talks about real-estate advisory as an art and a science, this case exemplified the power of both—the secret sauce, as she calls it. The location intelligence that Dimension provided was grounded in science and data analysis, but what the company did with that insight—the breakthrough solutions that others might not have been imaginative enough to create—that was more art than science.

“We really encourage being creative, being problem solvers, not being afraid to look at things differently,” Mahan Thomas says. “Our sheer scale at CBRE provides a lot of opportunities to learn, grow, and get really creative. It’s that X factor you can’t replicate.”

A Company Culture Open to Innovation

While Mahan Thomas tends to think of herself as right-brained and creative, she’s also a stickler for details, immersing herself in the nitty-gritty of whatever subject she’s assigned to.

When she was appointed to work on Dimension, Haarma—who had seen other leaders come and go—was skeptical that real change would happen or that the GIS department’s full potential would be tapped. But in Mahan Thomas, he found a leader willing to get down into the trenches and wrestle with the problems that her team faced.

“She sat down with every employee, no matter how high or how low, all the way down to our entry-level logo-map maker,” Haarma says. “She spent time one-on-one with them to understand the ins and outs, the ups and downs—everything about them. Nobody had ever done that before.”

When the time came to allocate more resources for the department, Mahan Thomas drew on her knowledge of the team’s inner workings to make a bold ask to significantly grow the team. Haarma still remembers the multi-tab spreadsheet she created with a quantitative case for why CBRE needed the labor power to reach the company’s goals. In short order, they began the process of bringing on several new hires.

Through connecting with employees, amassing data into a compelling case, and overcoming odds, Mahan Thomas inspired those she worked with, creating internal momentum that helped drive Dimension’s adoption.

“Based on what I’ve seen from Tahirah, her ability to make change in the company is unrivalled,” Haarma says. “We had the creativity. We had the products. But we were lacking the ability to make change and convince the powers that be.”

It didn’t hurt, he speculates, that she was a natural center of attention. “Tahirah is a huge personality,” Haarma says. “When she walks in a room wearing a bright orange dress, heads turn. But her clothes are dwarfed by her personality. People listen. People stop.”

Timeless Principles of Communication

CBRE’s digital transformation began with a sophisticated GIS platform and the desire to stay ahead of the competition. But executives soon found that in order to achieve the technology’s full potential, they needed great leaders with a human touch who could mold data science into narratives that spoke to the heart and mind. Putting location intelligence into the hands of gifted digital storytellers has helped the company remain at the top of its field, with over $20 billion in revenue last year.

For Mahan Thomas, who was promoted to vice president and head of CBRE Advisory Services Marketing (while still overseeing Dimension), the process affirmed that technological advances never supersede certain fundamental principles.

“Technology doesn’t necessarily replace old forms of communication,” she says. “We just have new tools to tell our story better.”

About the author

Keith Balaniz is the global business development manager for Esri’s real estate sector. He works to transform the real estate industry through better understanding of geography and the application of location analytics. Balaniz has worked in high tech for over 20 years with such companies as Box.com and EMC & Dell Technologies, helping organizations embrace digital transformation to gain competitive advantage. He is a graduate of the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University.

Next Article

2020: Six Predictions for a Shifting Business Climate

Read this article