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ECP's SmartSpace reveals the firm's true colors

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Appreciating the ingenuity at play at ECP Commercial is as easy as taking a trip downstairs from the real estate company’s second-floor offices in Kearny Mesa. Your destination: SmartSpace.

The 9,500 square feet of cutting-edge office space is also a functioning art gallery, where local artists’ and photographers’ work is exhibited on the walls of the corridors.

In combination with the bright, “organic and collaborative” office spaces and a reception-area concierge on duty to assist tenants, SmartSpace is not only smart, it’s eminently cool.

These custom offices with 51 part- and full-time tenants are leased by ECP Commercial, a 27-year-old firm that may be known better for its brokerage services, property management, and investment and syndication efforts.

Here’s where that ingenuity comes in again: the SmartSpace grew out of ECP’s boldness in seeking out and acquiring the Murphy Canyon Road building three years ago, at a time when the economy was still in the doldrums.

SmartSpace's 9,500 square feet of office space is also a functioning art gallery, where local artists’ and photographers’ work is exhibited on the walls of the corridors. Courtesy photo

“A lot of the [real estate] firms were hunkering down,” recalled ECP’s president, Joe Bonin, who founded the company in 1986 as East County Properties. (Today, with its reach expanded, ECP is an acronym for Excellence in Commercial Properties.)

“We took a lot of risks," he said. "We relocated [from La Mesa], bought this building. We felt like this was an opportunity to reposition our company and set it on a different course.”

That course includes the county as a whole, from Otay Mesa to Carlsbad.

At the same time, not only did Bonin -- along with CEO Patrick Millay (his friend for 40 years) -- re-envision and redesign the new building, but their solution to what to do with the square footage downstairs would become SmartSpace.

ECP CEO Patrick Millay (above) has been friends with President Joe Bonin for 40 years. Courtesy photo

“In addition to providing local artists with a place to display their work, we have opened our doors to non-profit organizations and have hosted many fundraising events,” said Bonin, adding that he hopes to expand the SmartSpace concept in San Diego and then Southern California.

Bonin calls ECP “an extremely entrepreneurial operation. It’s hard to put us in a box.” He cited the 27-person company’s “horizontal” organizational structure, with each department integrating with the other.

“We’re the antithesis of micro-specialization,” he said. This runs contrary, he affirmed, to the way large-scale institutions do business.

ECP’s clients, Bonin said, “aren’t interested in having five different leasing teams. They’re looking for a consolidated approach. We like to think that we deliver a product or service in an old-school, personal style. It’s what our clients like.”

Today, the firm manages 45 properties, totaling 1,400,000 square feet and has brokered $80 million worth of transactions in the last three years.

ECP President Joe Bonin founded the company in 1986 as East County Properties. Courtesy photo

Finding properties for clients doesn’t end with making the deal, Millay added. “What we do is not only identify a piece of real estate, but give you a plan on how to make it perform for you. We execute the plan we told you about. We take you down the road.

“We’ve been successful because we do the work. The work is being aggressive and smart, and following up.”

Strategies ECP employed during the recent market downturn endure today.

“You had to be lean and smart and nimble in order to survive,” Bonin said. “Nobody was calling. Between 2009 and 2011 we might not have done one deal with a truly new business.”

In its new space, and with those rough days weathered, ECP is moving forward.

“We would like to continue to expand through merger and acquisition, and continue our syndication work and partnering with our clients," Bonin said. “We try to add value whenever we touch a piece of real estate or a transaction.”

Coddon is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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