Being around the construction and development business his whole life, James Pieri Jr. found himself always drawn back to the industry even while he explored other career options.
The Torrey Pines High School and San Diego State University finance graduate thought about going into law — and even took the LSAT and got accepted into law school — but instead went to work for MountainWest Real Estate in 2003, the commercial real estate firm his father owns and heads.
His father Jim Pieri is a commercial developer in Chula Vista who began with apartment projects in the 1970s and ‘80s, and then expanded to Class A office and retail space. It influenced Pieri Jr., 32, to get his realtor’s license after college.
He had already spent his college years working for the company on a part-time basis, starting out in maintenance and facilities management, and then moving on to the security side of property management. After college, he worked his way up and around the different departments, eventually becoming vice president of real estate.
“One of the things my father instilled in me is that if someone comes to you about the business, if you have worked in every area, then you know what they’re talking about, so I worked every aspect and it was a real educational process,” Pieri said.
Before leaving to strike out on his own in 2010 by founding Gateway Financial Real Estate, he and a team of 35 managed about half-a-million square feet of commercial space.
The size and complexity of the business required endless meetings and Pieri felt bogged down by it, which motivated him to blaze his own trail.
“I wanted to take on the role of leader and go with my own vision. But I also wanted to focus on what I am passionate about versus management — I was tired of so much of the minutiae of the day-to-day operations,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do. But for a period of time, I stopped loving what I do because I was tied down with management issues.”
Now he likes the change of pace of being an entrepreneur with the flexibility and freedom to pursue his own goals. “I don’t have employees, I have 1099 partners.”
Pieri took advantage of co-working spaces and has an office in UTC and another downtown where he meets clients and brainstorms with others, in addition to a home office.
When he began Gateway, initially about 75 percent of his business came from representing landlords in lease negotiation.
“I started off with tenant landlord lease negotiation because it’s the easiest part of commercial real estate to get into,” he said. “I picked up business on behalf of several landlords and that grew into tenant representation, too.”
In two short years, things have changed and today three-quarters of his business comes from representing tenants — as he discovered that being in property management was not so easy — although initially he had wanted to represent more landlords.
He is inspired by private real estate firms like Irvine Company and Hines Company, having observed their projects in San Diego.
“They’re top-notch and I’ve always admired the work they do,” he said.
He partners with commercial brokerage firms like NAI San Diego and NAI Global, as well as Cushman & Wakefield and CB Richard Ellis, bouncing ideas off of them and discussing deals, he said.
Pieri’s clients are across the board — from professionals such as doctors and attorneys, to retail shops and office tenants — and he’s been involved in transactions from local mom-and-pop startups to international firms.
A common scenario he runs into often is clients who are unhappy with the space they presently occupy, but are locked down in long-term leases and are unable to relocate. Pieri finds satisfaction in being able to show them their options and helping them find a place that suits their budget and needs.
“One of our clients was paying market rent in a Class B area, but we found we could move them to a downtown Class B+ or A- building with some parking, so they ended up moving into a brand new downtown penthouse with twice as much space and ended up saving money with rent concessions,” he said.
Compared to two years ago, the market has continually, steadily increased Pieri said, with a slow, steady climb as more businesses open new locations.