Jonathan Keyser | Build a Better Business Culture and the Money Will Follow

Adam LeanPodcast

On this week’s P is for Profit, we’re joined by special guest Jonathan Keyser, the Founder and Thought Leader behind Keyser, one of the fastest-growing commercial real estate firms of its kind in the country, serving thousands of companies globally across a wide range of industries. Jonathan is also the best-selling author of You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win and was recently named the Commercial Real Estate Disruptor by USA Today.

“Fifteen years ago, I attended a conference, and a speaker described a different way of doing business, a way of succeeding by investing in relationships and helping other people, and I was really inspired by that. Long story short, I decided that I was going to embrace that methodology and abandon my ruthless ways. It was a long, hard road of reinvention and of converting myself from this ruthless individual to someone who lives now to serve others,” says Jonathan.

We chat about Jonathan’s journey to founding Keyser, as well as:

  • Reimagining the commercial real estate industry
  • Why the industry is so ruthless
  • His tips for improving the culture of a business “the Keyser way”
  • Myths about the commercial real estate industry
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:


Adam Lean: In this episode, we’re going to talk about commercial real estate. We’re going to talk to a commercial real estate expert on how he transformed the commercial real estate industry and how he can help you navigate your commercial real estate needs, especially in these deeply uncertain times. This is P is for Profit.

Adam: Welcome to P is for Profit. My name is Adam Lean and I along with the rest of the team at The CFO Project are passionate about helping businesses improve the profitability and cash flow of their business. My guest today was recently named the Commercial Real Estate Disruptor by USA Today, and the number one Wall Street Journal best-selling author of You Don’t Have to be Ruthless to Win. He is the founder and thought leader behind Keyser, which is one of the fastest-growing commercial real estate firms of its kind in the country, serving thousands of companies globally across many industries. Jonathan, welcome to the show.

Jonathan Keyser: Thank you, Adam. Thank you for inviting me to be on your show.

Adam: Yeah, so I’m really excited to dive in because I know real estate especially, you know, businesses that own or rent commercial space is a very important topic and it can be confusing. But, you know, before we dive in, tell us about yourself and how you got started with Keyser.

How Jonathan Got Into Selfless Real Estate

Jonathan: Sure. So I actually have an unusual upbringing. I was raised commercial, I was raised not in the commercial real estate industry. I was raised a Christian missionary kid and Papua New Guinea, of all places. And my parents, most people don’t even know where that is, right? My parents taught me to love and serve and give and help. The problem was when we got back from overseas, I realized for the first time in my life, that we were poor. And so at the time, I associated service and helping other people selflessly with being broke. And so I decided at a young age, I was going to be rich. 

And I got into commercial real estate because I saw people making a bunch of money and a friend of mine said that I could do it as well. And as I got into commercial real estate brokerage, I realized really quickly Wow, this is a ruthless, cutthroat, take no prisoners industry. And I became ruthless because I didn’t know that there was a different way. I thought, Okay, this is the way that you become successful, then I’m going to do what it takes because I don’t want to be poor like my parents. 

And so I became this ruthless shark in commercial real estate. And I was having some measure of success, but I was unhappy. I was miserable. I was misaligned with my core values but I felt trapped and I didn’t know, you know, a different way. And then 15 years ago, I attended a conference and a speaker described a different way of doing business. A way of succeeding by investing in relationships and helping other people. 

And I was really moved and inspired. And long story short, I decided that I was going to embrace that methodology and abandon my ruthless ways. And it was a long, hard road of reinvention and of, you know, converting myself from this ruthless individual to someone who lives now to serve others. And it was a long, hard road. One of the things that the individual told me when I went up to him afterwards is he said, the reason why most people don’t do this is because it’s the long game. 

It takes so long for you to see results because what you’re not doing is trying to get some just quick instant gratification hits, you’re trying to invest in the long run. So it took me five years to reinvent myself. And then it was amazing. The referrals just started flowing in. And that gave me more to help other people with. And in 2012, I had an epiphany where I realized that what I was up to was bigger than me and it was bigger than my team at a traditional firm and I realized that I was being limited by the culture of a traditional firm. So I decided then to start my own. 

And that we were going to build it around this idea of reimagining and reinventing the commercial real estate industry through selfless service and truly proving that even in arguably one of the most cutthroat, ruthless industries in the world, that you didn’t have to behave that way to be successful and that you could actually win, you could actually financially benefit by loving and serving others, which again, if even use the word love in a commercial real estate broker, for most people is a little bit insane. So we did that. And we launched on 15 cooperating principles in 2013. And today, like you mentioned, we’ve had a lot of extraordinary success. 

And we’re growing rapidly. And, you know, and I think it’s just, it’s a testament to the demand out there that the deep need and desire of people to really have a different kind of environment that so many in this industry, like I used to feel, feel trapped and feel like they don’t know a way out and so they behave that way because they feel they have to. And so we’ve now created a model that demonstrates that you could do it differently, that you could create success and service, that you could love and serve and actually win monetarily as well. 

And so as we grow, it’s been neat to watch people come out of the woodwork raising their hands and saying, hey, I’d love to, you know, join your team and be a part of that amazing culture you’ve created and I’d love to launch a new office for you and, you know, pick the city or whatever the case may be. So it’s a, we’re just, we’re still just getting started. But it’s been an enormous gift to be able to take something from this sort of big idea, this concept of what if it didn’t have to be a certain way, reinvent myself around it, create success and then teach others to do the same thing.

Adam: I love it. So a couple of questions before we get into more of your transition and sort of reinvention of yourself, why is the commercial real estate industry so ruthless?

Jonathan: I think that’s just kind of the way it’s always been, to be honest. It’s 100% commission environment for most individuals. So it’s, everybody’s fighting tooth and nail and there’s no prize for second place. So I think just the natural, you know, follow the money. The incentives are not in place to be collaborative for the most part. Not that there’s not collaboration that occurs. There is, but it’s very self-interested collaboration versus this idea of paying it forward.

Adam: Hmm. And just curious, the conference that you went to where you had this sort of epiphany, what kind of conference was that?

Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, it was an industry conference. And then it was not the theme of it. It’s just, you know, it was an interesting topic and one that I didn’t expect. And then, you know, as I’m sitting there, I’m thinking, Man, could I do this? Could this apply to my business? Could I do this in commercial real estate in Arizona and be successful? You know, and part of it too, is the reason why I was so skeptical at first is because I didn’t know anybody else that had done it, that was doing it successfully. 

And so part of why I wrote the book, and part of why I’m just honored and humbled that it hit number one on Wall Street Journal last year is because I want to show others that it is indeed possible. Like, you can too, right? The book’s not about commercial real estate and I tell some of my story, but it’s about this idea of how do you actually, as a business leader, create a culture that is second to none, that attracts the right kind of people, that enables you to selflessly serve each other and the community and to succeed? 

And so what I’ve done is taken everything that I’ve learned over the past 20 years and crammed it into this short, easy to read book called You Don’t Have to be Ruthless to Win so that others in the future can say, Hmm, maybe if that guy, if that crazy Jonathan Keyser can do it in commercial real estate, maybe I can do it in whatever their industry.

Adam: So what are some tips to improve the culture of a business?

Building a Selfless Culture

Jonathan: Well, I think it starts at the top, right? So a fish rots from the head is one of my favorite quotes. If the leaders of the organization are not willing to live the culture, then no matter what they say, it’s never going to be that. And that’s what I see is the biggest hindrance for most organizations is they bring in a coach and the coach says their values, and shockingly, their value sound like everybody else’s values. Integrity and cooperation and teamwork and all this stuff. And nobody lives it because the leaders don’t live it. 

And so the hardest part for me about being part of a selfless culture is I actually have to live that. And I don’t mean perfectly because none of us are perfect, but it’s constantly moving towards that goal. And that’s where, you know, that’s where I think the key is. And you have to be intentional about it. And you have to actually back it up. And when the rubber meets the road and it’s money versus culture, which do you pick? And most people look at it in that sense. And I believe that if you pick culture, the money follows. But most people take in their minds the easy way out and pick the money and destroy their culture in the process.

Adam: And ironically enough, their culture goes down and later, your money will go down because it is a lie.

Jonathan: You got it. You got it. That’s exactly right.

Adam: Poor culture equals higher turnover and, of course, that takes money and then you have less trained and less motivate employees. And that flows through to your product or your service, quality and customer service and all that.

Jonathan: But again, it comes back to instant gratification versus the long game, right? And so, for this to work, this isn’t like, I’m not talking a get rich quick scheme. This is not that. If you’re looking for that, you know, end this podcast now. I’m describing long-term sustainable success. I’m describing something where you win in the long run. And so you have to be able to have that longer-term vision and that longer-term horizon versus just trying to make as much money as you can now and not worry, you know, how many bridges you burn or people you trample in the process.

Adam: Yeah, totally. So I guess tell us about how you did it. Your, you know, you sort of mentioned your reinvention over the past several years and how did you take your company from, or first, you were in a firm that was, didn’t have the best culture. You started your own and then you developed over the past several years and sort of reinvented yourself. So tell us about that.

It Will Take Dedication

Jonathan: Sure. So, you know, reinvention is not for the faint of heart. A lot of people say they want to reinvent themselves. It’s sort of like people saying they want to get in shape and then they go eat four double cheeseburgers and two large fries. It’s sort of the same thing with this where you have to actually be willing to do the things that it takes. And the hardest part is you have to be willing to look yourself in the mirror and identify where you’re falling short, where you’re flawed, where you are not up to where you in the standard you want to hold. 

And that’s a hard process for everyone. I mean,  it’s still hard for me and it’s something that I’m addicted to at this point which is finding those areas where I suck and seeing them. Finding those blind spots where I’m not even aware of the fact that I’m getting in my own way and then looking for what I can do to course-correct. 

You know, I hired a coach. I can, I strongly recommend that. Reading amazing books is a huge part of it. But again, there’s plenty of hows, right? But if the why is strong enough, the how will show up. So for me, the why was I was miserable. I hated who I was becoming. I felt like a used car salesman, no offense to any used car salesmen out there. But, you know, in college as one of my many jobs to put myself through school, I tried selling cars for a while, and that is a slimy business. 

And I felt like that. I felt like that kind of person and I didn’t like it. So I had a strong desire to do it differently and even with that deep, strong desire, it was hard because number one, it takes a long time. You know, when I asked that speaker, how long it would take me to reinvent myself, he basically said, it’ll take you four to five years. So most people aren’t willing to wait four to five years to go through any kind of personal transformation and that’s why most people don’t get through to the other side. 

And so what I’ve done at Keyser is number one, I’ve identified those individuals who are already wired to want to just selflessly love and serve, just don’t know how to be successful doing it, or are doing it to some degree and want to have greater success through it and I teach them how we’ve done it. And we find people who, like me are desperate to want to find a better way and then I teach them how to transform themselves. 

And we’ve, you know, since going through it myself and teaching others, we’ve really found a way to compact that learning curve so that people can transform themselves pretty quickly and the way that they’re behaving in business quickly to drive much quicker results. But it still is not, it still is designed to be the long game. Like, sometimes to this day, we’ll let short term opportunities go because we’re really more interested in investing in that relationship in the long term. And there’s things that we could do to maximize the short term revenue now, but it’s not about that for us. 

It’s much more about playing the long game. So everybody’s journey is very deeply personal. The reason why we have the 15 core operating principles at our firm that we do is because we’ve come up with, we call it the Keyser way. We’ve come up with the Keyser way to help organizations reinvent themselves, help individuals reinvent themselves, help them create themselves from scratch. I mean, that’s what we teach in my book, You Don’t Have to be Ruthless to Win. And, you know, for us, it’s about first having a strong want to, and then giving people the tools so that they can actually do it.

Adam: There’s a lot to dive in here. So I guess, if somebody is listening in, they’re thinking that their culture could be better and you don’t have to be ruthless to win, they agree with that, what are some sort of next steps? Like what should they take away from today and start doing? Or, you know, maybe just go buy your book?

Jonathan: I think you know, it’s an inexpensive book. I would get the book and I would focus on really reading it first because to understand what is possible, you really need to understand how we did it and what the journey is. So if this is something is resonating with you on this podcast, I would highly recommend getting the book and reading it. And then there’s tools in there. We get tons of tools for how organizations can utilize this. 

And lots of resources. So yeah, but again, it starts with, you have to really look yourself in the mirror and say, do I really want to do this, because the hardest person that’s going to be on as you as the leader because you as a leader are going to be forced to live these kinds of things. And a lot of people aren’t, you know, they think they’re interested and willing to do it but they’re not once they kind of get into the mix and realize what’s really involved.

Adam: Yeah, no, that makes sense. We’ll definitely put the link to that in the show notes, the book and your website. But let’s shift back to, just to real estate just for a moment here. So what’s a myth, one or two myths that business owners just have about commercial real estate that you just want to dispel?

Not All Real Estate Agents are in Your Corner

Jonathan: Well, you know, as a firm, Keyser, my firm, we only represent the tenant or the user. So what most people don’t realize is that you think you have one of these commercial real estate agents working for you and the reality is, is they’re in bed with the landlords and developers and the other side of the equation. So you think you have an advocate, but you don’t really have an advocate because these people are incentivized to, you know, to under-represent you so they get more business from these landlords or to push you to certain buildings, whatever the case may be. 

And so as a result, most tenants are dramatically underrepresented. Most deals, most leases that I review are terribly negotiated. In my average, most tenants overpay by as much as 15 to 20% on their leases because they have conflicted representation. So that’s the first piece is know who your advocate is. And if they don’t, you know, if they’re with a firm that represents landlords, know that you’re at risk. And most people don’t even know that. Number two is everything’s negotiable and most people don’t realize. You know, they, this idea of well, as long as it’s a market deal. Well, market deal is whatever you can secure in an open market. 

And so our firm regularly beats the so-called market securing deals that are much better, much more preferential for our clients, for our tenants because we’re not stuck in that, you know, hey, again, we have to do what the landlords want us to do because if not, they’re not going to give us business in the future. We’re able to take our tenants to the open market and secure great deals, which are not just economic deals, but they’re also great terms, right? Flexibility, the ability to not bear all the liability as a tenant in the space that they’re occupying. 

And so, being, thinking about, I mean real estate’s the second or third largest expense for most organizations and it’s the least flexible because you can lay off people but you aren’t laying off the lease and over half of corporate bankruptcies involve breaking some kind of lease. So this stuff matters. And so we strongly believe at Keyser, you should have an advocate that’s on your side that is helping you navigate that and helping you maximize your negotiating leverage. 

And that’s what we’ve been spending so much time in this market doing. You mentioned before kind of helping companies navigate in today’s world. This is a, you know, this is a very unique environment and there are significant opportunities for tenants to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity that this pandemic is creating. There’s significant pain in commercial real estate. If you’re a tenant, don’t think that just because you have a lease in place and you have some term left on it that you don’t have any leverage. 

I wouldn’t argue that you have more leverage than you’ve ever had. And working with someone like our firm to help you know how to maximize that leverage to drive cost savings, to improve the terms of your leases, etc is key. But again, it takes that forward-looking mindset. And if you think about it, you know, if you can, if you could just materially improve just your commercial real estate leases, think about how much more agile your business would be. And think of it like this. I like to think of it offensively and defensively for clients. 

Defensively is, let’s say that your competitors do this and realign their real estate portfolio, drop their cost, etc., take advantage of this marketplace and you don’t, well that means that on the other side of this, you’re going to be in a less advantageous cost position. But if you do it, then you’d at least be on par with them. And then the offensive is where are those opportunities that may enable you to set up your real estate spend in a very favorable way over the longer term that are going to become available over the next six months in this marketplace. 

So we’re advising our clients to really be, you know, looking aggressively at the opportunities and helping them do that, which is why we’re busier than we’ve ever been. And while, you know, the world is, unfortunately, experiencing all kinds of upheaval, it’s creating opportunities for those smart entities who are looking at how they can navigate their real estate during these uncertain times and set them up successfully on the other side of all this. 

Adam: Yeah. Speaking of that pandemic, how is that affecting the commercial real estate industry as a whole. I imagine that it’s good for tenants.

Jonathan: It’s great for tenants, and that would be a whole nother podcast that we’d have to do.  We’re doing webinars and podcasts, as you can imagine. I mean, if you look over the last two downturns, vacancy rates have spiked and there’s been an average drop of about 15% in rental rates over the last two recessions. We anticipate that to be deeper this time. And that’s just the average, right? 

There’s opportunities being created where people are going to pick up buildings for pennies on the dollar, people are going to pick up leases at half, to even more aggressive of what they were just a few months ago around rate wise. And so there’s just massive opportunities being created. And that’s what we’re helping our tenants navigate to make sure that one, they’re not hurt by this, but they’re actually able to take advantage of it.

Adam: Well, Jonathan, this has been very, very informative. If people want to learn more, they want to work with you guys in helping them with their commercial real estate, where do they go?

Jonathan: The easiest thing would be to go to our website, which is KEYSER, And also feel free to send me an email. We have a team of people, as you can imagine, I get a lot of emails, but we have a team of people that are constantly checking. And we have you know, we have a significant amount of high-quality people that can assist with your specific situation, give you a free review of your lease, you know, do a free strategy call. 

Just really help your audience figure out what, if there are opportunities on their real estate and if so, how they can be taking advantage of them. So Or you could also send me an email at So at Send me a quick note. I’ll get you with somebody good and see what we can do to help.

Adam: Excellent. So we’ll put both of those, your email and the website in the show notes. Jonathan, thank you so much for being here.

Jonathan: Thank you for having me. Have a blessed rest of your day.

Adam: Yeah, you too. So if you would like to see if Jonathan can help you with your business, please reach out. We’ll put those in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening. And remember, the goal of your business should be to make more profit than last year and turn that profit into cash that you get to keep. Thanks for listening.