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Q&A with Tom Kohler
Last week, Diane Landers sat down in Orlando to talk with Tom Kohler, Senior Principal of Real Estate Research Consultants, Inc. (RERC), a GAI company. Tom joined RERC in 2002, after serving as a senior executive with the City of Orlando for 26 years, and RERC joined the GAI family of companies in 2012. Read on to learn more about Tom and his role at RERC, a GAI Company.
Diane: In a nutshell, what does RERC and GAI do for local communities?
Tom: We’re into the sustainable quality of life. Basically, there are different resources we have within GAI that we can provide. It’s just that most communities don’t see those things. They are all in silos… they have the public works director over here, and the police chief over here, and the finance department over here, and the mayor and city council over here…So what we try to promote is…if you put all those things together and start leveraging those resources…the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. Some communities get it, some communities don’t. Nobody else does what we do. They do parts of what we do, but nobody does it all.
Diane: Tell us about an interesting or unique project you’ve worked on.
Tom: From a historic standpoint, the most fascinating and exciting project that all of us were involved in was the Orlando Naval Training Center [Baldwin Park]. I negotiated with the Navy and then RERC was brought in to do the economic side. And then together with the City, we put the public-private initiative together and we selected the developer and the rest of it is history. So we went from six million square feet of Federal properties…then [spent] millions of dollars to get it down to a Greenfield, then built it back up. It happened. It worked. Now it’s over $1 billion worth of private investment. That is the most complicated and most fascinating project, and it’s an award winner.
Diane: Tell us a little about your background.
Tom: I grew up in Mexico. [I spent my] first 10 years in Mexico City. My dad was a geologist. I graduated from Texas A&M with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and a Master’s in Urban Planning. My first job was on the Texas-Mexican border, because I spoke Spanish. I came to Orlando, FL 40 years ago. I worked for three Orlando mayors and was the Director of Orlando Downtown Development for 25 years. You can point to any building in Orlando and I can tell you whatever you want to know about that, or more than you want to know about that.
Diane: Can you tell me about your career trajectory before joining RERC and GAI?
Tom: After I graduated, I got that job on the Texas/Mexican border and a couple of years later came to Orlando with a private developer who bought some property out near Disney. We had a bad recession in the mid-seventies; the developer went back to Texas and I stayed here…then I ended up hooking up with the City of Orlando on a new program called the Community Development Block Grant. They still have it—it’s called CDBG now. I was the first community block grant officer for the City of Orlando. From there I became Chief Planner. Then I was tapped to be the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Orlando in ’77. I was chief of staff for two years…[then] I was approached to head up the Downtown Development Board in 1979 and I was there until 2002. I was the most senior redevelopment director in the state of Florida when I retired from the City. So the last 12 years [at RERC], I’ve basically been doing very similar work, but I just do it with a variety of communities instead of one community.
I was the chairman of the Florida Redevelopment Association back in the early 80s and then in the early 90s I was president of the Board of Directors of the International Downtown Association. So I got to travel a lot and see [different cities]…I like to work for the underdog, and urban centers were not the most popular places to work. In fact, when I took over in 1979, a lot of my friends and colleagues said, “What in the world? Nobody is going to invest in downtown Orlando!” Either I was too stupid or too naïve to know the difference.
Diane: And what was it that attracted you to RERC/GAI and to this position?
Tom: Well, because one, I knew the individuals, Owen Beitsch and Gary DeJidas; they had worked on a number of my plans before. And I could see the opportunities that I could bring their private-sector approach to other communities.
Diane: Have you traveled a lot?
Tom: Yes. I’ve traveled a lot particularly around the United States. I find it fascinating. There’s so much here that we just don’t even begin to appreciate. I’ve only been to Europe once—I’d like to go back there. My goal is to do a river cruise. Probably from Holland down into Austria—through the German country.
Diane: I understand that you are involved with some charities?
Tom: Yes, the Boys and Girls Club of Central Florida; I’ve been on the board now for 35 years. That’s been a passion of mine. That and Friends of the Orange County Library System; I’m on the Board of Directors there.
When someone truly enjoys what they do, it shows—such is the case when speaking to Tom about his career. His enthusiasm and passion for community building shine through. Thank you, Tom, for speaking with me and for bettering the lives of people in the communities you serve. Tom can be reached at
or (407) 843-5635.
Transitions to Leadership
By Diane B. Landers, Ph.D, MBA, RPA, CPSM
Vice President and CMO
April 10, 2014
Welcome back to GAI’s Blog Site, where GAI experts will share their perspectives on a variety of topics that are important to the A/E/C industry. Our previous blogger, Larry Gendzier, GAI’s corporate counselor, covered various legal issues that our industry faces every day. I am pleased that Larry has handed GAI’s blog off to me and other GAI leaders to express our views on what is happening in the industry, along with leadership topics and more. As CMO and Vice President, I will be blogging about corporate leadership and will also provide links to my marketing-related blogs that are currently being posted in a six-month series on the SMPS –Pittsburgh website.
I heard a saying recently that intrigued me. It said, “Bosses say ‘GO’…but leaders say…‘LET’s GO.’” Leadership is the ability to lay out a vision and get everyone excited about following you to collectively endorse it and achieve it—getting everyone rowing in the same direction. Your ability to connect with people—through personal character, integrity and leadership skills—is the key to driving your vision forward.
Why is leadership and visioning important today? America’s workers are among the most efficient in the world; however, companies today must do more with less, while serving clients 24/7 with consistent, quality performance. Now, more than ever, it is important to help your staff operate at their peak performance every day. If companies are to operate in this complex, global world of business, they have to push harder than ever to deftly manage their projects and people profitably. The reality is that good management practices only work if your firm has good leadership. What is the difference between leadership and management? As another famous saying goes, “management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things.”
I will be sharing stories with you that reflect good leadership–doing the right things at every stage in the business cycle. I will share thoughts on the benefits of engaging staff, motivating millennials, and incorporating diversity in the workforce. Along the way, I may also blog about the need to develop leadership programs in your firms and create succession plans. These are issues that confront the executive every day and I hope to share them with you so that, together, we can be better leaders for our A&E industry.
Check back next week to read about a recent conversation I had with Tom Kohler, Senior Principal of RERC (a GAI Company), as he shares his thoughts on the keys to successful community building.
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