12 Top Real Estate Influencers

Biz October 50

Like everything else in our lives, the current pandemic has impacted the construction and real estate industry in a wide variety of ways. In the residential marketplace, demand has remained strong, driven by homebound residents who are feeling a strong desire for change — whether that be for a home with a pool, one with more space for families that are now living and working side-by-side, or a desire to relocate to less populated areas. Current historically low interest rates have certainly spurred action in this area and realtors have been turning more and more to 3D and virtual tours to introduce buyers to available options.

But while low interest rates are great for homebuyers, they have caused problems for local banks. The pandemic has also interrupted supply chains and increased material costs for builders and devastated the hospitality industry. The commercial real estate industry is also struggling with this “new normal” as companies reevaluate how and where they operate in order to meet current safety demands.

This is a time of great uncertainty for us all, but like all the challenges that have come before it, we will rise to the challenge by embracing change and the innovations it creates and by recognizing that we are all in this together.


Alex Hernandez

Managing Partner • NORF

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The real estate development division of Hernandez Consulting & Construction, NORF Companies specializes in Historic Tax Credit and Qualified Opportunity Zone projects. Notable projects within the last few years include: Tulane School of Medicine Student Housing (1315 Gravier); 131 Carondelet Hotel; The Francis Apartments (131 S. Jeff Davis); Mambo’s Restaurant (411 Bourbon); The Banks Apartments (3100 Banks); and New Orleans Museum of Art renovations.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

Initially the biggest challenge was just being able to keep construction going on projects with all the COVID-19 uncertainty and fears everyone had. Luckily, we kept the majority of our projects in construction and we just took the proper safety measures on. I think at this point we have settled into this new normal just fine in that way, but the next biggest challenge we are seeing is that banks are not wanting to finance what were excellent projects pre-COVID-19. We are seeing the banks really want to take a “wait and see” approach, which I am hopeful we can turn the corner on soon.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

Due to the unprecedented run-up in the stock market we have seen this year, we are optimistically expecting an upsurge in capital gains investment proceeds being redeployed into Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds. Theses funds are gearing up to capitalize on all the distressed real estate sure to come after all the bank loan forbearance runs its course. We feel the convergence of both of these scenarios will create excellent real estate investment opportunities in 2021.


L. Bryan Francher and Leslie A. Perrin

Principals • The Francher Perrin Group

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The Francher Perrin Group of Gardner Realtors has been operating in New Orleans for over 30 years, during which it has been honored with many top awards from the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, an Economic Development Ambassador of New Orleans award from the New Orleans Business Alliance, and has been named among the top three real estate agents in New Orleans by Gambit’s Best Of New Orleans Reader’s Poll. The group includes L. Bryan Francher, Leslie A. Perrin, Jeanne D. Peres, Josee Francher Kantak, John Seitz and Will Peters Jr.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

One of the biggest challenges is the limited face-to-face contact with clients, but technology has allowed our business to continue in a positive direction. At the same time, we are trying to market New Orleans properties to people who migrated to the big city lifestyle of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago etc. in an effort to entice them to consider a small city lifestyle that has everything one could hope for without the major congestion. Another challenge we are facing not only as Realtors, but also as a community, is the loss of so many of our beloved small businesses. One of the Francher Perrin Group’s missions is to work with sellers, buyers, landlords and tenants to get our historic district’s commercial activity put back into place.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

Prior to COVID-19, the trend to retire to a dense area where you would have access to restaurants, museums and galleries was on the rise. Now, the pendulum is starting to swing in the opposite direction, toward a lifestyle that offers less populated areas with more living space and natural surroundings. Other changes we expect to see are clients buying larger houses to accommodate their children’s needs and room to build separate guest quarters for aging parents. The desire to keep the family unit together is greater than ever and the safest place to be during a pandemic is right at home! As long as low interest rates are available, real estate will continue on the upswing. The Francher Perrin Group motto has never been more meaningful: “Love Where You Live!”


Ryan E. Burks

President • RYCARS

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RYCARS is a regional commercial roofing general contractor with a client base that includes industries like healthcare, institutional, education and the military. Notable projects include: Nashville Street Wharf; the Mercedes Benz Superdome; Lusher High School; McMain High School; and Alario Center.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

Our industry’s biggest challenge is addressing the labor shortage due to an aging workforce and lack of interest in the construction industry from younger generations. It is extremely difficult to recruit and retain younger people. Construction is not as attractive a career route compared to the tech industry, even though it is a vital economic indicator for the country’s GDP. In an effort to adapt, we have focused on training and development in conjunction with partnering with other companies to share resources.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

The changes in our industry include the continuous development of new, innovative products and equipment to minimize the dire need for a skilled labor workforce.


Bryce French

Commercial Real Estate Agent • Max J. Derbes, Inc.v

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Max J. Derbes, Inc. is a full-service commercial real estate brokerage firm where Bryce French works with clients in industrial, office and investment assets and specializes in maritime industrial assets. Recently, French brokered the sale of the former Entergy power plant in St. Gabriel for an MS River oil and gas bulk liquids terminal.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

Market uncertainty is our biggest current challenge. The new norm has also accelerated the shift of retail consumers from traditional storefront to e-commerce and product delivery. These factors, and others, have shifted Industrial assets to be more sought after than ever for investment. Adapting successfully requires understanding these changes and making projections accordingly.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

Industrial investment assets will continue next year to outpace the other asset classes and e-commerce product providers will continue to place an emphasis on warehousing and distribution assets. Production facilities will expand to meet these additional demands and those of the growing straight-to-consumer model. Small- to mid-size properties, including flex space, should see increases in occupancy and rates should increase as the service companies who typically occupy these properties are less impacted than the traditional office and retail users. Industrial markets in cities such as New Orleans with a thriving port economy should continue to trend up.


Guy T. Williams

President • Gulf Coast Bank

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Gulf Coast Bank is a full-service financial institution with 45 locations and 800 employees offering financial products throughout the United States. The bank is the leading lender to first-time home buyers in the metro area, as well as a major construction and development lender. Trust and wealth management services are also provided by local staff for both institutions and individuals. The bank recently renovated its historic Gretna location into a mixed-use project with retail, commercial and banking spaces, as well as residential lofts and a rooftop deck.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

Low interest rates combined with a drastic slowdown of our tourist- and energy-related businesses will make growth in South Louisiana challenging.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

Residential mortgage rates and deposit rates will remain low until the Federal Reserve changes its policies. The industry will focus on cost cutting and consolidation in 2020 and 2021.


Chris R. Ross

Senior Commercial Agent • Investment/Hospitality Division • NAI Latter & Blum, Inc.

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Licensed since 1998, Chris R. Ross has closed on over 1,000 rooms totaling over $200 million in completed transaction valuation. Notable projects include the 182-room Oil & Gas Building, Canopy Hotel; the 185-room Troubadour Hotel at 1111 Gravier Street; the 165-room Cambria Suites by Choice; the 210-room luxury boutique independent NOPSI Hotel; 155-room Saratoga building, Sonesta ES; and the 105-room maritime building of Holiday Inn Club Vacations.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

The biggest challenge for the hospitality brokerage industry is of course COVID-19. The market is expected to have a 20% decrease in valuation on properties, with occupancy expected to improve but rates staying depressed for the next several years. As a result, I have had to “pivot” to doing more overall brokerage, which includes industrial, office and retail. I’m also looking to do more regional hotel brokerage as I expect some transaction opportunities to happen toward the end of this year and the beginning of 2021.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

I see the commercial real estate industry rapidly changing because of consumer access to information. Agents will need to be focused on overall customer service and update market data to service clients. The hospitality market will be affected by the vacation rental properties and their ability to be up and running a lot faster than some of the larger hotels. Most of these properties don’t have staff and can be profitable at a lower rental rate than hotels.


Peter M. Trapolin and Paula M. Peer

FAIA, Principal AIA, Principal Trapolin-Peer Architects

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Trapolin-Peer Architects is a human-centered design practice with an imaginative and sustainable approach to reinvention and revitalization. The firm specializes in adaptive reuse, historic restoration and contextual new construction design work spanning a variety of uses throughout the Southeast. TPA’s recent projects include The Sazerac House; The Julia Apartments; The Pearl Hotel in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; 1 Palafox Place in Pensacola, Florida; Edna Karr High School; May and Ellis; and the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

With the positive momentum today surrounding design equity, our industry has an opportunity to reconsider socially resilient architecture. Alongside our development partners, TPA is consciously examining how people experience the spaces we create and how the projects ultimately impact and interact with the communities in which they are developed. The common thread we’ve identified is the need for increasingly flexible design in all of our project types, from education to multifamily to hospitality to community spaces. For the latter in particular, flexible design means a property can pivot to maintain active programming, regardless of the climate.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

We are currently collaborating with Son of a Saint and YWCA to create the flexible spaces they need to navigate this transitional moment and beyond. We hope this shift toward recognizing architecture as an agent of change continues to be at the forefront of national dialogue, and we are proud to help lead the way in the Southeast.


Craig K. Mirambell Jr.

Owner/Broker • Mirambell Realty

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Mirambell Realty is a technology-driven real estate brokerage servicing Metro New Orleans all the way to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. The company prides itself on representing buyers and sellers by utilizing advanced technology and creative marketing.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

COVID-19 has played a part in all of our real estate transactions. At Mirambell Realty, we have been using 3D virtual tours for almost 10 years now, so our advertising practices haven’t changed much with the pandemic, though our clicks on these tours have more than doubled during the pandemic. The biggest issue facing our industry in New Orleans isn’t COVID-19, though, it’s inventory! There are two reasons inventory is so low in our market. First, interest rates are at historic lows. Second, this pandemic has shifted many people’s way of thinking about their current home. After a long period of quarantine at home, many are now looking for homes with pools, or smaller or larger homes than they had before. Ultimately, our buyers are looking for something different, and they want it now.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

In the next year, I expect the sales to slow down a bit. They won’t stop, but I would expect sales to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. I expect the buying fever we recently experienced to slow with upcoming elections followed immediately by the holidays, but as long as interest rates stay low, as expected, buyers will still keep this market churning.


Chris Combs

Owner • C M Combs Construction, LLC

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C M Combs Construction is a commercial general contractor serving Southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Notable projects include: the pedestrian bridge and Higgins Plaza at The National WW II Museum; Orleans Levee District new police station; the new regional headquarters for Raymond James; and the major renovation of the Shrine on Airline. C M Combs is currently assisting The National WWII Museum in the completion of The Canopy of Peace, as well as the new Shark Tank Touch Pool Exhibit at Audubon Institute’s Aquarium of the Americas.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

In addition to greater safety efforts, we have seen a disruption to supply chains and material cost increases created by current demand and the challenge factories and suppliers are facing with reduced workforces and limited capacities. Through collaborative efforts of all parties these challenges, and the costs and schedule impacts of them, are being mitigated and new expectations set.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

I expect we will feel the economic impact of the shutdown — assuming we move toward opening the economy sooner than later — in much of the private and public construction sectors well into next year. I also believe that working remotely will stay with us and we will see the technology that facilitates that ability continue to expand. I have said often that 2020 is going to look dramatically different in hindsight than it looks today. I feel the lessons learned from the wins and losses of this year are going to create stronger companies and communities.


Katie Witry

Realtor/Owner • Witry Collective

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Witry Collective is a real estate firm that combines education, market knowledge and specialized strategies for its clients. The firm’s team of eight closes a property every three days. Each owner is also involved in local nonprofits: Katie Witry is currently the vice chair of the Preservation Resource Center and is also serving a nine-year term as a commissioner with the City Planning Commission.

What is the biggest challenge facing your industry in this new normal and how are you adapting?

One of the biggest challenges we have faced was being able to meet with clients, show them properties and show our listings. There have been many changes in marketing properties, from virtual open houses and cooking demonstrations on site at our listings to 3D virtual tours. Our social media outlets and presence have been a huge factor in keeping our business and our listings in the forefront of people’s minds and our sales have remained very active and productive.

What changes do you see in your industry in the next year?

I think there will continue to be innovations in marketing properties creatively through social media, direct mail and possibly an increase in local print advertising. This past spring, the market was clearly impacted and delayed, which is why we have seen the volume of sales in months that are typically much slower (July and August for example) in our local market. Election years typically see a slowdown in activity, and we anticipate that this trend will carry over to the current election cycle. As interest rates stay low, the market will continue to be active in general, but we do anticipate a slowing trend overall.