An interview with Joe Lewis, President and Owner, Orchard Commercial
Americans for the Arts is proud to present an interview with Joe Lewis, president and owner of Orchard Commercial—the most comprehensive real estate operations company in Silicon Valley. Joe is responsible for overseeing all regional business activities, providing quality service to its customers, and maximizing profitability for its clients' commercial properties. Joe has over 30 years of experience in commercial real estate as a broker, manager, developer, and owner. Before joining Orchard in 1996, Joe served as executive vice president at Cornish & Carey, directing the property management division in addition to his brokerage practice. In 1988, he was elected Silicon Valley Investment Broker of the Year. He is a member of BOMA Silicon Valley, Institute of Real Estate Management, and NAIOP. Joe serves on the UC Berkeley Fisher Center Advisory Board. Before his real estate career, Joe served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy.
Q) Describe the evolution of the 2665 North First Street project.
In 2006, Orchard Commercial purchased a 30 year old, 120,000 square foot office building in North San Jose. The building was quite neglected and only about 40% leased. The opportunity and challenge was to renovate the building and attract new tenants. The building, while well located, suffered from poor market reputation and very large common areas. A quiet pall seemed to hang over the common area interiors that soared three stories to the roof. “Lifeless” was a word that often emerged in our conversations about what to do with it. One day, the head of our design department said, “This place looks and feels like an art gallery. Why don’t we play to that?” And the journey began.
Q) How do you determine which art pieces to feature?
Our in-house designer saved the day by directing us to San Jose University’s Art Department. Graduating students in the Masters of Fine Arts program were exhibiting their final works as a graduation requirement. Some of them had very large works that were incredibly striking. We hired a recent graduate who had an undergraduate degree in Marketing & Communications and a Masters in Fine Art to become our part time curator. She was tasked to recruit artists from the program to exhibit their works in our building for a 3-month period. Our first exhibit had nearly 50 works of student artists. We held a reception in the building for the artists and everyone else in the community we could think of to invite, including all the real estate office leasing brokers. It all worked so well that we continued with our curator who sourced works from students, faculty, and other emerging artists to create new exhibits each quarter. Some works were sold directly by students and the rotation would start all over again.
Q) How do you think the art feature has impacted the success of this project?
The revolving exhibits and the quarterly receptions changed the reputation of the building. Brokers brought their tenants. The tenants were excited about the exhibits and regularly attended the receptions, creating a new sense of community within the building that was contagious. The reasons that people choose one office space over another are legion. They are usually described in terms of location, amenities, and economics – quantifiable attributes that can be explained in a memo to the board or the boss. However, most buildings on the tenant’s short list will be fairly equal, so there are not many unique reasons to choose one over the other. Most prospects can’t remember which spaces they toured. People finally decide on the basis of feelings–“I love the feel of this place”–to select their new home from several fairly equal choices. Art brought the building to life and it made a huge difference, although the real reason people leased our space remained a bit of an unquantifiable secret.
Q) How has art helped your business connect with the community and/or achieve other business goals?
The surprising thing is how quickly word spread throughout the larger community. We promoted the program with invitations to the receptions but soon organizations were seeking us out as a place to host events because it was so interesting and ever changing. ZERO1, a group that works at the intersection of Art and Technology, selected our building for their opening gala. We hosted political events for the Mayor and other community organizations and causes. If you have space to lease, the more people that visit your building, the better. It worked incredibly well in a world where it is difficult to get anyone’s attention. The lifeless building became fun, approachable, full of life, and fully leased.
Q) In what ways does art intersect with the property management business?
The highlight example was the annual BOMA party mixer with a Mardi Gras theme held in our building. Every property manager, lots of brokers, and most of their vendors were packed into our building lobby. When someone has been to your house, they know who you are. Everyone knew us!
Q) Has art played a role in your development as a business leader?
Our promotion of the arts and artists had made us unique. Business and the arts rarely cross unless the leader is a notable collector of art or philanthropist. I am not a notable collector of art but rather an exhibitor of emerging original art. That is in short supply in the business world. I maintain that if all the art that is in warehouses could be where people work, it would make a real difference in both communities.
Q) What do you love about the arts?
I like the way that art can change the world. Our business is Commercial Real Estate. We are providing space for people to live their work lives. Art can make a remarkable difference in the joy of those work spaces. Many artists are not promoters and their works will never been seen by the public. Giving them a voice on our commercial walls at the beginning of their careers–that could make the difference.
Q) Do you have upcoming projects that feature art?
It is ever challenging to have enough time and money to bring the arts to the marketplace in a meaningful way. Currently we are supporting a project of the San Jose Downtown Association called “Downtown Doors.” High school students have an opportunity to submit their artwork through their teachers to be selected by a committee for publication in an unusual manner. Their work is turned into vinyl canvases and installed on the downtown streets on a variety of side doors and electrical utility boxes. That which was ugly turns into a work of art. Supporters contribute $2,500 to have this installation done and some money returned to the schools for art programs. There have been over 1,300 submissions and $90,000 distributed to schools since the program began. The winners are displayed as posters in a downtown reception at the San Jose Museum of Art. Orchard Commercial had copies of this year’s winners reprinted as posters and placed on display in our building lobby.
Q) Is there anything else you want us to know?
We do not spend a lot of money on this program, but it was something that had to be invented. It is very hard for students or emerging artists to get their works in public view. By putting their works in your public space, you are helping them. People that like the work will want to know about the artist, so a tasteful biography is appropriate as well as a sales price and contact point. Building owners and managers are constantly working to get as many people as possible to view their vacant spaces, so giving these prospects something to see and perhaps a glass of champagne to enjoy during a reception is a great move. It is a win-win proposition for your building, the community, and the arts.