In the May issue of NREI, we profiled a handful of this spring's crop of newly minted commercial real estate MBA grads. The upshot? In this increasingly sophisticated industry, the next generation of brokers, developers, asset managers and investment bankers will need more education than ever.

Given the current climate, we asked: Is there still room for a job candidate with no contacts, no commercial real estate education or experience, and no family background in the business?

Is there still room for job candidates like 30-year-old Clint Duncan, a former IT consultant with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, armed with only a drive to succeed, a few people skills and dogged persistence?

Scot Ison, president and owner of Houston-based Axis Property Advisors, a boutique tenant-rep firm, would say emphatically “yes.” Ison hired Duncan last November to join his five-man firm on a 100% commission basis. Seven months later, he doesn't regret the decision.

Since November, in fact, the rookie has closed on several deals and has a couple of others in the works. Duncan admires Ison and credits much of his success to working under the tutelage of his boss.

Humble beginnings

Indeed, the two men come from similar backgrounds. Neither holds an MBA. Both worship at the feet of hard work and the cultivation of genuine people skills.

For Duncan, in particular, the past may hold the key to his future. He grew up in the small, east Texas town of Nacogdoches with a population of roughly 35,000. His mother, Mary, was a teacher. Meanwhile his father, Sammy, has worked in accounting at Pilgrim's Pride, a poultry producer, for the past 35 years. Duncan describes his father as a “conservative, hardworking guy, who never quite finished college and had children at an early age.”

While Duncan credits Sammy with bequeathing to him a strong work ethic, Duncan is quick to point out that what was not inherited was even more valuable. “He was not comfortable with taking risks,” he says of his father. Specifically, his father passed up an opportunity to become part-owner of a company that Pilgrim's Pride eventually bought.

The reason Sammy did not take the risk, his son believes, may have been that he already had responsibilities — children to feed and a mortgage to pay. Sammy also grew up the child of a single mother. “He's had to work, and that work ethic has been there and that sort of anxiety has been there,” says Duncan.

It was that lack of risk-taking that Duncan vowed to avoid. Craving success, he opted to enroll in the Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches in the pre-med program. His goal was to become a doctor, which represented for Duncan a measure of success, control and a certain amount of power.

When Duncan didn't do as well as he'd hoped on his med school entrance exams, he remolded himself to fit into the then-booming high-tech industry, where he took a job fresh out of school with Anderson Consulting.

Heart of an entrepreneur

Over the next six years, Duncan surrounded himself with motivated and driven people, who appealed to his entrepreneurial side. He kept the idea of an MBA in commercial real estate in the back of his mind all through his 20s.

With encouragement from his friends, already successful entrepreneurs and business owners, he decided to forego higher education and save the $80,000 to $100,000 in the process.

For the next year, Duncan conducted an intensive networking crusade to get his foot in the door. Ison was one of the first contacts he made — at 6:30 a.m. when the broker had just finished his morning exercise and was sitting down for a bowl of Special-K at the local country club.

A year later, Ison hired Duncan. “What I look for in a broker is a work ethic and a commitment,” says Ison. “Clint came from a totally different industry, but I'm a believer that people with some business experience around 30 years old are better to invest your time in — and train — as opposed to a person right out of school.

“Clint came with nothing,” Ison adds, “but his ramp up is going to be faster than someone younger and less driven.”

Sibley Fleming is the managing editor of NREI. She has worked in journalism and book publishing for the past 20 years and is the author of seven books.