It may be smaller, but TBS has developed a winning strategy to hold its own with the big boys.

Tanguay-Burke-Stratton has given new meaning to overcoming adversity. If starting a new real estate company wasn't difficult enough, imagine trying to get it off the ground during one of the worst times in real estate's history.

"Thirty days, almost to the day, after we started this company, the stock market crashed. And commercial real estate was really a problem field for probably the first seven and a half to eight years of our existence. We never had it easy," says Mark H. Tanguay, managing principal at Tanguay-Burke-Stratton.

But although TBS faced challenges early on, Tanguay says that it may have actually helped his company in the long run. "We had to think a little harder, be a little more creative, find angles that were going to make us special, or we weren't going to survive," Tanguay says. "I think it was awfully good that the foundation of this company was established during a period of time when it wasn't easy to do business in commercial real estate."

Founded in September of 1987, Chicago-based Tanguay-Burke-Stratton LLC Comprehensive Real Estate Services is one of the Midwest's leading full-service real estate companies providing services including corporate and retail tenant representation, retail leasing, investment services, and project, asset and property management. The company currently manages approximately 6.8 million sq. ft., all of which is in the shopping center arena.

Tanguay says that it had been an objective of his for many years to start his own real estate firm. Previously he had been with Coldwell Banker, which became CB Commercial, and with the company that became Royal LePage as president of its Midwest operations.

He says that those experiences gave him the background he needed to understand the operations of a large company and apply it to his own smaller firm, "but a firm that would be able to compete with the biggest and the best."

Likewise, Steven F. Stratton, managing principal, had similar aspirations. He had been involved with Bank of America and then with a smaller entrepreneurial development company and, he says, he had always wanted to be involved with a company that combined a full range of services with development capabilities as well.

Those ideas came together with Tanguay-Burke-Stratton. "We never ever thought of ourself as a boutique firm," Tanguay says. "We started this company as a niche firm. ... We leased 7,000 sq. ft. before we had 10 employees, and we knew that we were going to be not just a small player in the metropolitan Chicago market."

"We always have been involved in major real estate; our very first assignment when we opened the doors was a listing of two properties for sale by Prudential Insurance Co. in Kansas City, Mo. -- a package of about $16 million that we sold for them in the first nine months that we were in business. And that sort of set the stage for the kind of work we would do," Tanguay says.

TBS has continued to use the strategy of gleaning successful ideas from the big players in the industry. That has included recruiting people who have been with larger firms.

"To be very honest with you, I don't think the formula has changed," Stratton says. "It's a lot of hard work and bringing good people up through the system and supporting them and making them grow professionally and personally. And I think those all have been very important ingredients to our ongoing survival."

One of the people TBS attracted from a larger firm was Brad A. McNealy, TBS' third managing principal. He had been managing director at LaSalle Partners Ltd., where he was responsible for the company's Retail Management Group.

"I had known both Mark Tanguay and Steve Stratton for a number of years, both professionally and on a personal level, and so while I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next with my life, I was looking around and knew a little bit about Tanguay-Burke-Stratton -- knew where they were, where they had been and where they were headed in the future -- and felt that their vision for how to best serve Corporate America's needs was pretty much in line with mine," says McNealy. "It was a small enough organization where an individual can have an impact, and so it offered the best of all worlds."

Strategic alliances and affiliations are also an important part of TBS' growth strategy. The company is involved in two affiliations: Realty Resources, a national alliance of 22 brokerage firms specializing in retail, and Corporate Real Estate Service Advisors (CRESA). Through its affiliations, TBS is able to service its clients beyond the Chicago region.

"Today, you can't operate in a vacuum in this business. If you are not a national firm, you have to make sure that you are associated and affiliated with other firms in other parts of the country that think the same way you do," Tanguay says.

In conjunction with CRESA and London-based Richard Ellis, TBS is the international service provider for Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. The company has other strategic partnership relationships with Citicorp Midwest, ABN AMRO-LaSalle National Bank and Northern Trust.

Tanguay says that over its 10 years in existence, TBS has established a strong reputation in the real estate industry.

"It's kind of strange, but we have been a benchmark for this industry, certainly in the Midwest," Tanguay says. "A lot of firms have said, 'Well, that's the way Tanguay-Burke-Stratton does it,' and for a firm that isn't the household name that a CB Commercial or a Cushman & Wakefield or a Grubb & Ellis is -- they, many times, have learned from us, what is the right way to serve a client, what is the right way to structure a deal, what is the right way to truly be part of the process of a firm in looking at real estate from a strategic standpoint."

While Tanguay-Burke-Stratton does have some plans for its future, it also realizes that in the ever-changing real estate business, it must stay flexible and be prepared to change as needed. There has been a lot of talk of TBS merging with other firms but, so far, Tanguay says, nothing has been decided. He does say that the company is talking seriously right now about the possibility of adding an industrial group to the company.

"We believe that this is a very fluid business, and we believe that there will be different ways of doing commercial real estate work 10 years from today than there are today, just like there is now from 1987 when we started," he says.

"I think it will be interesting when we're here 10 years from now to have a conversation on our last 10-year anniversary and see where the world has gone," Stratton says. "We're still in the services business, and I don't think the basis of that will change."

This month, Tanguay says, the managing principals are going to take advantage of the company's 10-year anniversary. They are going to take a few days away from Chicago to work with a facilitator to think through some growth opportunities and clear their minds. "And I think that's one of the reasons this company is successful. We do take the time to get away from the day-to-day routine, which can consume you, and plan for the future."

"I don't expect this company ever to be the size of some of our competitors, but that's not our objective," says Tanguay. "We do not want to be the Chevrolet or the Oldsmobile of this industry; we want to be the Ferrari or the BMW of this industry. And that means our size will never be as large as some of our competitors are, but our performance, our technology, our approach -- we expect this to be on the cutting edge."