Ask the founder of most companies observing their golden anniversary the obligatory question of how long they expect to remain hands-on and you’ll receive modest replies to the tune of “as long as they’ll have me” and/or how they’re looking forward to retirement.
Randy Vidal is not one of those people.
“I’ll be here as long as I have my health and my marbles,” said the founder and principal of Vidal/Wettenstein LLC, the Westport commercial real estate firm now in its 50th year.
“The ones he hasn’t already lost,” quipped Bruce Wettenstein, who’s been a partner in the firm since 1996.
The resulting laughter was shared by the five other employees in the conference room at its 719 Post Road East office. That they were all in attendance for Vidal’s 50th anniversary interview is indicative of their leader’s career-long philosophy: That nothing works as well as teamwork.
“When you have real skin in the game, that makes the whole difference,” Vidal said. “Why do so many partnerships fail? Because the staff works their butts off and the senior people take the cream off the top. That’s not how we do things here.”
Indeed, Vidal/Wettenstein is very much a team effort. Robert Lewis, David Fugitt and Scott Zakos are all partners in the firm, supported by office manager Heather Lucas and social media manager Caitlin Leonetti.
“We have a very open office,” Vidal said. “There is no information that’s locked away from anybody. Our five partners all have different skill sets and we all work together. If I’m engaged in servicing a client and they have something they need help with that isn’t in my skill set, then I bring in someone who can help.”
Such synergy doesn’t necessarily exist at larger competitors, Vidal said, “which can breed inter-company competition. That’s not the case here.”
Zakos, whose career with the firm began shortly after he graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 1998, said he quickly came to realize that “It’s not so much the quantity of brokers at a company as it is the quality.”
It’s an opinion shared by Wettenstein, who entered the real estate business with DiScala Fairfield in 1977 (where he was later joined by Lewis). After nearly four years as senior marketing consultant for Stratford Development Corp., he returned to real estate with Vidal, who had been an acquaintance for a number of years.
“He has a reputation for having high levels of integrity, honesty and ethics. I knew Randy was the one,” he said.
At other firms if an important decision needs to be made, “it can take a couple of weeks,” Wettenstein added. “Here, in two minutes, it’s done.”
Vidal’s various achievements also speak volumes: His resume includes the presidency of the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors and of the Westport/Weston Board of Realtors, as well as time on the executive board of the Industrial & Office Real Estate Brokers Association.
But it’s hardly all about the past at Vidal/Wettenstein. The partners are quick to credit Lucas, who’s been office manager for 15 years (“She’s the linchpin who makes the company run,” Vidal said.) and Leonetti, who joined last November.
“I had a background in real estate,” having worked at Crosstown Apartments NYC as both an agent and marketing manager, she said. Combining those disciplines at Vidal/Wettenstein was an easy decision to make, she said. “I’ve gotten them to start blogging and get on YouTube — helped them craft their social media presence.”
“I used to think ‘social media’ meant going to a mixer,” Wettenstein parried.
The commercial real estate business has of course changed mightily over the past 50 years. Vidal noted that he used to have an office in Newtown next to Archie’s Corner Barber Shop in the 1970s. “If you wanted to know what was going on in a town, you went to the barber shop,” he said.
The rise of technology and regulations has ended those days, he acknowledged, but he hardly seemed wistful.
“You look at Stamford, which was a sleepy town in the throes of urban flight not that long ago and where it is today. It’s become a thriving market,” Vidal said.
“And Norwalk is right behind it,” Wettenstein added. “Bridgeport has suffered because it lost so much of its industrial tenants, but it’s on the right track now.”
The partners agreed that Connecticut’s current tax structure remains a significant obstacle for companies. Vidal said that “The regulatory environment here is as important as, if not more than, taxes. The time and money you have to spend to meet all the regulations is a real deterrent.”
Nevertheless, “This is the state we live and work in,” Wettenstein said. “We have to deal with the issues at hand, which is not always easy.”
Vidal cited the state’s schools, talent pool and overall quality of life as reasons that most residents — including himself — stay in Connecticut. “There’s so much going for it,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to stop and think about what a beautiful state it is.”
When talk returned to Vidal’s future, he remained adamant that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere any time soon.
“This business offers you so much,” he said. “I get a snapshot of all these different companies — manufacturers of everything from embalming fluid to computer chips. It’s wonderful and it’s something I enjoy to this day.”
When he inevitably does move on, Vidal said: “I’d love to see this company continue, to go on attracting like-minded people to the business.”
“It’s an ego trip,” he said. “It would bother me to have spent my entire life building this company for it to go away just because I’m no longer with it.”