Continental Office and Ira Sharfin stick to their strengths

Continental Office has gotten larger, deeper and better at saying no.
“My goal isn’t to have us be everything to everybody,” CEO Ira Sharfin says. “Maybe that worked for companies years ago, but I try to focus on what our strengths are. Even with our own team, some of our associates are really great at one thing and they’re not as great at something else. Well, whatever they’re great at, let’s have them do that.”
Sharfin applies that focus and leveraging strengths to himself, as well. He no longer oversees as much of the day-to-day or develops proposals. Instead, he concentrates on relationship management, building customer relationships and spending time with the 250 employees.
“I’ll go in the warehouse sometimes early morning and walk around,” Sharfin says. “It gives me a pulse on what’s going on, how everybody’s doing. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Give me an issue you’re having.’ I’m digging for dirt, but I want to know what’s going on because maybe it’s something we don’t know about that we can solve.”
Over the past two years, Continental Office, which creates, builds and maintains commercial spaces, has grown more transparent with its clients. It tells them what it can do and what it can’t do, versus just saying yes and taking on something with low profitability.
“It’s hard to do that at times, especially when you’re an organization that has a lot of salespeople and it’s very customer focused,” he says.
Sharfin wants to continue to expand the business — which has annual revenue of about $135 million — where it makes sense. But he’s playing a long-term game, moving away from transactional projects.
“We used to chase a lot of projects,” he says. “We’d respond to bids on the furniture and flooring side, and we still do, but we don’t respond to nearly as many bids as we did in the past.”
He says you have to step back from your competitive nature and look at the larger picture. Where is it worth putting your resources and teams — on a bid the company has a low probability of getting, or on opportunities that could turn into a partnership?

Stay nimble

Sharfin spends a lot of time wondering where a major disruption may be coming from, and he says being able to pivot and focus is important.
“I talk with our team about how we can create our own disruption,” he says. “I’d rather create our own disruption than have it done to us.”
Some studies predict that, over the next 10 years, a quarter or more of commercial real estate will be flexible, shared environments, and Continental Office is seeing signs of that already.
“We’re at the tipping point,” Sharfin says. “It’s going to happen. It’s just depends when you’re willing to jump in and change how your people work. Or, you can wait and be changed. I like to be on that front end.”
The company recently did a study that proved what it already knew — people want choice, flexibility and control over not just when they work, but where they work. Sharfin says CEOs cannot wait to give people permission to work differently because doing so will impact their productivity and net income.
“A lot of company executives — and I used to be in that camp years ago — they don’t want their people moving around too much,” Sharfin says. “They want to know that all the butts are in seats and everybody’s accounted for, but that’s just not the reality of how companies are going to attract and retain talent in the future.”