Keeping the Spirit Alive

When Alex Baehr joined Colliers International, the real-estate services firm spanned the globe. His challenge: keep the local culture alive while augmenting it with an integrated global vision

Alex Baehr was senior counsel at Saudi Arabian Oil Company, based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when he received the opportunity to return to his hometown of Seattle and assemble a truly integrated legal group at an extremely fast-growing company. That company was Colliers International, which Baehr joined in 2011 as global general counsel. “It’s not something that happens often, so I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

The professional consulting firm—which focuses on commercial real estate and helping businesses solve various problems, such as finding, valuing, leasing, and managing space—presented a unique challenge: the firm, which has approximately 12,000 employees working from 400 offices in 50 countries, had never had a global general counsel.

“We grew very quickly, and given the nature of our business, it wasn’t wholly organic; it was through acquisitions,” says Baehr, who notes that those acquisitions were made globally, and as a result, Colliers had people on the ground all over the world. “Real estate is a local business,” Baehr adds. “We don’t shuttle people into a location from other parts of the globe and claim they’re the specialists, because the specialists are the people living on the ground in a given geography. They know the locations and buildings and culture.”

Baehr’s first initiative was to assemble a roundtable of the company’s attorneys who were embedded in local business units around the world. “Professional real-estate services is one of few businesses that remains truly people-centric, so it was important for us to sit down in one room and to get to know each other,” says Baehr, who brought thirteen of the company’s lawyers from around the world to the meeting.

At first, everyone was tied to his or her business, and it was Baehr’s role to keep that spirit alive. “Because we as a company are so broad, and real estate is so local, we believe the best way to get our entire group of employees engaged and working toward the same goal is to be flat and not have an overly bureaucratic structure,” says Baehr. “To that end, we allow people on the ground to do their jobs. They know their markets better than we do here in Seattle, because they live in those markets every day.”

The challenge was keeping that spirit alive while augmenting it with an integrated legal vision. “How could we globally provide services to each other through interdepartmental training and knowledge sharing?” Baehr says. “Cultural differences are always a challenge, but if you get the right personalities, those differences fall into the background.” To that end, he stressed the importance of staffing the right people. “It’s my responsibility to ensure the legal department mirrors the company culture, and that’s a culture of enterprising people, people who want to be part of something that’s moving and growing, people who are willing to take smart risks and grow the business,” he says.

Together, Baehr worked with his team to ensure that the legal department was viewed within the company not as the department that prevents employees from doing their work, but helps them get their work done in the right way. “We’re like the grease of the business,” Baehr says, who also worked to make Colliers the first professional commercial real-estate services firm to sign the World Economic Forum’s Partnership Against Corruption Initiative.

“Real estate has an effect on the global economy and environment, and given that, we want to ensure we’re helping make this world a better place, including by doing right in regard to corruption,” Baehr says, whose risk and audit staff have ingrained the importance of anticorruption within the company globally.

Today, Baehr is continuing to work to ensure that, as Colliers grows, its legal department is as agile and efficient as it needs to be to avoid being an impediment to the company’s growth. “A lot of decisions are being made on the ground locally, and we as a legal team need to be able to react to those decisions as they happen, not after the fact,” Baehr says.