Re’Nauta Bell is at the forefront of the shift in Atlanta’s work culture.
The commercial real estate broker is responsible for helping companies find the perfect office, a task made challenging by the rise of hybrid work schedules and shifting beliefs about what makes a good workplace. Bell is currently taking the lead on leasing efforts for five pad-ready sites at Pittsburgh Yards, a coworking hub that could one day turn into a mixed-use office district.
In an industry historically dominated by white men, Bell founded the Atlanta chapter of African American Real Estate Professionals of Atlanta, an organization that provides a safe space for minority and women leaders in commercial real estate to network and discuss issues they face in the field.
What led to your career? I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to be creative and impactful in my profession. After my mother passed while I graduated college, I moved to Atlanta to work with my aunt in the mortgage industry as a loan processor. That exposed me to the commercial real estate world, and it excited me to be learning about an entirely new branch of business I had never considered before. However, in 2006 when the market began to shift, I decided to back away from the chaos and start a family. Despite raising children and being a wife, I was still a businesswoman. I founded a few creative companies. Through my businesses, I was introduced to the city’s diverse communities. After a while, I couldn’t resist diving back into real estate.
Who was your biggest influence in your career? Before Lynne O’Brien retired from The Coca-Cola Co. as director of corporate real estate, she served as my mentor. I met her at a pivotal time in my life and my career when I needed a woman’s perspective, support and transparent honesty. Lynne provided that for me. We spent many lunches together and she would patiently listen to my professional quandaries. She always had a solution for me. Her advice ranged from easily attainable action items like reading certain books or creating a vision board to how to best approach engaging in difficult and uncomfortable face-to-face conversations.
What is the biggest challenge in your career? The biggest challenges I have faced in my career are attributed to four things: being a woman; being a minority; lack of access; and lack of relatability. You won’t find many Black women who do what I do, and it is hard to break into a space where there are few people who look like me and even fewer who are willing to invest in my success. Representation is a major issue. I have experienced some very lonely times during my journey. However, the highs and lows have motivated me to mentor and educate others who have a passion for commercial real estate and incite hope for minorities and Black women in the industry. What I have learned, more often than not in our current times, is that there is not a race issue at play in commercial real estate. The issues, rather, are due to a lack of relatability and discomfort with learning new perspectives from someone who may not look like you. Fortunately, I am very comfortable with being uncomfortable and my determination is parallel to none.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? Watching my client successfully acquire property or benefit from favorable deal terms is incredibly gratifying. I enjoy the challenge of finding solutions that meet my clients’ needs in a cost-effective and timely manner. Knowing my work has helped improve the quality of life and business for those I serve is an incredible feeling. Working in this field has given me a greater appreciation for the value of real estate and the impact it can have on a community.
What’s the hardest business lesson you’ve learned? You can have all the skills, knowledge, resources and ambition in the world, but without hard work, dedication and resilience, it may not be enough to ensure success. It is important to be prepared to face this reality. I have learned that it is essential to stay focused on your long-term goals and objectives, even when it feels like progress is slow, difficult or non-existent. I have also come to realize that communication is key. It is important to have open and honest conversations with colleagues, partners and clients.
How has the pandemic affected views on the workplace? The traditional office environment has been drastically altered due to the pandemic. Cushman & Wakefield developed a diagnostic tool called Experience per Square Foot (XSF) that provides data and insights for companies to effectively plan their workplace strategies. The data found that productivity remained at 75% before and after the pandemic. 78% of respondents reported an increased desire to expand remote working polices but 50% see hybrid as the future of their workplace. Despite a broader national decline in employee visits to the office, the Atlanta office market saw the opposite, and recorded a notable increase in employee visits in 2022, with Alpharetta leading the way. Moving forward, the adoption of a slight pivot into the “new normal” for the workplace and an understanding of employee needs, expectations and concerns will be important for companies.
How are companies trying to get their employees excited to return to the office? Many companies are leaning in one direction or another without any evidence or knowledge of how their real estate decisions will impact their workforce. As companies establish more permanent return-to-work strategies, it is imperative to understand the role, value and importance of the office in the post-Covid workplace ecosystem. Organizations need a data-driven approach to understand what will facilitate employee success so they can retain and attract top talent. Companies are focused on providing beautiful spaces with amenities to keep their talent happy. They also want to provide collaborative environments that spur creativity and togetherness.
Where do you see the next wave of office buildings being built in Atlanta? A prudent trend-watcher should pay attention to the suburbs. Companies are adopting a hub-and-spoke ideology as we move into the workplace of the future. Employees are interested in being closer to home and avoiding long drives and traffic. Larger companies understand it is necessary to maintain a presence in the central business district so they will keep satellite offices there. But they are also looking at taking on larger office spaces in non-CBD submarkets. The Alpharetta Chamber of Commerce recently announced a new economic development initiative to strengthen the retention and recruitment of businesses in downtown Alpharetta. Dunwoody is shaking trees with the Campus 244 and High Street developments with plans to increase walkability. College Park has plans to create 200,000 square feet of office space with retail below it. And you must not forget Pittsburgh Yards, situated along the Atlanta BeltLine with a multitude of development opportunities.
How is economic uncertainty affecting the office market, especially leases? Leasing activity and absorption in the fourth quarter was led by non-CBD submarkets. At this time last year, the average direct asking rent among all property classes was $29.90 per square foot. Today, it is $31.29 and rising. Many companies are taking less space but they are also demanding more speculative office suites. Despite inflation and other economic headwinds, there is still momentum in Atlanta’s office sector. Leasing activity is forecasted to remain steady due in part to Atlanta’s affordability. Additionally, the city offers a diverse talent pool. It continues to be a key growth market in the Southeast and will keep flourishing.
Born in: St. Louis, Missouri
Lives in: Atlanta
Current job: Tenant representation broker, Cushman & Wakefield
Previous job: Photography company owner and creative director
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Saint Louis University; currently in Executive MBA program, University of Georgia
Family: Husband, Chris; daughter, Natalia (age 12); son, Alexander (age 17)
Hobbies: Creating abstract art, interior design, writing poetry, traveling, “finding new adventures and experiences”