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How a Civil War Defector Named Coldwell Shaped Commercial Brokerage

Almost everyone in the modern world has seen a sign with the brand CBRE on it. They are the global leader in commercial real estate brokerage, employ around 100,000 people in over 100 countries, and are currently 122nd in the Fortune 500 ranking. Many professional real estate vets know that the “C” in CBRE stands for Coldwell, after its founder Colbert Nathaniel Coldwell. He was one of the founders of CBRE and his name lives on in the residential real estate group Coldwell Banker after it was bought and sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the 80s.

What most don’t know is that the Coldwell family has a long history of fighting for justice, one that can likely be tied to the amazing success of what is now the biggest commercial brokerage. Colbert came from a family of judges, his father, Nathaniel Colbert Coldwell (confusing I know) went by the nickname “Judge.” He served that role for decades in Fresno, California and was even the at one point leader of the bar association for the San Joaquin Valley.

Judge Coldwell was considered by many to be a man “of the highest character,” dedicating his life to the pursuit of justice. But the origin of the just character of the Coldwell family can be traced back to his father, yet another man that went by Colbert Coldwell. Colbert Coldwell was born in Tennessee and was an anti-separatist when the civil war broke out. He refused military service in the Confederacy and even spent nine months in jail as a union sympathizer. After the war ended he was appointed as district judge over what is now Harris County, Texas where he fought for the rights of former slaves. 

Here is a rather moving excerpt from one of his speeches:

“The civil war which has recently terminated involved the destruction of the institution of slavery in this State, and swept away with it those distinctions, both as to protection and liability to punishment, which hitherto existed between whites and blacks. Hence the late slaves—now freedmen—and that class denominated ‘free persons of color,’ stand upon terms of perfect equality with all other persons in the ‘penal code.’”

This position gained Judge Coldwell (not to be confused with ‘Judge’ Coldwell) a lot of enemies. He even pushed through a mob blocking his entry to court in Marshal, Texas with hundreds of “freedmen” singing “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys” (a.k.a The Battle Cry of Freedom). This enraged former Confederates so badly that the Chief of Police even fired his pistol in the courtroom just to disperse the crowd. He was targeted multiple times by the Klan and their local branch known as the Knights of the Rising Sun. Undaunted he continued to pursue justice, eventually writing opinions on cases such as Ake v. Oklahoma where a confession was obtained only after a black man was hanged nearly to death three times and burned. To this horrific act he rebutted “these monstrosities[…]mark in pointed and emphatic phrase our utter detestation of this fiendish outrage [of] this abominable and detestable villainy.”

Like any historical figure of the time Judge Colbert Coldwell has a complicated history. He is reported as owning slaves during the civil war and obviously had a lot of values that might not jibe with our current world view. But what I think goes without question is that Coldwell was at the very least someone who was willing to fight for justice, to stand up for people that were being taken advantage of by an unfair system. It is that sentiment that likely was passed down, through Nathanial ‘Judge’ Coldwell to his son, Colbert Coldwell who’s big break came after the disastrous 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. You see, at the time it was common for real estate professionals to act more like a middleman than broker. Why help someone sell a property when you could just convince them to sell it to you at a discounted price? While this practice was unethical even in the best of times, during hard times like the aftermath of this earthquake, where around 80 percent of the entire city was burned to the ground, it seemed downright criminal. 

So, Colbert Coldwell (the younger) decided that, rather than trying to buy land to resell, he would establish a company that could help people buy and sell properties for a commission. This approach seemed to resonate. The company grew quickly, expanding across the US and then the world thanks to a successful IPO and a subsequent acquisition spree. The most notable of which was its merger with Richard Ellis International in 1998 (the “RE” in CBRE) and its acquisition of Tammell Crow Company in 2006. 

Now the company is massive. It, along with a small list of other global brokerages, control much of the leasing and management for Class A buildings all over the world. Its current president and CEO Bob Sulentic even went so far as to say “we’ve ended up with some very large companies here (such as CBRE, JLL, and Cushman & Wakefield) that have gotten bigger than any of us ever thought.”

I’m sure the conglomerate that we now know as CBRE is a far cry from the brokerage started by Colbert Coldwell. But, its origins as a way to create a more fair system for the disadvantaged are an important reminder of the true role and importance of the property industry. And to think, we might owe it all to one Southerner who went against the grain and decided to stand up for those being hurt by one of the ugliest parts of America’s past.

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