Jessica Flake Dearnley co-founded the commercial real estate company Flake & Co. in Little Rock earlier this year with partner Thomas Schmidt. Dearnley, daughter of John Flake, worked with her father’s firm, Flake & Kelley Commercial, for eight years before heading out on her own. She is the fourth family member to start a commercial real estate company.
Dearnley, 45, graduated with dual bachelor degrees in cognitive psychology and creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and earned an MBA from the University of Miami and a master’s in accounting from the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business. She began her career in marketing in New York City but also worked in banking and investment management before turning to real estate.
What’s the prognosis for Arkansas real estate?
As you might expect, the real estate market is going to look much different in the months to come due to the coronavirus pandemic. Each region of the state will be different in how it responds and in how it rebounds. Some of the response will depend on how much the commercial real estate market is supported by local and in-state investors vs. larger out-of-state investors and portfolios.
Arkansas, as in previous economic downturns, stands to rebound faster than most states due to the strength of the market and types of business and services it offers to the country and world.
You probably could have picked a better time to start a company. How has the pandemic affected your business? How does Flake & Co. adjust?
Our business is based on our expertise and on relationships built over a lifetime. My grandfather founded his company during the Depression. I managed super-regional, enclosed malls during the 2008 financial crisis. With my background, I have always been cautious and concerned about managing cash flows and erring toward conservatism. I believe our industry and economy will strongly rebound once this crisis passes. Also, to put things in perspective: Thomas’ [Partner Thomas Schmidt’s] brother Bennett is a doctor in New Orleans on the COVID-19 unit, and my sister is a doctor at Arkansas State Hospital. We just need to continue relationships over Zoom, when our siblings’ lives are at stake.
You had been with Flake & Kelley since 2012. Was it hard to leave and start something new?
We developed a culture in the northwest Arkansas office that I believe can be replicated in Little Rock. We can be a disruptive force in central Arkansas by changing the development and brokerage landscape. It will not be easy, but with support from my family, I have a clear vision for this new company and believe it will succeed. Most importantly, my partner and co-founder, Thomas Schmidt, took a leap of faith and joined me. He had been my father’s right arm for years and has a dedicated client list. I have never met anyone more personable and just plain fun to work with. We are all business, but laugh a lot.
What’s the best decision you made?
I do not look at “best or worst” decisions. I have now spent more than 20 years on the sidelines, not taking big risks. If I look back, my biggest mistakes were not taking more risks or having small failures. I am fortunate to have so many family members in business. I was a sponge growing up and saw many unexpected mistakes. The good news is that I have seen a lot of recoveries.
What was the best advice your father ever gave you, in business or life?
My dad has always taught me to be generous in praising people and letting them know they are valued. He epitomizes the Maya Angelou quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said ... but people will never forget how you made them feel.” My dad does this in business but carries it over in life. He is a charmer and never stops, even when he is having open heart surgery and talking with his surgeon!