For Michael Taylor, the road to self-employment has been neither easy nor direct. After fathering a child when he was just 15, he needed a steady income, so he earned his GED and set out to follow in the footsteps of some young firefighters he’d seen around town.
Barely old enough to enroll in the training program at the local college where he lived in South Georgia, he completed the firefighting classes and at age 18, was hired at the Valdosta Fire Department.
“Luckily, one guy decided not to join the fire department, and he joined the military instead,” recalls Taylor, 33. “So I got that last spot.”
After 15 years as a firefighter and EMT, followed by a well-intentioned but short-lived retirement, he struck out on his own in October as a full-time commercial real estate broker and founder of James Taylor CRE. (James, by the way, is his middle name, not to be confused with the famous singer, he points out.) He now concentrates on high-net-worth clients with retail, office and industrial properties and land.
Taylor’s dual careers have been as intertwined as a tangled fire hose. After four years of battling blazes in Valdosta, he joined the Chattanooga Fire Department in late 2012 before moving on to Wacker Chemical Corporation’s private fire station. He also earned his real estate license, joining Keller Williams and later working for KW Commercial and Premier Property Group, all while maintaining his job at Wacker.
By then, firefighting had begun taking its toll, and real estate offered a break from the trauma.
“The hardest part is seeing children pass away too early and it breaking families,” he says. “The public doesn’t really see that. For me, personally, I’m pretty empathetic. So it really stays with me, a lot of these things that I see.
“When I first got into real estate, it was because it was untapped income potential, and it was also business,” Taylor explains. “I needed something that was flexible enough for me to be able to do both of those things until I could let one go and do the other. So it was pretty much the involvement of working with other people in a professional business capacity. And the unlimited income potential didn’t hurt either.”
On the surface, the two professions couldn’t be farther apart. But they actually share a lot in common – especially teamwork – Taylor points out.
“You need to be able to work well and communicate with a team to coordinate fire attacks and get a person out of a vehicle that’s mangled or do a hang rescue [when a firefighter is trapped on a higher floor of a building]. The same for a real estate transaction. Working with other brokers, negotiating deals, that’s where the teamwork and the communication comes in.”
The similarities don’t end there, Taylor says. Both firefighting and real estate sales require continuing education and an understanding of construction. “Knowing how things are built, why things stand up, that’s a pretty big parallel. So is recognizing safety issues. In commercial real estate, that’s where everybody comes together for commerce or the exchanging of business. So there’s a lot of people in a concentrated area, typically, and you need to know what the safety issues are.”
Taylor officially hung up his firefighter gear in the spring of 2022.
“There’s only so much that the human mind can take,” he says. “When you see dead kids and dead parents, it weighs on you over time. So, 15 years, that was plenty for me.”
Planning to travel extensively – one of his favorite hobbies, along with camping with his wife and three boys, hunting, playing basketball, woodworking and cooking – this summer he spent four months off the grid in Moose Pass, a small Alaskan town with a population of 200-plus, where he worked for a forestry service subcontractor. The sun never set the entire time he was there.
In the forest, he frequently saw moose and bears. Early one morning, he awoke to find that a cub had gnawed the cap off his portable generator. “We made eye contact, and he ran off, which is good,” Taylor says, noting the presence of mama bear with her babies the day before.
Despite the rustic getaway he’d been craving, Taylor found that he missed the transactional aspect of commercial real estate. So he got his broker’s license reinstated and, instead of joining another agency, launched James Taylor CRE. “I enjoy the flexibility to work with who I want to work with and to be able to represent myself the way I want to. I don’t have to kiss the ring, so to speak, of any leaders of X, Y and Z, and I can expand nationally the way I want to.”
Taylor’s says his strong points include good communication skills, the ability to negotiate well, and attention to detail, which lends itself to “weeding out” clients who aren’t right for him. He has deliberately chosen not to sell residential properties.
“Some people try to do both. But you really need to specialize in one or the other,” he asserts.
The commercial side of the business comes with its own challenges, though. “It takes time, because it’s more of a relationship-based business. People are not going to just go out there and spend tens of millions of dollars with somebody that they don’t know or haven’t been building that relationship with over time.”
Accountability is very important to his company, he says. “If I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do, fire me. I don’t think there are too many brokers out there that will make that statement,” he says. “It’s not all about me, me, me. It’s about your needs. Tell me where it hurts, and I can make it better.”