An Interview with Metro Offices Founder, Kathlene Buchanan

An Interview with Metro Offices Founder, Kathlene Buchanan

With our 35th anniversary coming up, we took this opportunity to interview our founder, Kathlene, about her entrepreneurial journey in commercial real estate and how she navigated the business world as a woman.

Kathlene Buchanan, a professional woman in a red blazer, smiling in Metro Offices setting.
Kathlene Buchanan, Founder of Metro Offices

Kathlene is an entrepreneur in every sense of the word, and she has made it her mission to help other entrepreneurs find their own versions of success. When starting Metro Offices, she dreamed of having a generational business that she could pass on to her children and grandchildren — a dream that has become a reality for her family.

Raised in the South, Kathlene has always felt that businesses would find more success by embracing the tenets of Southern hospitality. “If you walk through any of our locations or talk to our staff, you’ll find those values have become a core piece of our brand identity. We live to create community and a sense of togetherness by developing personal relationships with our clients. You won’t find any corporate stuffiness within our walls!”

As you’ll see, our human-first standards are nothing new. They started with two friends and a cocktail napkin in 1989, and we’ve stayed true to them ever since. But we’ll let Kathlene tell you about that in her own words.

Tell us the story of Metro Offices. What inspired you to start a business?

I moved here in 1979 and began Metro Offices in 1989. During that time, I was involved in the industry as the director of operations and HR for a local company. That company wasn’t successful for what were pretty obvious reasons, so I left and took a position as the president of another company. I was there for about six years, at which point my best friend (who was the vice president of sales) and I decided to go out on our own. We incorporated on April 1, 1989.

Sitting together at the bar at Clyde’s, we realized we had no idea exactly how we were going to be successful, but failure was not an option.  We grabbed a cocktail napkin and just started writing. We came up with some plans, threw some numbers together, and it just worked out from there. We could call that our first business plan.  After a lot of hard work and long hours, we opened three locations within a year. We also welcomed some of our long-time clients during that year, as they chose to move with us to our new locations. With three locations, we were able to take care of our basic financial needs while slowly building the future of our business.

Group of people posing together with signs that say "Metro Offices team" at an outdoor event, including Kathlene Buchanan.

What problem did you aim to solve with Metro Offices? Do you feel that you’ve achieved that? (In other words, how have you measured success for your company?)

When we started Metro Offices, our primary goal was to show personal concern for our clients. I’ve always felt that customers will be loyal if you take good care of them — and that’s for any business. We really focused on this personalized experience in our training materials with a lot of inspiration from Southern hospitality etiquette.

As much as we dedicated ourselves to our clients, we also knew we needed to focus on making sure our employees understood our company’s values. We were lucky to attract the right people, people who were ready to buy into our dream. When I deal with people in customer service, I’m appalled by the lack of concern at times. I feel proud to know the Metro Offices team would never treat anyone in such a manner. They’re friendly, they’re smart, and they understand our priorities. 

In the early stages of Metro, how did you set yourself apart from competitors?

Our sales process defined our brand. We handled leads very differently from others in our market. My partner was an excellent salesperson, and she would contact people personally. We weren’t inviting them to come look at the space with whoever was available — she was always there to show off the office space with pride. Every time she showed the space, I’d also make sure I was around to introduce myself and talk about how we could support their businesses. We really built it together, one client at a time, and it worked.

Today, it seems like some companies have lost touch with having a common goal as a team. With so many people working remotely, it’s hard to maintain those essential office relationships. We hold onto our in-person connections, both within our team and with our clients. It’s our honor to take care of the people who entrust us with their businesses. They know they don’t have to come in and worry about the trash being taken out or the coffee being made — that’s our job. That’s where the idea of Southern hospitality comes in, and I believe that’s what has set us apart for the past 35 years.  They can focus on their businesses, and we will take care of their office.

A group of people posing for a photo at an outdoor event hosted by Metro Offices, some wearing matching t-shirts.
Metro Offices summer team event

When and how did you know it was time to expand and build a team?

Our company’s growth happened organically — and I have my brokers to thank for much of it! They were both starting out like me, and the three of us have grown together through the years. When you’re in the commercial real estate business, your broker and your lawyer are the two people you really need to mesh with. You have to have cohesion, and you have to have someone with the same ethics that you have. I was lucky enough to find two amazing brokers and a dynamo lawyer, all of whom are my friends to this day.

Anytime a favorable space became available in the DMV, my brokers would present it to me. I’d take a tour, run projections, and if it made sense, we’d negotiate until we hit the right deal. I’ve never been about how big we can be or how many locations we can have. Instead, my goal is to focus more on having the right locations with the right people running them. Growth was never the real goal.

We expanded in a way that made sense for our company, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. A market can change a lot in ten years, and when they do, the prospective clientele also changes. Sometimes, the change isn’t always favorable — but that’s the very essence of running a business, especially in the real estate industry. You can’t succeed without taking on a fair amount of risk. I went from having a BMW and a comfortable expense account as president of another company to not knowing if I could cover my mortgage payment as an entrepreneur. Growth can be risky, but it’s part of reaching your goals, and I’m grateful to have taken those steps to build the right team for Metro Offices.

A collection of corporate awards from Metro Offices on display with a floral arrangement in the background, celebrating achievements under the leadership of Kathlene Buchanan.
A collection of corporate awards from Metro Offices on display with a floral arrangement in the background, celebrating achievements under the leadership of Kathlene Buchanan.

35 years is a huge milestone! What has been your greatest achievement, and how did you celebrate it?

These anniversaries are very important to me, my family, and our company. When we celebrated our 25th anniversary, it felt like the greatest thing that ever happened. Now, as we approach 35, I feel proud of not only the longevity of what we’ve built but of the way we’ve done it. I think my greatest achievement is putting my stamp on this company and instilling the values and ethics that have kept our clients happy for so long. 

I’ve always referred to my employees as a team, but they’re really extended family to me. I have employees that have been with Metro for over 20 years. Our very first employee just retired a few years ago. I have attended weddings and graduations, and I’ve welcomed many babies over the years.  Our team’s dedication to the company fills me with pride. Creating an environment for people to work and for clients to run successful businesses — it just makes me proud. 

What has been your greatest struggle, and how did you overcome it?

As many businesses can relate, surviving COVID was by far the greatest struggle we’ve faced. A lot of my colleagues in the industry didn’t, and some are still battling to hang on to their locations. It hasn’t been easy for us, either. Before the pandemic, we had an average occupancy rate of 85%-90% between our buildings. Several had a 100% occupancy rate, which is almost unheard of. We are starting to see rates coming back strong, but it has been a difficult road to navigate.

During COVID, most companies sent their employees home, which started a global shift toward remote work. Remote work has many benefits, but let’s be honest — it’s hard running a business model built on physical office space when everyone is working from home. To survive, we had to rethink our business and how we served our clients. 

Remote workers still need a place to hold meetings, so we started marketing our conference rooms. We leaned into virtual office solutions, like professional mailing addresses, phone call forwarding and answering, and package handling. We looked for ways to help people working from home, which is very different from focusing on full-time and part-time offices. And since our team was considered essential, we had staff in every location every day taking care of our clients — even when they were working at home. It was our honor to run the ship for them during such a difficult time for small businesses everywhere.

Ultimately, Metro was able to overcome the pandemic’s obstacles because of my amazing team. Despite the circumstances, we never had to lay anyone off during COVID because every person was integral to our success. I’m so proud of everyone, from our webmaster to the people handling our clients’ mail. When I’m onsite at a building, I’m always complimenting my team because I know how much effort and intention they put into their jobs. It’s because of them that we got through it and came out on the other side.

A group of eight women smiling and posing together in the Metro Offices with a city view, several wearing red and white clothing likely supporting a sports team or event.

Let’s talk about your experience as a female founder. How has the business world changed for women over the past 35 years, and in what ways would you like to see it change further? 

I think women today don’t quite know how fortunate they are and how much they should thank the women who came before them. It was not easy being a woman business owner in 1989. I was a very fortunate woman, but there were still many hurdles to overcome. Today, there are laws to protect women that simply didn’t exist back then. College is also more accessible for women, producing more educated graduates who are qualified to start their own businesses or join the corporate world.

As for the future, I would love to see more women serving on corporate boards. It’s such a rewarding learning experience for anyone, but is especially valuable for women who are just entering that realm of business. If I’m bothered by anything, it’s the lack of women representation in the Fortune 500. I hope to see more women running those businesses and sitting on those corporate boards. It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening. I think the time has come for a major shift, and I have nothing but optimism for my granddaughters’ future.

What inspires you as a founder?

I’m most inspired by my team and the loyalty of my clients. I feel so blessed to have the community I started 35 years ago on a cocktail napkin. It’s all about having the right people in the right place at the right time — and I’ve been so lucky in this regard. When I’m at a location and a member comes up to ask how I’m doing, it reminds me why I started Metro Offices in the first place. There’s always an energy of friendliness and warmth. So, I would say my team and loyal clients have made my career. It wouldn’t have been any fun doing it by myself.

A woman speaking at a podium in Metro Offices and holding up an award.
Kathlene accepts the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2013

What is your long-term vision for Metro Offices?

My long-term vision is to bring Metro Offices back to pre-pandemic numbers for my family, my clients, and my staff. I want them to experience the ease of operation again, not worrying about every financial or legal thing that could happen. I would love to get back to the day of just going to work and enjoying it, back when everything was joyful without the new stresses of pandemic recovery.

What is the #1 lesson you’ve learned on your entrepreneurial journey that you would share with other business owners?

From day one, your relationships are everything! Having the right partner is key.  Someone who shares your vision and is there during the best and worst of times.  I lucked out there and with other representatives, like my brokers, who are still my dearest friends, makes it so much easier to navigate business. But more than that, it’s about creating a network of people who will celebrate your wins and support you through your losses. We were never promised a rose garden in life, and we’re all going to face difficult times. I have had my share of difficult times, both professionally and personally, but having people who love and support you helps you to focus on the good.

For me, that’s my family. My family always has my back. It would have been difficult if my husband and children didn’t get my choice to pursue entrepreneurship. Back in the day, my daughters would do their homework on the floor next to my desk while I was running numbers on a handheld calculator. I would stop billing to help them with homework and go back to work. From the day they were in high school, they would start running errands for clients and helping around the offices. I always wanted them to understand why I did what I did.

It turns out they both inherited the entrepreneurial gene. They’ve never known anything else! I never thought they would come to work for me because I’d worked them so hard over the years. (They did all the grunt work nobody wanted to do!) But when they finished school, they both came on board.  One daughter is pursuing her dream of being at home with her sons as a full-time mom and wife.  My daughter, Korie, and her husband, Lee, are my right and left hands.  They are both very dedicated to our staff and our clients. Once you experience the entrepreneurial lifestyle, it’s in your blood — and there are so many outlets, whether it’s tech, sales, or operations. So I’ve been blessed to have not just support but involvement from my family. It has made it all worthwhile.

One more free piece of advice: You need to listen to your lawyer. I get it. We’re entrepreneurs, and we don’t like people telling us what to do. But when it’s your lawyer, just do what they say or find a new lawyer!

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