Emergent: The story of the self-empowered CRE company owner and New Memphis Institute trustee.
photograph by Amie Vandeford
Darrell Cobbins graduated from Memphis University School in 1991. This, by itself, is impressive, but not necessarily newsworthy on the surface. Until you realize, that is, that 23 years after one of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., died in Memphis, Cobbins was just the fifth African-American to graduate from the venerable private institution in East Memphis. (Darrell’s older brother, Donnell, was the fourth.) Sometimes a man finds a leadership position. And sometimes a leadership position finds him.
“Going to M.U.S. really opened my eyes to the real world,” says Cobbins. “I came from a modest, middle-class family. My parents divorced when I was two; my mom [Shirley Peace Cobbins] was single. My grandparents did a lot for us. We lived with them in Whitehaven from the time I was in 4th grade to my sophomore year in high school. Until M.U.S., schools I had attended had been predominantly African American. It was an enlightenment. A lot of the kids there got cars when they were 15, while my brother and I were taking public transportation to get to school.”
Being a star on the football field helped Cobbins acclimate (he was an honorable-mention all-state linebacker and guard for the Owls). But he prided himself on being comfortable in several social circles and was unafraid to play the role of contrarian. In 1988, he was the only Michael Dukakis supporter at a table full of George H.W. Bush backers. “I was in a different environment,” he reflects. “But you start learning the commonalities you have with people, developing relationships, friendships.” At Cobbins’ 10-year reunion, he won the vote for the classmate alumni most wanted to see.
Cobbins applied to a few historically black colleges, but at his mom’s urging enrolled at Rhodes, where he played football for two years, then found himself somewhat derailed academically as a junior. With his financial aid package in jeopardy, he had to build credit hours through classes at LeMoyne-Owen College (where he met his future wife, Mikki). Back on track, Cobbins graduated in 1997 with a degree in sociology and anthropology.
“I saw myself either going into business or the nonprofit arena,” says Cobbins. “That major was like putting a glove on my hand. They’re teaching you what it is to be human: different cultures, societies, values, how they make sense of their world. It was intriguing. To this day, I use that in business and civic life. A person may be making sense of the world in a way that’s different from how I might, but it’s no less valid or less important.”
Degree in hand, Cobbins spent two years as a unit manager at Guardsmark, where he managed 75 people and 10 corporate accounts. He moved on to the Greater Memphis Chamber in 1999, where he was introduced to the macro-economics of city business. “That will put hair on your chest,” says Cobbins. “I was selling the idea of growth. Some people bought it, some didn’t. It was a 100-percent commission job. It was eat-what-you-kill training, which prepared me for commercial real estate.”
Cobbins’ maternal grandfather (Samuel Peace) and mother were both real estate professionals (Peace spearheaded the Lakeview Gardens subdivision in the early 1960s). So Darrell felt a calling to the industry and in 2001 was hired by Larry Jensen at Commercial Advisors. With a few years under his belt, Cobbins enrolled at the Fogelman College of Business at the University of Memphis, where he graduated in 2007, the same year he founded his own firm, Universal Commercial Real Estate. With just six employees, Cobbins has built a client base of more than 40 businesses (including FedEx) over the last six years. Among those employees are his brother and mother. Family, in Cobbins’ view, helps a business focus. But you have to be sensitive at times. “You still have to see them at Christmas,” he notes.
“You’re solving problems for people [in commercial real estate],” says Cobbins. “Occupancy costs are typically second only to personnel costs on a company’s expense ledger. Being able to help bring clarity to this kind of decision-making — where will a business locate? — is rewarding for me.”
In terms of his own leadership style, Cobbins emphasizes the importance of empowering others and avoiding the instinct to micro-manage. He tends to admire leaders who find their way through hardship. “It’s out of trials and tribulations,” he says, “where you really find out what kind of person you are, what kind of leader you are. A lot of people want to be leaders when the clouds are clear and the sun is bright. But who raises their hand when it’s overcast and gloomy?”
Cobbins remembers first learning about King’s impact as a 4-year-old. As he grew and learned more about the civil rights legend, Cobbins found himself humbled by King’s courage in a position of leadership not every man would have the strength to manage. “I imagined,” says Cobbins, “what it must have been like to wake up every day and have to get comfortable with the fact that any day could be your last. Not only was he challenged by the folks whose minds he was trying to change, but by his own followers.”
Time and place help shape leaders, as they have Cobbins himself. “Leadership is situational,” he notes. “There are times you’re meant to lead, and times you’re meant to follow, depending on the dynamics in play. Some people may be leaders at work, and not a leader at home, or vice versa.”
As he continues to grow as a business leader in his hometown — in 2010, Cobbins became MLGW’s youngest ever board of commissioners chairman — Cobbins sees the expansion of professional jobs as a tremendous priority if Memphis is to thrive in the twenty-first century. “Distribution and logistics have been our bread and butter for years,” he notes. “But when you lose a Pinnacle Airlines, [it hurts]. We need to focus on corporate jobs; it’s where we’re lacking. Attract divisions of companies, perhaps. That’s what happened with International Paper. They moved a division here before moving their headquarters to Memphis. On top of that, government incentives to spur small-business growth could go a long way.”
As the father of a 4-year-old son, Cobbins has new reasons to build upon his own leadership skills. “Wherever you are, you can lead,” he says. “You don’t have to wait on a certain number of employees or a title. You don’t have to ask someone’s permission. Often when I’ve been put in positions of leadership, it didn’t start out that way. You may bring ideas, relationships, or experience to the table and emerge as a leader.”