One Sandy benefactor: Office relocators
FORTUNE — Laura Kozelouzek hadn’t even begun marketing her company’s latest branch when potential clients started bombarding her voicemail and inbox.
The New York City location of Quest Workspaces, her venture which provides businesses with flexible terms for office space, had just celebrated its soft opening on September 1. Workers put the finishing touches on the new cubicles in mid-October, and only half of Kozelouzek’s space was full when Superstorm Sandy hit the city two weeks later.
But now as office buildings downtown deal with power outages and the aftermath of flooding, the 16,000 square feet she subleases out on the 43rd floor of the Time & Life building have reached full capacity. “I’ve had to start saying I just can’t do it,” she says.
Kozelouzek, 46, received about 100 inquiries and even gave up her own window office to make room for clients, whose businesses were displaced due to Sandy. (Full disclosure: Quest leases the space from Time Inc., Fortune’s parent company.)
Individuals or businesses rent offices from Quest that are move-in ready and share the conference room, reception area, and kitchen. Quest provides the services and support. When I visited earlier this week, it wasn’t uncommon to see three people hunched over their laptops in a single 160 square-foot office.
Foursquare moved in for four days after finding its SoHo offices without power. Two insurance rivals were even willing to share the floor: Aflac (AFL) relocated uptown from 100 Wall Street and Guardian from 7 Hanover Square after flooding damaged their buildings’ infrastructure, Kozelouzek says. They joined the team from Dewey & LeBoeuf handling the law firm’s bankruptcy; the Dewey crew had moved in the weekend before the storm.
It’s a delicate balance when business booms because of misfortune, and Kozelouzek has adjusted her model to make life easier for temporarily homeless businesses.
While she usually leases out the space on a month-to-month basis ($3,000 a month for one of 35 window offices, $1,200 for one of 22 interior spaces), Kozelouzek is letting clients impacted by the storm renew every two weeks. She’s maintained her prices and decided to give 10% of sales generated because of Sandy business to charities helping its victims. “It’s a weird thing,” Kozelouzek says. “I don’t want to benefit – I want to help.”
Tech start-ups have popularized the shared office space concept, but Kozelouzek has been in the industry for 25 years. She got her first job in the business across the street from the Time & Life Building at 1285 Avenue of the Americas. As general manager of the building operator’s business center (the tenants’ shared lobby, conference room, technology services, etc.), she was in charge of leasing, marketing, and servicing the space.
Business centers, or shared offices, are closely tied to the real estate market, so Kozelouzek’s career has gone through similar boom and bust cycles. After every crash, she would reinvent herself, jumping on new ventures that would grow into big corporations. She says it’s this entrepreneurial mindset that has helped her relate to so many of her clients.
After the latest meltdown, she wanted to go out on her own and invest only her own money. “I didn’t want it to be all about raising a bunch of capital, scaling it, and then exiting,” she says. “I want to operate it.”
She tried to launch Quest in New York City, but headed to Florida for its more affordable real estate. She opened her first Quest space in Boca Raton in 2009, and followed with Miami, Coral Gables, and Ft. Lauderdale.
About a year ago, Kozelouzek decided her Florida locations were at a point where they could help fund Quest’s launch into the New York market. A well-known location was key, and the vacant space in the Time & Life building was an easy sell. Lehman Brothers previously occupied the floor, and when the company went bankrupt and moved out, it left behind its high-end fixtures and furniture.
“In general, more large companies have become aware of the benefits of having a certain percentage of portfolio in alternative workplace scenarios where they’re not locked into long-term leases,” says Kozelouzek. “There are times when it makes more economical sense to have that flexibility.”
If companies weren’t aware of the benefits of alternative workspaces before Sandy, they surely are now.