Thrall masters the business of geography

Grant Thrall, president of the American Real Estate Society, is shown at his home in Gainesville on March 21.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 12:45 a.m.

Grant Thrall, Ph.D., pioneered a new field of study — business geography — at the University of Florida.


Grant Ian Thrall

Age: 66.
Occupation: Founder and owner, Business Geography Advisors.
Personal: Married to Susan Thrall.
Pets: Ralph the concrete gator.
Dream partners for lunch: John Hospers — “He was my undergraduate philosophy professor and first Libertarian Party nominee for president of the United States”; Hillary Clinton.
Favorite book: “Business Geography and New Real Estate Market Analysis,” by Grant Ian Thrall.
Last book read: “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” by Bernard Lewis.
Favorite TV shows: “The Big Bang Theory,” “Borgia,” “Empires: Martin Luther,” “Battlefield Detectives: Alesiam,” “The Tudors.”
Playing in his car: “Real Jazz” on Sirius.
Favorite listening: On Pandora: Lalo Schifrin, John Lee Hooker, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Diana Krall, Carl Orff.
Hobbies: Harley-Davidsons, Porsches, golf.
Education: Bachelor's in business and economics, California State University at Los Angeles; MA in economics, Ohio State University; Ph.D. in geography and economics, Ohio State.

“I just kind of invented my subject area … I had the only program of that kind in the United States,” Thrall said.

Business geography involves using sophisticated technologies to interpret and analyze data to help businesses make decisions.

Thrall, a professor at UF from 1983 to 2010, was appointed to a visiting chair of excellence position in sustainable real estate at the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis from 2010 to 2011.

Currently, Thrall serves as president of the American Real Estate Society and owns a consulting firm, Business Geography Advisors, which he runs from his home in Haile Plantation.

As a consultant, Thrall said he is sometimes asked during meetings with company executives: “ ‘Geography? What does that have to do with money?' Well, you make the wrong decision (about a business' location), you've just lost $4.5 million. That's how important it is.”

Thrall uses geographic information systems (GIS) software, a mapping system used to analyze a vast array of geographic data. GIS integrates information ranging from real estate, competition and infrastructure to demographics and consumer lifestyles.

The demographics are culled from many sources, such as credit card companies and stores' customer rewards programs, which are often marketed to consumers as opportunities for savings.

“That's not just for fun,” Thrall said. “That's for a database. That's for people like me to analyze. It's big business.”

Thrall can narrow down what people consume in a specific ZIP code-plus-four digits. And “if I know what you consume, then I know what your preferences are.” Layers of data are added in GIS to allow the geographer to customize the data according to the objective for research, such as projecting the revenue for a business.

Thrall's wife, Susan, who holds a Ph.D. in GIS and computer science, will sometimes write software for clients and help with large database operations.

Through his consulting firm, Thrall also serves as an expert witness, which he finds extremely rewarding.

While no longer a professor at UF, Thrall is a member of several graduate student committees and serves as a fellow in the Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research, where he occasionally lectures and also provides research to the center.

Founded in 1985, the American Real Estate Society, or ARES, of which Thrall is now president, is an association of real estate thought leaders, with members drawn from academia and the profession at large, both in the United States and internationally, according to its website.

ARES produces six trade journals and has about 1,650 members, including organizations such as the National Association of Realtors and the Appraisal Institute.

“They like the scholarship,” Thrall said. “They want to know what the new thinking is to give them a competitive edge.”

ARES' 29th annual meeting will be held April 9-13 in Hawaii. The meeting will include 63 sessions organized by cutting-edge topics and more than 220 (research) papers, Thrall wrote in the program.

“(Thrall) has made a great contribution in bridging the gap between the geographers and real estate, both on the business side and the academic side. It's not so big anymore because of Grant,” said Steve Laposa, Ph.D., a member and past president of ARES.

Since they first met through the association in the early 1990s, Thrall and Laposa have worked on a number of projects together.

When Laposa worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, now known as PwC, for instance, he would use Thrall as a consultant on business geography and mapping for high-profile clients.

“In my opinion,” Laposa said, “(Thrall is) one of the best that I know in the field of business geography.”

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