History paints a picture of leaders fraught with purpose, pushing forward through challenges with a strategic focus and goal others failed to see. More often than not, these leaders’ initial sights were not as high or as grand. In fact, they were humble—without a plan beyond the next step or a vision beyond tomorrow. Only as those steps became strides, and those strides increased in measure, did the leaders become keenly aware of their position—recognizing the height of the mountain climbed and the endless potential ahead.
If you ask Mike McVean or Lee Belland about their decision to start Stream, you won’t hear a story about a grand mission or a tale of all they envisioned Stream to be. Their story—Stream’s story—begins with two friends, at the height of their careers, embarking on a bold journey, unaware of where it might lead. And yet, they were unafraid. “Many times, people will ask if we had any reservations about ‘going out on our own,’ so to speak,” said Mike. “But we weren’t alone. We set out on this journey together.”
And what a journey it’s been.
When Mike and Lee started in commercial real estate in the late 1980s, the industry was at a standstill, with unprecedented bank failures and losses sweeping the nation. In what some describe as a tsunami of debt and overbuilding, the Dallas-Fort Worth market was considered scorched-earth, making the Dot-com meltdown, The Great Recession, and the pandemic look like a cakewalk. “You couldn’t give a building away for free, let alone make a nickel on it,” recalls Lee.
While most people would feel discouraged starting their careers in such a tumultuous environment, Mike and Lee forged ahead, ascending to two of the best real estate jobs in the state, if not the country, at Trammell Crow. Yet, as the markets recovered, they longed for something more. “Climbing the mountain is much more fun than standing on top,” said Mike. “I could have stayed at Trammell Crow forever; it was a great company, with great people, but I felt as if I had plateaued. Lee felt the same way.”
Not everyone understood why they left to start Stream in August 1996. Peers viewed their move from the 35th floor of the Trammell Crow Center in Dallas to a single-story building in Stemmons as a demotion, and many larger clients were unsure about conducting business with a firm that wasn’t “institutionally safe.” They went from working on the most high-profile deals to those much less visible, though the shift didn’t demoralize them.
“I knew that if I pushed too far in one direction or had an idea completely outside the box, Lee would reign me in, as I would for him. We complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, so failure just wasn’t going to be in the cards for us,” said Mike. “Together, we’re a damn good CEO. Apart, we’re incomplete.”
They closed on their first building just four months later and were even offered $2 million to sell the company just two months after that. Not bad considering they started Stream without a budget or business plan in place.
But that doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing.
At the cusp of winning their first institutional client, Morgan Stanley, a larger competitor, swooped in, ready to take the deal from under their feet. “We bought some last-minute, general admission tickets to the Byron Nelson and invited the client, but our competition showed up with a suite. We were wiping the sweat from our brows in the Texas sun, looking on at our comfortably air-conditioned client, and thought we were done for,” said Lee. “But they still went with Stream. It was such a powerful moment for us.”
With the economy on an upward trajectory in the late 90s, Stream wasn’t the only new commercial real estate firm to hit the market. A handful of other agents and brokers decided to start their own companies as well, companies that Mike and Lee both viewed as worthwhile competitors. Not one of those companies exists today.
“Much of it had to do with control,” said Lee. “We always felt if we could provide our people with the opportunity to take charge of their business and grow in their responsibilities, it would free us up to capture different opportunities heading our way. Many of these other companies didn’t have that; the leaders wanted to maintain full control, at the cost of their business’ success.”
However, to delegate responsibility, Mike and Lee had to build a highly motivated and committed team—a task neither felt prepared for, given their background as leasing agents. To guide their hiring process, they created a list of core values to align with the company’s talent: Smart, Honest, Nice, and Passionate—which are still the driving force behind Stream today.
“Originally, passionate was “hard-working,” said Mike, “But we felt that passionate took it a step further, a combination of hard work, ambition, and competitiveness—all attributes needed for people to thrive within our business, which is fiercely competitive day in and out.”
As Mike and Lee look into the future, they can’t help but remain optimistic about all that is to come.
“It was the worst it could be when we started,” said Mike. “That’s why now, when markets go down, we’re at ease, knowing they’ll rise. When they’re up, we’re prepared, knowing they’ll go down. Everything ebbs and flows, but the ability to identify and capture opportunities amidst those changes, combined with strategic diversification, gets you through.”
By viewing every challenge as an opportunity, Stream has experienced some of its most significant growth during times others would consider downturns, which Mike and Lee credit to their amazing team. “There weren’t any formal mentorship or training programs when I started in the 80s,” said Lee. “So, I would take bits and pieces of things I saw in other people that helped them be productive and utilize those attributes for myself. I also recognized attributes I did not want to follow. Now, seeing our teams and how they enrich and support each other, I remain inspired daily. It’s energizing.”
Looking back on their careers, they can’t help but reflect on some advice they received. “I had one colleague tell me I was way too casual and flip. To succeed, I needed to tighten up, which doesn’t fit my personality,” said Mike. “I knew I had to be true to myself, which worked out quite well!”
According to Lee, there was a moment at Trammell Crow’s house several years after he and Mike started Stream that took him off guard. Lee approached Mr. Crow, sharing about the business he and Mike had built, and the experience they had at his company. “Sounds like you’re doing pretty well,” said Mr. Crow. “I’d just get up every morning, put your pants on, put your shoes on, and go to work.”
“I think about what he said often,” said Lee. “You have to show up. Be present and execute every day.”
So, when will Mike and Lee stop climbing the mountain?
“When what Stream has accomplished is commensurate with its talent,” said Mike.
Sitting down with Mike and Lee, it became abundantly clear that Stream is so much more than a commercial real estate firm. It is a company whose core values genuinely lie at the heart of its founders. In many ways, their partnership, fueled by immense trust, deep respect, and unsurpassed knowledge, serves as the foundation for Stream’s distinct culture, one where relationships come first, always.