Industries Commercial Real Estate

Changing the face of commercial real estate

Some companies roll out initiatives to make the workforce more diverse

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires
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Daphne Berkowitz and Susan Jones are senior vice presidents
and directors at Colliers International. Photo by Rick DeBerry

Once a month Susan Jones, a veteran commercial real estate broker for the Richmond office of Colliers International Inc., touches base with a younger female colleague in Toronto who works for Colliers' Canadian National Hotel Team.

Jones, a senior vice president and Richmond director of retail brokerage, is a mentor to her company-matched peer, a woman in her 20s who is four years into her career.

“Each time we get on the phone, I share a win, a loss and a challenge, and she shares one with me, and we talk about how to deal with it,” says Jones. 

While their fields are different, there’s plenty of common ground.  “She hasn’t done a whole lot of networking, and that’s how I built my career.” So Jones encourages her to join professional industry groups. “She knows I’m going to ask her, ‘What did you do this month?’ I tell her, “Don’t sit with your buddies. Go sit with a bunch of strangers and meet someone.” 

Colliers’ mentoring project is part of a larger Women’s Diversity Program. The international real estate company launched the effort in February with a groundswell of support from its senior female executives. 

Today, there are 58 mentor relationships in a program designed to help young women advance in their careers. Besides one-on-one coaching, the women can attend special programming and events, with scholarships available for conferences sponsored by industry groups as such as CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) or ULI (Urban Land Institute.)

“We should be developing more female leaders because that reflects the marketplace in general,” says Colliers’ Karen Whitt.  Based in Washington, D.C., she’s president, U.S. Investor Services and Real Estate Management Services and one of the executives overseeing the diversity program.  Yet companies must do more than just hire diverse candidates, she adds. “You have to make sure there’s a career path of success for them. You need mentoring, training, outside resources brought in to make sure those candidates are supported. That’s how we intend to change it at the C-suite level. If you just hire them and don’t support them in their growth, you’re not aligning where the marketplace is going.”

Changing agenda
Colliers’ program is one example of how the commercial real estate industry is moving diversity to the top of its agenda. In a $300 billion industry where numbers are key indicators of success, the numbers lag when it comes to the hiring and promotion of women and minorities. 

A 2013 Commercial Real Estate Diversity report, based on information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said that white men held the majority, 77.6 percent, of the industry’s senior executive jobs (at least at private companies with more than 100 employees, which are required to report the composition of their workforces to the EEOC). By comparison, white women held 14. 1 percent of the top jobs; Hispanic men, 2.9 percent; Asian men, 1.6; and African-American men, 1.3 percent.  Minority women held less than 1 percent of the jobs. 

Throughout the career ladder, white men held the majority of 166,554 jobs in four of five categories, the report said, with the exception being clerical workers.  “Gender and ethnicity are each barriers to advancement,” the report said. “A white male midlevel manager has a one-in-three chance of advancing to senior executive. A black female midlevel manager has a 1 in 12.6.”

Considering the overall composition of the U. S. population and the increasing percentage of female college graduates, some critics say the real estate industry is way behind. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 38 percent of the country’s residents are minorities, a number expected to rise to 56 percent by 2060. Meanwhile, about 58 percent of all college graduates in the U.S. are women.

With the face of America changing, large, public international real estate companies such as Colliers, JLL, Cushman & Wakefield and CBRE Inc. have rolled out initiatives to promote a diverse workforce that reflects their clients and communities.

“Sadly, I don’t think we are where we need to be,” says Liz Steele, commercial transactions counsel for the Richmond office of Stewart Land Title Services and president of the Richmond chapter of CREW. “I believe some inroads have been made, and there has been some progress, but I think we have a long way to go.” 

Room to improve
The CREW 2015 Benchmark Study Report of the U.S. industry bears out Steele’s concerns. It found that men continue to outnumber women in C-suite positions, with 17 percent of the men surveyed (among a group of 2,182 real estate professionals) vs. 9 percent of women, holding these jobs.  

That percentage, however, is higher than the number of women CEOs leading America’s Fortune 500 companies. This year’s annual ranking of the country’s largest companies by revenue found that 21 of 500 CEOs were women, or 4.2 percent.

While CREW’s latest report found progress  — “women in commercial real estate are closer to the C-Suite than ever” — income differences between men and women remain. The report said the median total annual compensation, including bonuses and profit sharing, was $150,000 for men and $115,000 for women in commercial real estate, or an income gap of 23.3 percent. 

JLL, an international commercial real estate and investment management company with a presence in Virginia, is winning accolades for its commitment to diversity. Efforts to move women into top spots won recognition this year by the National Association for Female Executives, which named JLL one of its 2016 Top Companies for Executive Women.

JLL has created five diversity resource groups. They are: the Latino Employee Resources Network, The African American Business Network, Building Pride Business Network, Women’s Business Network and the VETNet Business Network.

Other visible signs of the company’s diverse workforce? Sheila Penrose, the firm’s highest-ranking woman, is chairman of the board of Chicago-based JLL, which has 62,000 employees in 280 corporate offices around the world. Penrose became chairman in January 2005. Of the board’s independent directors, 44 percent are women. Women also hold two of the top spots at JLL, with Christie Kelly as global chief financial officer and Trish Maxson as global chief human resources officer.

Closer to home in JLL’s Tysons office, Betsy Peck serves as chief operating officer for JLL’s Americas Markets business. In this role, she implements operational efficiencies, assists the firm’s front-line producers and works with marketing partners. 

Peck says JLL regularly reviews diversity efforts to create a pipeline of diverse leaders. One event, a two-day woman’s summit, ensures that female employees with leadership potential are exposed to senior leaders.  The company also continues to add women to its production/brokerage side. “If you look at our success stories, at some of the most successful and iconic transactions that we deliver, they include a diverse team. That’s how we deliver creative solutions to our clients,” says Peck. 

Sending a message
Women in high-profile jobs send a message that companies are serious about diversity. Colliers in Richmond — one of the region’s oldest real estate firms, dating back more than 100 years to its origins as Harrison & Bates — changed the public face of its executive suite in fall 2013 with the hiring of Daphne Berkowitz.  As a senior vice president/director of brokerage services, she presides over an all-male staff of 30 office and industrial brokers in the firm’s Richmond and Norfolk offices. 

Berkowitz came to Colliers with 30 years of experience and many contacts in the Richmond market from previous jobs as director of business development with Branch & Associates Inc., business development manager for EDC and director of marketing and asset management for the real estate division of Figgie International.   In her new assignment, “this position is more of a strategic position of bringing on a noncompeting real estate professional who could offer guidance in operations and commission-based sales and training,” she says.

Overall, Colliers has 45 employees in its Richmond and Norfolk offices, and 10 of them are women. Susan Jones, one of the company’s top three producers in 2015 along with two other female retail brokers, was appointed to the company’s board of directors in February 2010. She’s the first and only woman to serve on the board. “It was a learning experience for the rest of the board to hear a different perspective on things,” says Jones. “It has worked out really well.”  

Colliers will continue to update its image with a move to a new office next month in the Glen Forest Office Park in Henrico.

A witness to change
Richmond-based Cushman & Wakefield|Thalhimer, a private company of 450 employees in eight offices in Virginia and South Carolina, will have access to a diversity program, the Women's Integrated network, that C&W launched in October. According to Ann Albrecht, vice president of human resources, Thalhimer's mix of employees is 60 percent men and 40 percent women. Overall 16 percent of the employees are minorities, she says. 

Albrecht is the company’s highest-ranked woman on the corporate side, and she’s the sole female member of the firm’s leadership team. “I provide some balance at times from a female, diverse viewpoint and the HR function is more well-rounded,” she says.

In the past two years, Thalhimer has hired eight women as brokers, according to Albrecht, and half of those hires were millennials. New agents are paired with mentors. Currently women make up 25 percent of the firm’s brokers, a group typically paid by commission, a model that doesn’t appeal to everyone, she notes.

One of those brokers is Connie Jordan Nielsen, a senior vice president. Nielsen, who started out in real estate in Denver as a temp answering the phone, has been a force behind some of the biggest retail deals in the Richmond region, including the recent debut of two Wegmans grocery stores. 

Nielsen says she has witnessed dramatic change in the industry.  “When I started doing brokerage about 20 years ago, I was the only woman who was a broker at a lot of conferences.” Today, on the retail side, she says, the breakdown is more like 50/50 between men and women.

“I really do think that the opportunities are out there. You just can’t think that someone is going to give it to you. If you ask and you push and put yourself out there, then you prosper,” she says.

Lee Warfield, Thalhimer's president and CEO, says "it's great that firms have adopted programs or initiatives for hiring women. It's been our focus for a long time … Whether it is in brokerage, finance, HR, or IT, women have consistently earned key positions within our firm."

Steele of Richmond’s CREW looks for progress in diversity to continue. “As long as we’re talking about it, progress can be made. When you’re not having the conversation, that’s what leads to stagnation. So let’s keep the conversation going.”

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