Forest City executive started at a small firm with a big idea
Donna Bearman heads up office leasing for Forest City Enterprises in the Richmond market. As a regional director, she also works as needed as a leasing consultant in markets up and down the mid-Atlantic.
Bearman went to work for the Cleveland-based company in 2007 when Forest City bought an office portfolio from Richmond developer Tommy Pruitt of Pruitt Associates. The two parties began developing Short Pump Town Center as a partnership in 2003, and it remains the region’s premiere shopping destination, after an $11 million dollar renovation in 2014.
Although she didn’t work on the retail side for Pruitt, Bearman recalls the excitement of working at his firm as the 1.3-million-square-foot outdoor shopping center took shape. The site had been Pruitt family land.
“I was lucky to work for a local developer who was so generous about letting me shadow him to learn all about office development and leasing. He was a great mentor,” she says of Pruitt.
Today, Forest City employs about 35 people in the Richmond market. They oversee a portfolio that includes Short Pump Town Center in Henrico County, in which Forest City has a 34 percent ownership interest; the Tobacco Row loft apartments in downtown Richmond and 12 office properties of 750,000 square feet.
On the office side, 11 of the company’s Class A properties are located in the Glen Forest Office Park in Henrico County, while the Edgeworth Building is located in Shockoe Bottom in downtown Richmond.
Now that Bearman works for a larger company – Forest City has assets across the country valued at $10.3 billion – she has the opportunity to travel and work on projects in other markets, such as South Florida, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The experience has given her fresh perspectives on the Richmond commercial broker market, which Bearman praises as being collegial and “friendly.” In Richmond, if a broker says something in an email or a proposal “that is as good as gold,” she says. “You go to a South Florida market, and everything has to be run through the legal chain before a deal is done.’’
Bearman’s key responsibility in Richmond is keeping the office properties leased. Currently, Forest City’s portfolio is 95 percent leased, she says, with her biggest challenge growing rental rates in what is a consistent, but conservative market.
In terms of trends she sees “hoteling” on the rise. That term refers to companies letting more employees work from a shared space in the office or from home.
“The larger corporate mentality is to make smaller offices or a shared office with three of four people if you aren’t in the office on a regular basis. That’s a hoteling concept, which I’m afraid to admit is going to reduce the demand for office space. “
Social media also is changing commercial real estate. “The client confidentiality, the control we had over our tenant retention and renewals, used to be so much stronger before the advances in the Internet and in social media. Everything is out there now as soon as you make a deal. It makes it harder to make a deal and grow the rents,” she says.
Bearman is a member of the Real Estate Circle of Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business where she enjoys working with the students. She recently participated in a speed mentoring event where 25 students came by and talked with her about her career. “It’s like speed dating. They’re so bright-eyed and so smart.”
Years in industry: 27
Where did you grow up?: Richmond.
Where did you go to school?: Midlothian High School. Graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in interior design from the School of Architecture.
Family: Married to Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, a specialist in infectious disease. The couple has a dog and a cat.
Hobbies: Tennis, snow skiing, cycling, cooking. Loves to travel.
Last read book: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel.
Favorite app or mobile site: Flipboard. Easy to find news on current events, entertainment, finance.
Still on the bucket list: A triathlon. “I’m going to do a sprint triathlon in the spring. A shorter version. It’s a 5K run, a quarter-mile swim and a 20-mile bike trip. It’s a group of us women all about the same age who are going to do this. We don’t care about the time. We just want to do it. “