Breaking down the ‘good old boys’ club’ in commercial real estate

Pat Rodgers, President and CEO of Rodgers Builders, signs a steel beam before it was hoisted in its final position at the Duke Endowment Building on East Morehead Street. Rodgers is one of the most prominent female executives in the Charlotte commercial real estate industry.
Pat Rodgers, President and CEO of Rodgers Builders, signs a steel beam before it was hoisted in its final position at the Duke Endowment Building on East Morehead Street. Rodgers is one of the most prominent female executives in the Charlotte commercial real estate industry.

Commercial real estate has long had a reputation for being a “good old boys’” sort of world, in which men dominate deal-making, development and construction. But growing numbers of women in top leadership positions are aiming to change that, and help their female colleagues advance.

That resolve was on display this week at a discussion hosted by the Urban Land Institute’s Charlotte chapter about the state of women in the real estate industry. New research from ULI shows that women make up just one in seven chief executives of firms among its membership.

“In our industry, we’re still incredibly underrepresented,” said Ellen Mendelsohn, ULI’s Washington, D.C.-based director of leadership. “Women aren’t capturing their fair share of leadership roles...There are hardly any women getting to the top running these large corporations.”

The solutions proposed by ULI are a mix of structured programs and more intangible changes to company culture. But ULI found that informal programs, such as giving women challenging and visible jobs and including them in discussions, are often more effective at helping women advance than formal programs such as starting an employee group for women or giving leadership training.

Pat Rodgers is president and CEO of Rodgers Builders, one of the largest construction firms in Charlotte, and she’s arguably the most prominent female executive in the city’s development scene. In an interview with the Observer, she said the increasing emphasis of attracting female students to technical fields such as engineering and construction is helping to shift the balance.

“I think it is beginning to change in our industry,” said Rodgers. “We don’t have as many female interns as we do male interns. But we didn’t used to have any.”

She also said it’s important to have more diverse viewpoints within a company to cope with an ever more rapidly changing economy.

“I think it makes you think differently. If everybody’s thinking the same way, there’s nothing gained from that,” she said. “You don’t change, and that’s deadly.”

Of course, it’s not just commercial real estate where women are underrepresented. Many companies from the Fortune 500 on down are dominated by men, an issue highlighted in recent years by the popularity of books such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” exhorting women to take a more aggressive role in advancing their careers.

One particular factor ULI noted is that many real estate firms are privately held, family enterprises in which top leadership positions pass from father to son. Prominent Charlotte firms, such as Lincoln Harris, Grubb Properties and Levine Properties now have sons running firms their fathers started.

Last year, ULI surveyed its female members nationwide to assess how their careers stack up. While there’s plenty of data about female leaders in large, publicly traded companies, there’s much less available about commercial real estate firms, many of which are smaller and privately held. The survey found:

▪ Women make up 25 percent of ULI’s membership, but only 14 percent of CEOs in the group.

▪ Among those female CEOs, woman-run companies tend to be smaller: Only 7 percent lead a company with 100 or more employees, while about a quarter are sole proprietors and half lead a company with two to 20 employees.

▪ Still, the majority of women said they were on track to reach their goals for leadership roles in the industry: About 71 percent of women surveyed said their career was either advancing at the pace they expected or more rapidly, with 29 percent saying their career pace is “lagging my expectations.”

The only woman in the room

At Thursday’s panel discussion at the Charlotte Country Club, some of the women recounted experiences where they were the only females in a business meeting. Ellen Rogers recalled such experiences from before she joined Bank of America, where she is a senior vice president of community development.

“I’ve been in very large rooms where I was the only woman there,” she said. “I’ve been to golf outings where I was the only woman there.”

That can make it hard for younger women to picture themselves in the C-suite.

“If there’s not a role model, it’s really hard to envision, starting out, how you get there,” she said.

But, they said, that needs to change for firms to stay competitive as real estate becomes more global and less provincial. Richard Petersheim, of LandDesign, said teams with women tend to produce better designs and are often more creative. Andrea Howard, a senior vice president with real estate brokerage JLL, said the company’s internal research showed that 55 percent of the company’s top deal-making teams last year were “diverse,” including women or minorities.

Howard said the growing importance of capital from outside of Charlotte means there is more of a need to have diverse development teams working on real estate projects. For example, she cited a J.P. Morgan acquisitions team based in New York that is now almost entirely female.

“A lot of that equity is coming from outside Charlotte. You’ve got to have that kind of diversity to attract capital,” she said.

The panelists also encouraged women to be assertive as they promote themselves and their careers. Howard said she had seen a difference in how young men and women at JLL approached a mock pitch to win a client. The men all promoted themselves more aggressively.

“Without exception, every man that got up there...said ‘I,’” said Howard. Women, on the other hand, promoted the organization as a whole and pitched themselves as a smaller part of a bigger team. “Every woman, and there were five of them, not one of them said ‘I’ or ‘me.’”

Marcie Williams, president of apartment management and development firm Rivergate, said many of today’s large real estate companies grew up in the 1970s and 80s, when men were more likely to be in charge. She said she hopes that as more woman-led firms start to grow now, the gap at the top of the corporate pyramid shrinks.

“My hope is in the next 20 or 30 years, there won’t be such a dynamic,” said Williams.

Rodgers told the Observer her advice would be the same for employees early in their career, regardless of gender: Start at the bottom and work hard.

“At the end of the day, hard work is hard work and talent is talent,” she said. “End of story.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo