The Boss? You’re Looking at Her: 7 Women in the Building Business
It is no longer exactly groundbreaking for women to work on construction sites, to develop or design retail and commercial spaces, or to fill those spaces with tenants.
Women, for example, occupy 43 percent of commercial real estate positions industrywide, according to data from CREW Network, a networking organization for women in commercial real estate. And more women than ever now fill senior vice president, managing director and partner slots in commercial real estate businesses.
Still, women who work in male-dominated sectors of the industry sometimes discover that a hard hat is a hard hat to wear. They tell of being locked out of deals, of being condescended to, of having to prove their skills and then prove them again.
“None of us are looking for a handout. We’re just looking for a level playing field,” said MaryAnne Gilmartin, the chief executive of the development company L&L MAG, which she co-founded in early 2018 after 23 years at Forest City New York, the last five as chief executive.Advertisement“Where I feel concerned,” she added, “is that the #metoo backlash will mean that women won’t get opportunities because the men doing the hiring don’t want to open themselves up to confusion or claims about their behavior.”
But Ms. Gilmartin said she also sees cause for optimism: “As women become more common in the real estate workplace and move up the ladder, we’re in a position to influence who makes up the team.
She is also hopeful because “there’s pressure on the all-male lineup to diversify,” she said. “This is an industry that changes because it has to, not because it wants to. The failure to address the women issue will cost them money and opportunities, so companies will do what they have to do.”
Here are a few women who endured workplace slights because they were in places dominated by men, but who thrived nonetheless and now run their own corners of the real estate world.
Leslie Baltes began climbing the shelves of the industrial supply company Carter, Milchman & Frank when she was a child. Ms. Baltes is now 46 and the president of the Long Island City-based company — and she’s still climbing the shelves.
AdvertisementBut while her grandfather Herman Milchman was one of the founders of the company, and her mother and father took over the business in the 1980s, Ms. Baltes chose a different path — accounting. Half a dozen years ago, when her parents wanted to retire and pass the baton to her, Ms. Baltes’s response was quick and to the point: No way.
“I don’t know how they got me,” she said.
She now supervises a staff of 40, and almost half of them women. “I’m all about girl power,” Ms. Baltes said.
Not everyone got the memo. When she started at the company and would order her drivers to get going with deliveries, “they looked at me like I had two heads,” Ms. Baltes said. “I had to be tough.”
Then there was a lunch with, among others, the general contracting team for a large developer. Ms. Baltes had been asked to prepare a quote for some equipment and was told “the guys wanted to meet me,” she said. A casual lunch was set up, and over burgers, Ms. Baltes got a grilling.
“Were you a manicurist or a hairdresser before you got this gig?” the men asked. “And who did you have to sleep with to get it?”
“I said, ‘You guys are idiots. A manicurist? Look how bad my nails are. Look how bad my roots are,’” she recalled. “I made a joke. I said that my grandfather slept with my grandmother.”
But sometimes being a woman is a bit of an advantage. “When my competitors and I are talking about our products, and there are 12 men and one me, and when I make my follow-up phone call, potential customers will remember me,” Ms. Baltes said. “And that’s important.”
Granted, there is still a level of “you are the owner?” “But it’s getting better,” she said. “Every time I go to a job site, I see more women, and there’s an ease about it that wasn’t there five years ago.”
She continued: “There’s a way to go. But now, even if men are thinking negative things, they don’t say them anymore.”“
“As the architect on a construction site, I had to learn to yell and raise my voice," said Elizabeth Roberts, the founder and president of the architecture firm that bears her name. “Contractors can be fiery, and I find I have to equal their tone of voice and style of communicating."
Architecture and Design
Elizabeth Roberts is the founder of a 20-person architecture firm in Brooklyn that bears her name. And although she has done some cultural and commercial projects, her concentration is on residential work.
“I made a decision early on that I wanted that to be my focus,” said Ms. Roberts, 50, whose clients include the fashion designer Ulla Johnson and many in the entertainment industry, among them Maggie Gyllenhaal and her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. “I prefer working with families and helping them create a home.”
Ms. Roberts said she experienced no gender bias whatsoever when, early in her career, she worked at the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle. And she said she has experienced it only rarely as the head of her own firm, whose staff, for the record, is 50 percent female.
“I tend to focus on the positive side,” she said. “I tend to think that being a woman helps me in my job, because there’s a lot of balancing that needs to be done hourly and daily, and a need to keep your cool under pressure, and I think a lot of those things come with being a woman.”
But, she added, “I wonder if I try to pretend that gender bias isn’t an issue.” Here, she is thinking of the surprised look she gets from contractors when they learn that not only is she the architect of record on a project but that she is also the boss of the team the contractor has been working with for the past year.
She is thinking also about the difficult conversations she must sometimes have with clients about why the fearsomely expensive renovation has suddenly become even more expensive, and why the 18-month project is sliding past year two.
“These clients are understandably stressed,” Ms. Roberts said. “But when I feel I’m being put in my place or talked down to or spoken to in a particular way, I often wonder: ‘If I were a 75-year-old man, would you be lecturing me about how things should have gone?’ I do think about that often.”
Real Estate Investment
Robin Zeigler’s degree in accounting took her to a job at Ernst & Young, as an auditor for Coca-Cola, in 1994. When, a few years later, she wanted to make a transition out of accounting, one of the female partners at the firm offered Ms. Zeigler the chance to move into the real estate group.
She was eager, but unschooled. “I didn’t know what a real estate investment trust was. I went to a bookstore and bought every book they had on the subject and spent the weekend reading up,” said Ms. Zeigler, 47, who is now the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Cedar Realty Trust, an R.E.I.T. that owns, manages and redevelops grocery-anchored shopping centers in the Washington to Boston corridor.
“Part of what helped my trajectory,” she said, “was taking advantage of opportunities, of saying yes to something and figuring it out later.”
Ms. Zeigler quickly learned some things that weren’t in the books she read so diligently: Real estate is a relationship business, and people (that is to say, men) tend to form those relationships with people who are just like them (that is to say, other men). They develop those relationships on golf courses and in cigar bars, negotiating on the back nine and firming up the deal over a Cohiba.
“It can be a challenge when deals are happening in places where females are not invited,” Ms. Zeigler said.
It can also be a challenge even when females have every reason to be there. “I’ve experienced things like walking into a meeting that I’ve called and I’ve been asked by a man to get coffee,” Ms. Zeigler said. “I’ve responded, ‘I like mine with a little bit of cream and sugar, and I’m Robin Zeigler.’”
She can’t make those annoyances vanish, she said, but she controls what she can: “I do make sure people know what I bring to the table and try to make my voice heard. When you’re the only woman in a room full of men, that can sometimes be difficult.”
Keeping quiet at the conference table, she has learned, is often not the way to go. “If you have enough experience having a thought and not sharing the thought, and then having someone offer the thought that was your thought, you get the courage to share that thought when the thought occurs to you,” she said. “It’s not an issue for me anymore.”
Barbara Kavovit was 9 when her father handed her a Stanley hammer. “He wanted me to help him make bunk beds for my sister and me,” she said.
“Thanks to my dad, who thought it was important for a girl to be independent, early on I had a taste of what it felt like to have self-esteem and to accomplish a goal,” said Ms. Kavovit, who has built on that childhood success, and then some.
Soon after college graduation, she started her first business, Stand-Ins, a home-improvement company in Westchester County. After three years, Ms. Kavovit shuttered Stand-Ins, established a new company, Anchor, and moved her base of operations to New York City to take on corporate and retail construction projects.
In 2015, Ms. Kavovit, who is now in her late 40s, started Evergreen Construction, now a $30-million-a-year bus iness with 22 employees (six of whom are women) and a focus on interior construction for corporate and retail Despite such accomplishments, “I get challenged every day by men,” said Ms. Kavovit, who will likely face a fresh set of challenges as a supporting cast member on the new season of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” She recalled walking a potential client through a job site last year and stopping to ask her field supervisor a question. The field supervisor had a question of his own for the boss: “Do you know how to read a blueprint?”
Yes, Ms. Kavovit knew how to read a blueprint, how to sign a paycheck and, come to think of it, how to fire a benighted employee. She proved it by sacking that supervisor posthaste.
Commercial Real Estate
Joanne Podell, the executive chairwoman of Cushman & Wakefield, describes her career in commercial real estate as an accident. Previously she owned several thriving furniture stores.
But because of a real estate blunder involving a storage facility and crippling rent, those stores went out of business.
“I had chosen the locations for my stores and had negotiated all my leases,” said Ms. Podell, who is now in her 70s. “And a friend and mentor who worked in the furniture business told me, ‘If you can do it for yourself, you can do it for others.’”
Well, sure she could, but first someone had to give her the chance. “Coming up was harder than it needed to be,” said Ms. Podell, who has been in the business for more than 25 years. “The problem was that everyone teamed up. It was a boys’ club, and it’s not that different today. I had no one to talk to and no one to mentor me. I had to learn on my own.
”In particular, she remembers looking at a building with a school on the ground floor. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s prime real estate. Maybe we can ask the school if it wants to move.’ How naïve to get involved with the Department of Education.”
Because Ms. Podell failed to appreciate the complexity — and futility — of such an undertaking, she spent days and weeks calling people. “I wasted all that time on something I couldn’t realistically realize,” she said. “And for a broker, all you have is time.”
Back then, the only real advantage to being a woman in the business was that there were very few women brokers, “and landlords would remember me,” she said. “The retailers had no problem with my being a woman. I had been a retailer; I understood the great risk they were taking, and they knew I was interested in doing the right thing for them.”
Ms. Podell has now done enough deals — her clients include Nike, TD Bank, Ann Taylor and Luxottica — that the gender issue is no longer an issue. “But,” she added, “it only stopped being an issue about eight years ago.”
“If I’m at an inspection, and a guy is putting me down a bit, I don’t worry about it. I know I’m good at what I do,” said Dina Miller, a founder and the chief operating officer of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel.
In 1986, when Dina Miller, her brother, Jonathan, and other family members founded the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel, “there were very few female appraisers,” said Ms. Miller, 56, whose specialty is specialty work — determining the value of a common hallway that a co-op shareholder wants to buy, for example, and handling stratospherically expensive property, including the top-floor apartment at 432 Park Avenue.
‘What is the market doing? What is my apartment worth? Do you think it’s listed too high?’ I’m happy to give them insight.” Sometimes, however, she is the one being appraised. “There’s the attitude of ‘Here comes this woman and what does she know?’ Fifteen years ago, I went to a high-end apartment and the wife opened the door. She looked at me, looked around to see if there was a man with me, then turned to her husband and said, ‘Look, honey, it’s a female appraiser,’ as if I were from the circus.”
Matters have improved, because there are more female appraisers now, Ms. Miller said. “But you have some people who are very old school.”
When, for example, she is on a site with a male trainee, “clients will often think the trainee is my boss,” Ms. Miller said. Questions about when the appraisal will be ready or whether they know about other sales in the building will be directed to the man.
“We have to correct people and explain that he’s in training and I’m the owner of the company,” she said.
Source: The New York Times
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