Laura Hines-Pierce on Why She’s Prioritizing ESG

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Laura Hines-Pierce’s real estate roots run deep, to say the very least. She’s the granddaughter of the Gerald Hines — the founder of the eponymous firm who died in 2020 at age 95 — and the daughter of Jeffrey Hines, who now shares the real estate development and investment company’s CEO title with her. 

The Houston-based company her grandfather started in 1957 today has a presence in 285 cities across 28 countries, and more than $90 billion in assets under management. 

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Some things haven’t changed, though. Gerald Hines’ attention to detail is deeply ingrained in the company’s DNA, and is something that has resonated with Hines-Pierce since she first joined the firm in 2012. 

She got her start as a project manager for River Point — Hines’ 1 million-square-foot development in Chicago — before serving as the the firm’s transformation officer and joining the Office of the CEO in 2020, just before the pandemic hit. 

The co-CEO position, coupled with the unprecedented upheaval COVID-19 delivered, gave her and her father a crash course in working side by side and making key decisions together as the industry seemingly transformed overnight. 

Since then, their dynamic has only underscored the benefits, and importance, of diverse perspectives in leadership. Hines-Pierce was named co-CEO in February. 

Commercial Observer caught up with Hines-Pierce, 38,  last week over Zoom. She was at the firm’s Houston headquarters at the time, shortly before she was due to give birth to her second child. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Commercial Observer: You’re eight and a half months pregnant, and still working! You’ll be taking some time off soon, I hope? 

Laura Hines-Pierce: [Laughs] Yes, my second child is due in a couple of weeks. I’m honored to be in a position where I can model that it’s possible to be in a leadership position in our industry at a time when I’m also growing my family.

As a firm, I think it’s really important that we’ve created the right infrastructure for leaders — women who are growing their family; men; and caregivers of all kinds. Whether it’s people who are taking care of aging parents or family members, everyone has a life at home, and it’s really important for firms to create an infrastructure that allows people to excel not only in their careers, but also in how they manage their home life. 

Being a family firm, we really value family, and I think it’s really important that firms prioritize that, and recognize that promoting and mentoring caregivers as they are doing that in their career increases retention, and also increases diverse leadership. It’s something we’ve been really focused on at the firm, and something I’m very conscious of role modeling. We have four months of leave, and I am taking those four months of leave. I will be out! I won’t be working, I won’t be attending meetings. My dad will include me in big decisions offline as necessary, but I hope to model this in a way where we see more of it across the industry.

You were promoted to co-CEO of Hines in February, joining your father, Jeffrey Hines. Talk us through that transition. 

While I officially moved into the role a little over a month ago, I’ve been working with my dad for the last two years in the Office of the CEO. That was very purposeful, in terms of taking the time to work through exactly how we would make decisions together. So the shift to co-CEO, while really important, is not a big change in terms of our day-to-day, and how we’re working together. The great thing about it is we’ve already gotten a chance to see how it works, and why it works so well. 

How would you describe the working dynamic between the two of you? 

A huge benefit of working in a family firm is that we can think generationally about leadership, and we both bring really different perspectives to the table, from a gender perspective, certainly, but also from a generational perspective. My dad brings 30 years of experience in the industry, working through cycles, as well as a deep understanding of how the firm works and operates. I bring a fresh perspective and one that represents, frankly, a huge part of our workforce. Roughly 40 percent of our workforce is under the age of 35, and that group has grown up with a different perspective about ESG [environmental, social and governance], how technology impacts their lives and how they use space. 

So, I think I bring that to the table in really helping us to focus on how we need to be set up for the next 30 years. We’ve been living the mantra of “diverse perspectives get to better outcomes” because we push each other on decisions, and I think we are absolutely getting to better outcomes and better decisions than either of us would have on our own. 

I assume you must have a good working relationship with your father, given that you’re together every day? 

Yes, we work really well together, thankfully. We’re very different, but, again, I think that helps us to get to better outcomes. We have probably spent more time together than is normal in the last eight years [laughs], but we’re able to talk through challenging issues and then work through them, and I really enjoy getting to do that with him.

You joined Hines’ Office of the CEO in February 2020, which must have been an interesting time to make that move, just before COVID-19 took hold. 

Yes, COVID hit a month later, so it was a trial by fire. What I will say is, both in the past two years, and also in my previous role as transformation officer for the firm, I’ve really gotten to see how adaptable and innovative this firm is. We have seen the industry changing drastically around us. I think it’s changed more in the last five years than it probably did in the previous 40 years. 

The pandemic accelerated a number of trends that we already were seeing, and so the good news was that we were already thinking about them. We’ve spent the last two years focusing on how space can drive experience, because we have a responsibility to create a space that draws people to it, and that fosters collaboration, and innovative, forward-thinking work — which is ultimately what our clients are saying they want their employees back in the office to do. It’s what drives their growth forward. 

There’s been a lot of change over the last several years, but, I think it’s also really shown how nimble, agile and how adaptive this firm can be — even being a 65-year-old firm.

Do you feel Hines is coming out of the pandemic as a stronger firm? 

I’d absolutely say we are coming out of this period much stronger. Now, if you’d asked me if that would be the case in February of 2020, I wouldn’t be quite so sure [laughs]. But, over the last five years, we’ve doubled our assets under management, and we’ve also really pushed into our investment management platform. As part of that we have launched flagship vehicles across three major geographies that now have buying power of over $10 billion.

We’ve also really pushed into our diversification across asset classes. Historically, we’ve been known as an office developer, but the majority of our business these days is not in office. Less than a third of the deals approved by our investment committee in the last year were office, and we’ve really leaned into our industrial and logistics business, as well as our living and multifamily platform. The growth there has been really incredible. 

Lastly, I’d say we’ve really pushed into innovation and ESG in new ways, and I think we’ll continue to do that as we look forward. And, so, we’re coming out of the pandemic probably stronger than we’ve ever been.

There finally seems to be some real momentum behind ESG-focused initiatives in the real estate industry, and we’re hearing that investors are really starting to demand transparency around it before they commit to an investment. How is Hines approaching ESG today? 

I would absolutely agree with everything that you said. We’re really seeing a lot of focus on ESG, and I think that it’s really an imperative, and investors are feeling that responsibility on behalf of those with whom they invest. The built environment accounts for 40 percent of global emissions, and it’s something that we feel a huge responsibility to really lead on. 

A focus on sustainability and ESG is part of our DNA. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer by training, and, so, before sustainability was cool, he was focused on energy efficiency because it saves money. I think the way that the industry should be viewing ESG is that this has the potential to be the next industrial revolution, and part of the opportunity is there’s a way to do well by doing good.

As we look forward, we’re in the process of defining exactly how we want to set our ESG goals, because we want to be very purposeful about it. I think there’s been a big rush to set goals, but we’ve wanted to take the time to be very purposeful so that the goals we set are aspirational, but also achievable. And that’s a hard balance to strike. 

In the meantime, we’ve been pushing forward with a focus on carbon reduction, both in operational carbon, and embodied carbon — which is the carbon footprint of a new building or development, so all the materials that go into it, the production of those materials and the transportation of those materials. Given our development background, we’re very focused on leading on that front.

It feels like we’re at a unique moment in time where there’s so much opportunity to do better and to be better as an industry, on many levels including ESG and diversity, equity and inclusion. You co-founded the OneHines Women’s Network. Can you tell us about that and your approach to DEI? 

I’m very proud to have been part of the group that founded OneHines Women’s Network. It was a grassroots effort internally, and really the catalyst for our broader DEI efforts. It’s now become a much bigger platform, of which the women’s network is one group. DEI is incredibly important to me, and to the firm.

And, I think, as we talk about ESG, the “E” gets a lot of focus but the “S” not so much. I feel very honored to be in a position where I’m moving into leadership in the real estate industry, and I really hope to see more of that across the industry. As I mentioned, I do think we get to better outcomes, we better represent our communities and we make better decisions in the long run when we have diverse leadership — from all perspectives. The more I can do to help model that, I’m really hopeful to be a part of.

How would you describe what you’re focused on today from an investment standpoint?

We continue to see opportunity across beds and sheds, if you will. Certainly cap rates have gotten really aggressive on that front, and, so, while we continue to see opportunity — especially within development —we are also pressing into new single-family and a number of other different areas. 

We’ve also had a real focus on placemaking mixed-use [developments], and given our experience across the asset classes, we’ve been able to bring a unique perspective to thinking about investments agnostically and bringing a wide-angle lens as to what makes the most sense for that piece of dirt, or for that acquisition. In addition to that, being able to bring together uses in a mixed-use environment and development, and think differently about how we can create value and create a sense of place. 

So, that includes ground-up development, but I think it’s also being able to look at a tired mall and think about how we bring a new sense of place by reinvesting in a space and creating a really unique opportunity. 

Your family ties to real estate run very deep. Did you always know it was where you’d end up, career-wise? 

I certainly grew up around it, and my family is very proud of what we’re a part of, and what the firm has been able to do, so that pride was also something I grew up around. That said, I think my dad was very purposeful in not pressuring us to come into the family business. In a way, he kept us at arm’s length and really wanted us [Hines-Pierce and her two brothers, Adam Hines and Matthew Hines, who also work at the company today] to find our own paths and interests, and if that happened to be real estate then that was fantastic.

I really appreciated that, because I did explore other paths. I spent four years working at Sotheby’s auction house in New York and that was an interest that developed during undergrad, as I double majored in economics and art history. While I loved my four years there, I realized I wasn’t excited about my career. I’d always had an interest in real estate and architecture and so I went back to business school to make that transition. Now, I feel so confident that this is the right place for me, whereas I think if I’d felt pressured, or if I’d come straight here, I may always have always questioned [what if]. 

Was there a specific moment where things clicked, in terms of, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life”? 

I can’t think of a particular moment, but my first several years at Hines were spent as a project manager for a 1 million-square-foot office tower that we developed in Chicago called River Point, and seeing that building come to life from inception, to drawings on a page, to welcoming tenants into the building was amazing. It was my first baby in a lot of ways, so maybe this is actually my third baby I’m having now [laughs]. 

Back then, as my friends were having actual babies and showing me pictures of their children on their phone, I would show them pictures of buildings. But, seeing that building come to life and be part of the fabric of Chicago and having an impact there was the moment when I knew I was in the right place.

Did your dad ever give you any advice about the real estate industry as you were starting out? 

In some ways, it was more my grandfather who did. He really encouraged me and always wanted to hear what I was working on. He would come and tour my project when it was under construction, and I’d watch how he thought about buildings and the types of detail and questions he would ask. He’d ask, “Well, how did you choose this carpet? Walk me through the thinking of the lighting in this hallway.” That focus on detail and quality is part of Hines’ DNA, and that’s where it came from — his mind. And, so, I think that is something that has always really resonated and stayed with me. 

What’s your favorite part of the job today?

Something I’ve really missed over the past two years is getting out and being with our teams. One of the really unique things about Hines is, as you visit different teams around the world, whether you’re visiting the team in Warsaw, or Sydney or Dallas, they’re all different, and very rooted in their communities, but at the same time, each office feels like a Hines office, and the culture feels like a Hines team. To tour with them and see the pride that they take in the projects they’re working on and the assets they’re managing, and hearing their unique perspective of those investments is what I love the most.

I’m excited to hopefully do a bit of travel when I come back from leave and see our team, see our assets, see our investors. And, really, just to spend more time out on the ground, because doing it from behind the Zoom screen is just not the same.