Clarett Group CEO Ronne Hackett Is Fine With Being an Industry Trailblazer
Urban Land Institute New York (ULI NY) recently announced Veronica “Ronne” Hackett, co-founder and CEO of the Clarett Group, as the recipient of its 2022 Visionary Leadership in Land Use award.
Alicia Glen, a former deputy New York mayor for housing and economic development and now chair of development firm MSquared, called Hackett “a pioneer and glass shatterer,” while Brian Collins, ULI NY chair and director of development at Silverstein Properties, described a “trailblazing career” in the announcement.
And for very good reason.
Hackett got her career start at Citigroup in the 1970s, where she was the only female executive at the time. Since then, she has been busy carving out a path for female leaders in both real estate and finance while building her own career as a global developer and landlord.
In the ’80s, Hackett joined Park Tower Group, helping the company become one of the most prominent office developers in New York City. There, she helped lead the revitalization of Times Square — the largest public-private redevelopment project in New York City — as well as the development of noteworthy projects such as 50 Wall Street and 33 Maiden Lane.
When she co-founded Clarett Group in 2000, Hackett became the first noted independent woman developer in the U.S., kick-starting the third chapter of her career with highly acclaimed projects such as The Brooklyner, 200 West End Avenue, Sky House and Chelsea House.
Top of mind throughout the past five decades for Hackett has been her dedication to making the real estate industry a more diverse and inclusive one. She is a founder and board member of ULI NY’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), and spearheads initiatives that promote the advancement of women in the real estate industry and increasing female leadership positions. She’s also a founder of Paradigm for Parity.
Ahead of the award presentation at Cipriani South Street on Nov. 2, Commercial Observer asked Hackett to reflect on her career thus far, and her impact on the broader real estate industry today.
What does the ULI Visionary Leadership award mean to you, personally?
It’s a capstone, and really quite an honor. ULI has been a very important part of my career — and my life—in building friendships and building business relationships. I’ve been very involved with this award and event for many years, and I’ve always loved the award itself because it celebrates the best developments, and it celebrates the entire team. So it’s an extraordinarily flattering thing to be honored by an organization that you feel so strongly about because of how influential it’s been in your own life.
You’ve paved the way for female leaders in the commercial real estate industry. Can you talk us through your experience in starting your career?
I was the first female lending officer in the real estate division of Citi [in 1970], and I was hired while the head of the division was away on sabbatical. When he came back, he looked at me and said: “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen?” Well, for me that was like throwing the gauntlet down. I said to myself, “There’s no way I’m going to fail.” I was halfway through getting my MBA at night while working full time. I had two years of solid financial analysis behind me, I came into the bank with a fair amount of expertise, and I just wasn’t going to fail.
So, I was the first woman but there was a group of women at the bank very soon thereafter. And there was another group of women around the country, in different locations. Early on, we figured out that we were not going to make it on our own — we needed the support of one another. There were two organizations at the time, ULI and ICSC, and I also met women through those two organizations — they had annual conferences, although we didn’t have the local chapters we have today.
I’ve always felt really proud of the fact that women in real estate go out of their way to help each other. It’s always been a sisterhood. And ULI was very much in the mix from that perspective early on in my career, which began when I went to Citi.
What did those meetings and conferences look like at the time?
In the early days, when you went to a ULI meeting there were probably five or six women there – in total. Over time, we’d also get together ourselves and there was a group of us from ULI that met at least once a month, including Leanne Lachman [now president of Lachman Associates, and also Executive in Residence at Columbia Business School]. We became friends and were supportive of each other, often offering a venting place, for “Can you believe what happened yesterday?”— which I think is really healthy. We’d never hear the horror stories in real estate that I would hear from people in other industries, although there were some, of course.
But, in New York there ultimately were many groups formed, including the Association of Real Estate Women, CREW and WX, because women knew that they had to support each other. It was always part of our professional lives.
Was it always your plan to pursue a career in real estate?
I never thought I’d be where I am, although when you look back, there are some themes that are connected that I can now understand. I started in college as a math major, but it was too theoretical for me and so I studied history and economics instead. I discovered finance because I got a job and somebody said to me, “Give me an annual financial review of this company.” I loved finance; it was August and NYU was around the corner, so I started going to business school. Once you understand risk analysis, you can transition easily into any asset class. But I never expected to be in real estate.
Was your family in real estate?
My mother was involved in the arts, and I came from a family that prided itself on liberal arts education. In my senior year of college, I studied the history of American art, and there was a segment on architecture that really captured my imagination. I loved it. Many years later, I met Philip Johnson and the first thing that went through my head was “Oh my God, if Professor Watkins could only see me now” [laughs].
Then, at Park Tower, Kevin Roche was the architect of one of our projects. We were walking around the site one day, and I said to him that I had done my senior thesis in a particular course on Eero Saarinen [Roche’s mentor]. And so we had this ability to connect. I’d never thought once about the real estate industry when I was in college, but somehow it all came together.
Was there a moment in your life when you knew real estate would ultimately be your career?
Yes, at Citi. I didn’t know I was ultimately going to go into the development business then, but, when I got there, I said: “I’m doing this. I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m not going to fail, I’m not even going to falter.” And I was good at what I did. I got an early reputation as being a very strong credit person, and our lawyers loved me because I actually read the documents and asked loads of questions. I had to propose and defend loan recommendations among senior bankers, and I was really committed.
I know you’ve probably heard this many times — and probably feel it yourself — but when you get into real estate, you become so attracted to the industry because you feel you’re part of something in creating or adding to communities, and doing something purposeful. So, it’s kind of like coming to New York — there’s no turning back.
Are you a New Yorker?
No, I grew up in Southern Florida, and I’m probably the only true Floridian you ever met. But my best friend from high school was in town last week and she said: “You were always a New York girl. Everybody knew you were gonna end up in New York.”
Is there one piece of advice that you’ve carried with you throughout your career?
There are many pieces. I had a mentor once who said, “Never apologize for a sense of urgency, because if you don’t have a sense of urgency, nobody else around you will have a sense of urgency.” I’ve followed that, and I think I have a reputation as being hard-charging and being persistent and dedicated.
I feel it’s also the New York approach — “Let’s get it done ASAP.” When I go home to Scotland, my mum can’t believe how fast I walk and often asks me, “Where’s the fire?”
That’s also true [laughs].
When you look back at your career, what were the defining moments?
I think of my career in three parts: banking and finance, working in development for Park Tower, and then founding Clarett.
I came to Park Tower as a pretty accomplished developer. I had run a project in Austria that I took over as a banker — a 1,400-bed apartment hotel that was half-finished. I did everything to run that project and get it completed, and put together a very sophisticated development package. We had to negotiate with Austrian government officials to put together a program to approve foreign buyers. I put together a marketing plan, I put together an operating hotel, and I figured out a financing strategy. By then, I had also run the southern lending group for Chemical Bank, and the New York City group — which was the bank’s largest lending group . So when I went to work for George [Klein, in 1983], I came as a pretty sophisticated developer and capital markets person.
Going to work for George was a natural progression, although it took me a little bit longer to do it, because I also wanted a family. I also ran Chemical’s worldwide real estate, which meant I was in charge of their large branch system and developing a trading operation for the bank. I began to talk to George about Times Square, because Park Tower had been designated as the developer of the new Times Square, and that’s how we met. I was the sixth person hired at Park Tower, and I built a 10-year track record there of building some of the most iconic landmarks and recognizable buildings, including 60 Wall Street — I still see it on news programs, when somebody wants to pan a shot of downtown. But what attracted me most to Park Tower was that I was really intrigued by Times Square, and with great architecture and design.
How challenging was the Times Square revitalization?
It was incredibly challenging because it involved both the city and the state, seven years of lawsuits, and I was the project’s public face. Part of my job at Park Tower was keeping George’s name out of the press — he did not talk to the press — so I was the point person. I was also talking to every single corporate executive about moving their headquarters to Times Square, and leading the negotiations with everybody from lenders to potential tenants. So I kind of did everything, but that was the fun of the job.
What were those “Come to Times Square” discussions like?
Well, it was terrifying to walk through Times Square in those days. It was not a safe place, and going through it was often a very uncomfortable thing. So the reaction would often be, “Are you crazy?” Some people would say, “Yeah, I see it, I get it… but I can’t make a commitment to move unless I know that the project is approved.” So the hardest thing was really that we had seven years of lawsuits to deal with. I learned a lot of perseverance. But, it was the largest public-private project that had been done so it was also exciting.
You were the one of the first women with your own development company who wasn’t also the daughter of a developer. Why was it the right time to launch Clarett Group in 2000, and what were some of the obstacles you faced?
The biggest challenge was: How do you build a development company when you don’t have very much money to begin with? And how are you going to be able to convince people to finance you? Neil Klarfeld [Clarett co-founder] ran construction for Park Tower and we knew we wanted to be in business together at some point. It was more a question of timing, and trying to figure out how we could do it since we didn’t have a whole lot of money.
But, what we did have was track records. We’d worked together for 10 years, he was a great construction person, and I was a strong leasing and finance person. I had a reputation for strong integrity, and was always a straight shooter. So, we found partners who really believed in us. Our first partner was Fidelity, but we had three great partners who backed us, including Post Properties [founder] John Williams —I had previously been his banker and financed him — and we also created a partnership with Prudential where they were investing in us as a management team, so we didn’t have to scramble for every single loan.
What drove your success in the early Clarett days?
We were extraordinarily focused on being on time and on budget. It was the mantra, and we had developed a phenomenally good track record and reputation.We constructed great buildings, we used great architects, and we were always focused on good design and solid construction. We did the Brooklyner in Downtown Brooklyn, and it was the tallest building [at 50 stories] for three or four years. We just had this unwavering commitment to design excellence, and we found new locations to develop in, including the Upper West Side. Nobody went above 96th Street in those days.
I was at a Real Estate Board luncheon after we had bought this [Upper West Side] land and an executive — who I won’t name — stood up and announced to the room that “Ronne Hackett has just screwed the pricing in this market by overpaying for a piece of land.” But, we saw that the Upper West Side was lacking in new apartments, and so people were crammed into small apartments, and we just knew it was going to change. We had the same feeling about Sky House [Clarett’s 55-story luxury condominium development in Madison Square Park], and we really developed a reputation for knowing we could make an impact in certain neighborhoods.
Did you ever make that guy who stood up eat his words?
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on, or are they all your babies?
In a portfolio, the next one is always your favorite, but they all had something interesting and unique. We were always very conscious about artwork and showcasing local artists, and so every project had something that was a little bit different.
Sky House is an amazing development story, and we had had lots of meetings and people come and go as we were developing it, because it was such a small site, and such an assemblage issue. At Place 57 [Clarett’s 36-story condo development at 207 East 57th Street] we created a partnership with Baccarat Crystal — we had spent some time in Paris with them — and Vicente Wolfe created this beautiful lobby that really knocks people off their feet. Each project had a particular challenge and development thesis, and that really made each one fun.
Alicia Glen called you a “glass shatterer,” and within that context I assume you’re a mentor to other women and minorities in the industry today?
I’m the oldest of seven children — six girls and my little brother — so I have mentored my entire life, and it’s always been a really important part of my life. The glass shatterer is in the same category as the trailblazer, in that you’re the first of some kind, and I’m proud of that.
There are two things that I’ve been involved with that have influenced the way I think about things. One is, I’ve been involved with Girls Incorporated from a very early age, when I was a young banker. I’ve been a juror for judging them for scholarships for the last couple of years, and I’m always really impressed with how important role models are to them. It’s really influenced the way I think a lot about the whole issue of getting more women of different races — and particularly Black women — into the industry. “If I can see it, I can be it,” is so critical.
The second is my involvement and leadership in being founder of an organization called Paradigm for Parity [a coalition of business leaders dedicated to addressing the leadership gender gap in corporate America] which was formed in 2015. It was quite revolutionary to come up with an actual plan, rather than checking a box saying “This is what you can do” but rather “If you really want to do something, you —Mr. CEO— have got to buy into it” because nothing happens if you don’t get the CEO buying into it and bringing his full management support.
One of the things that is so important in that role is not just mentorship but sponsorship, where people are willing to put their own brand and their own clout into supporting somebody else. And so, if I get complimented for shattering something or trying to make a difference, I feel it’s a progression from something I’ve always done.
One of the reasons that I feel so strongly about ULI is because it’s an interdisciplinary that involves women from all aspects of the real estate industry. And the Women’s Leadership Initiative of ULI has done a really great job, particularly on the local levels. I think we realized that we weren’t going to really expand the numbers without making dramatic increases at the local level, and we’ve gone from somewhere around 15 percent to well over 30 percent women [at ULI]. It’s not anywhere near parity, and it’s still a white male-dominated industry, but ULI is more than 30 percent women and we’re getting much closer to parity in leadership levels.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to a woman considering entering the real estate industry today?
If somebody wants to be in real estate development, I think they have to understand that you have to have command and management of an incredible amount of detail, but it is absolutely the kiss of death if you lose the forest for the trees. My other favorite quote in the world, by Steve Case, is “A vision without the ability to execute it is probably a hallucination.” The other word we always talk about is grit. The most single most important thing that an employer looks for today is grit, and hunger, and so never let your boss ask you: “Was such-and-such done?”