Trammell Crow’s Adam Weers Talks DEI in Development
Trammell Crow Company’s Adam Weers was once a boxer for a time. Today, he applies some of the same drive and focus he once summoned in the ring to make the firm’s development business pack a similar one-two punch — more important than ever in a rapidly changing market environment.
Founded in 1948, TCC has since developed or acquired a portfolio of roughly 2,900 buildings valued at $75 billion, employing 700 professionals across 26 cities in the U.S. and Europe.
Weers joined the company 17 years ago, and was named chief operating officer in April 2021. His new role is a culmination of two critical business components he’s gravitated toward since joining the firm: development and mentorship/recruiting. As head of the firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) steering committee, Weers is focused not only on increasing diversity within TCC’s own ranks but also on forming partnerships with other like-minded, DEI-focused organizations to effect real change.
Commercial Observer caught up with Weers last month to find out how he’s settled in to the new role, and what’s the equivalent of taking the championship belt in CRE.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Commercial Observer: Where did you grow up?
Adam Weers: I grew up just south of Seattle in Renton [Wash.] and then did my undergrad at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where I was an accounting major. I actually started my career in public accounting, not in real estate. I worked for Deloitte in Atlanta in audit for four years, went to Harvard Business School [HBS] and that’s where I made my Trammell Crow connection.
How did it come about?
A bunch of Trammell Crow Company [TCC] people were on campus, recruiting at HBS, and I was just enamored by the idea of commercial real estate. I ended up doing a field study during my last semester at HBS with the D.C. office of TCC, researching new market tax credits, and when I started my career here that was also part of my role, but I was also working on development in and around the mid-Atlantic region.
An interesting fact about the start of my career is that I didn’t really know that commercial real estate was an option for me until I got into the business when I was 27 years old. That has always stuck with me and, when you look at our DEI platform today, I’m particularly proud of the fact that we’re able to expand it to partnerships with organizations that are focused on the idea of increasing the pipeline of diverse talent in our industry, because I’m a poster child in a way.
How was that experience for you, in terms of realizing it was indeed a career option?
A big part of what made it all happen is the company itself has a very welcoming culture to people who don’t come from real estate backgrounds. There’s a long history within TCC of finding people who are in other industries and transition into real estate. From my perspective, it was both exciting and scary. It was exciting because there are a lot of things about development that I really liked — and I’m still here 17 years later— but scary because I didn’t have a real estate background, and there were some basic things that were just totally foreign to me, like the entire construction process.
I came in as someone who didn’t know much, and was asking all kinds of questions, sitting in on meetings and, to be honest, not adding a whole lot of value, just learning. The firm has always been completely comfortable with that, and so I keep that front of mind now as we do our recruiting process. We are cognizant of casting a wider net, and recruiting the best and brightest no matter where they are — including people who don’t necessarily have a real estate background, but we think might be great.
How far do you think we’ve come these past 17 years, in terms of creating an environment where women and minorities feel more inclined to pursue a career in real estate?
There’s definitely been a lot of progress, and there’s definitely a way to go. We re-
established our DEI initiatives in 2011, so we’ve spent a long time thinking about this and working on it. We’ve done some things, realized that they didn’t work and then had to get better.
We think about it as two sides of a coin today. One side is attraction — how do we recruit diverse talent — and the other side is retention for the diverse professionals that we brought into the firm and making TCC an inclusive place where people want to stay and can thrive. As an industry, we just have to keep getting better. That means casting a wider net, but then there’s a whole other layer, which is the importance of having more diverse voices in the leadership ranks. That’s the part of this journey that really is a journey.
For the majority of the time, our DEI efforts have been internally-facing, but there was a line in the sand that divided things into chapter one and chapter two for us, and that was the murder of George Floyd. We completely changed our view of what our DEI initiatives are all about, and we added on an externally-
So, if you look at our DEI platform today, all of the internal work is still there, but we also have a focus on the impact we have on the communities in which we operate, how we have an impact on the industry that we are in from a DEI perspective, and how we assume and maintain a leadership role in conversations about DEI. That is really important, because it’s not just the demographics and the makeup of the firms in our industry; it’s also about the work that we’re doing and how we’re truly operationalizing our commitment to DEI.
But I will tell you, what’s fascinating to me, and really exciting, is that we are also now hearing a lot of interest from our occupier and capital partner clients on this topic, and we can show up to a conversation with our partners and say, “Hey, by the way, this is something that we are doing. Would you like to do it with us?” and bring them in.
In June, TCC made a $500,000 contribution to The Toigo Foundation to support its efforts to promote the recruitment and retention of minority talent within real estate. Why was that important?
Within our overall DEI platform, we break ourselves into three different groups: company, community and industry. And, within the industry team, our focus is on forming partnerships with other like-minded organizations throughout the commercial real estate industry who are doing really good work on the DEI front, including Project Destined and Urban Land Institute. Travis Melvin — a senior associate here in D.C. —is a Toigo alum and offered up Toigo as a potential partner. It’s a really powerful platform in helping make sure that diverse talent gets into top business schools, and then is placed in careers in finance and real estate.
We then also created a program that we call TCC Scholars. It is a combination of a summer internship and a scholarship component. So, we are able to both support the organization and also enhance our own diversity recruiting efforts. It’s very exciting, and something that we’re thinking about replicating with other organizations.
What’s been the reception to this partnership, now that you’ve launched it?
Fantastic. I couldn’t be more proud of the level of excitement with the Toigo partnership but, honestly, with all of our partnerships that my TCC teammates are involved in. The goal is to find the organizations that are doing the work, and help to amplify them and help them do more work, but also connect our TCC teammates all across the country to that work.
[Through this] we’re finding ways to get access to talent earlier. I probably shouldn’t give this away, but this is a crop of new talent coming into the business; Hines hasn’t met them yet, Prologis doesn’t know that they’re out there yet, and we’re spending time with them, helping them understand who we are, and also recruiting. I actually think this is a really smart business plan. We are copying an existing model that Goldman Sachs uses, but a lot of real estate folks don’t use.
Which part of TCC’s business did you gravitate toward in the early years?
If you look at my track record from a development project standpoint, you’d see industrial, multifamily apartment, condo, retail, health care, all these different things. Then, over the years, almost organically, I found myself raising my hand for things that aren’t actually tied to the development projects but are, in a funny way, very central to the role that I have today. Greg Ames — who now runs our L.A. business unit — and I created this program that we call TC Connections in 2012, so I helped work on and shape and stand up a mentoring program that we still have in place today. Then, when we re-established our DEI initiative in 2011, I raised my hand again. I’m still in a development role, but I’m also working on recruiting and mentorship.
I wasn’t smart enough to see this beforehand [laughs] but when this [COO role] opportunity came up and my predecessor was retiring it made sense for me. Other people saw it, I didn’t, but it was really helpful for me to think about it with the realization I’ve actually been doing some of this work all along.
You joined TCC in 2005 and the world fell apart in 2008. How was that experience for you?
The Great Financial Crisis [GFC] was an interesting ride for sure. On the other side of it, it was a real advantage to have that come early in my career, although it certainly didn’t feel good at the time because I started two and a half years before the bottom fell out. Riding that out was incredibly important and impactful in teaching me what it means to do sound development, and to be more responsible in how we underwrite and choose the projects that we work on.
There were also lessons that certain projects taught me because we went through a point in the cycle where some of our projects did not go well at all. Not only did they not go to plan or pro forma, there were some instances where we didn’t get our money back. That taught me a lot about the importance of the partnerships that we have.
I’d encapsulate a lot of my GFC experience in a project called the Gateway Grand, which is a luxury condo building in Ocean City [Md.]. Really big, wonderful project. We delivered it in July of 2008 — and we’re talking 196 luxury oceanfront condos— two months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was a rough ride and it didn’t take very long before we realized we weren’t going to get our money back. But we spent years and a tremendous amount of effort working to make sure our investment partner got their money back. They didn’t make much profit, if any, but they got their money back. That lesson was really important because if you pull up the top 10 list of our most frequent repeat capital partners today that group is still in there.
How did the COVID-aggravated market disruption compare?
Well, during COVID I had the unique experience of working on what was at the time the largest remaining retail project in our portfolio: The Shops at Dakota Crossing — a 40,000-square-foot power center in northeast D.C. We sold it earlier this year, so we no longer own it, but that experience was pretty wild, and absolutely an exercise in partnership, because we went through this very bizarre time where tenants couldn’t pay rent and nobody knew what was happening, so the only way we were going to survive was if everybody overcommunicated and took a partnership approach. It was super stressful, but we made it through and didn’t lose a single tenant. And, if you look at that asset today, you would never know that it went through the pain and anguish that we went through in 2020 with it.
There were some interesting parallels between COVID and the GFC, but the key difference is the market disruption just didn’t last as long. And, if you think about our overall portfolio in 2020, TCC as a company had a phenomenal year that was fueled by our industrial business, which was like rocket fuel. All of a sudden you couldn’t build warehouses fast enough. It was a wild ride.
With a recession likely around the corner, how is TCC positioned to withstand what’s ahead?
We have the benefit of having a really strong platform; we have a diversified portfolio with a track record of success, and our pipeline right now comprises industrial, multifamily and office that is heavily weighted toward life sciences. The second part is there was a strategic decision made after the GFC to slim down the markets we were focused on to those that we really believe in, and make sure that we build a level of expertise in those markets that makes us the best of the best wherever we decide that we’re going to play.
In terms of the next couple of years, are there any goals you’re setting for yourself or the company?
From a platform standpoint, our primary goals are to continue to focus on the main product types that I was just talking about — industrial, multifamily, the office and life sciences. I do think we are still interested in growth, despite the fact that we’re going into a different market. We’re still examining markets that we’re not in today, considering growing into new geographic places and analyzing the potential for new product types. We’re thinking about growth in a responsible way, but we have the ability, we have the strong foundation, and we also have the resources through our parent company.
Personally, one of my hopes and goals for the next few years for our DEI platform is to just continue the momentum that we’ve built in a really fascinating way in the last two years, with this idea of translating our commitment and our talk into action. I think we’re just getting started and there’s a lot more we can do, so that’s an area I’m thinking about over the next few years.
To touch on something you mentioned before, how do we get to the point where we see more women and minorities in senior leadership positions within commercial real estate?
I think it comes down to things like what you and I are doing here today. I think we need to shine a light on those of us who are here, because there aren’t a lot of us, but those who are need to get out there [in the public eye]. I think that’s a big part of it.
I don’t know if you know Myers Briggs, but I’m an INTJ [the Architect: Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking and Judging] . So, I don’t innately want to be up front or on the stage, but I had to learn to be. I’ve had people who have told me very clearly that it’s important for me to be out in the public eye so that other people can see that I am an example, and that achieving that role is absolutely possible. And so I’m willing to do it because I know it’s really important. Even though, if you gave me the choice, I would probably choose not to [laughs].
Then, I think it’s a case of continuing to hold people accountable for building the pipeline, continuing to do the recruiting and the retention work that needs to be done in our organizations, and saying “OK, this might take time, but you need to stay committed.” Because if you stay committed over time, it will change; but if you don’t stay committed over time it’s never going to change. I think we’re all getting a little better but we can still improve in a lot of areas. And when you see impact reports and more of us being willing to share information, I think that will be a really good sign because now we can start to measure all this to see how everybody is making progress. And, if there are people who aren’t as committed, if their clients tell them this is important, if their tenants tell them this is important, and if their capital partners say this is important stuff ? It’s going to happen.
You were a boxer in the past. Tell us about that.
I was an amateur boxer for several years and competed in a number of national tournaments, including the Ringside World Championships in 2016 and 2017. I haven’t competed since 2017, which is something my wife is very happy about; I don’t have much time for it these days, unfortunately. Between my soon-to-be 11-month-old son, who keeps my wife and I very busy, and work, it’s hard to find time to do anything other than hit the heavy bag hanging on my back patio. I definitely miss it, but it was a fun chapter in my life and one that I look back on fondly.
Fun fact: I also spent a few years as the chairman of the D.C. Combat Sports Commission, which was a great experience and a fantastic way to stay connected to the sport after my competition days were over.
Are there any commonalities between CRE and the boxing ring?
There are many parallels between boxing and life, and certainly some commonalities with today’s commercial real estate environment. I can think of several traits to describe the current CRE landscape — chaotic, uncertain, dynamic— that are directly applicable to the environment inside the ring.
I also see parallels between the two worlds in the fact that there are basic, foundational principles that you can rely on as strategies to succeed and thrive. In real estate, that includes things like site location, forward-thinking design/planning, and underlying demand drivers of your building occupants. In boxing, I would equate that to things like footwork, hand position, vision, conditioning and breath work. All of these things are pretty basic in and of themselves, but if you are disciplined and dedicated enough to stay focused and master them, you’ll win a lot of fights.