Janet Woods Talks TAMI, Diversity and Her New Role at Savills

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The winds are changing at Savills, and riding the eastern breeze is Janet Woods.

Woods recently took on a newly created role as president of the brokerage’s Eastern United States operations — covering the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Central U.S. It’s a big gig, but one Woods steps into after three years of overseeing 372 staffers as Savills’ Northeast region lead and a three-decade career in commercial real estate that includes stints at JLL and Stan Johnson Company.

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Woods’ promotion, alongside that of Patrick McGrath, who will serve as president of the West, follows something of a shakeup at Savills. The firm scooped up a handful of brokers from competing firms like Avison Young and JLL, and recently scored Avison Young heavy-hitters Mitti Liebersohn and Arthur Mirante.

Savills plans to only get bigger, Woods told Commercial Observer a week after Savills announced her promotion internally in late November. Woods hopes to hire the “best in the industry,” even as other brokerages cut down on their headcounts in the face of a potential economic recession.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Commercial Observer: You worked for a lot of companies, including JLL, Cassidy Turley and Stan Johnson Company to name a few. How did you get into commercial real estate?

Janet Woods: I happened to know somebody who was in the business who ended up introducing me to Cushman & Wakefield right when I graduated from college. I started as a market researcher, which was basically the CoStar of Cushman way back before CoStar became a thing. We would track space across the city, and we would help the brokers with surveys and identifying opportunities for their clients. The person that introduced me to Cushman actually was Darcy Stacom, and several months down the road she actually took me on to her team and really taught me the ropes by participating as a junior broker on her team for several years. That was my first experience. 

I found myself engaging in real estate in a variety of different ways. I landed at the Staubach Company and worked with a friend of mine previously from Cushman & Wakefield, Peter Hennessy, who was a very flexible and helpful leader as I started my family and continued to have children. From there, JLL purchased Staubach, and I spent several more years focused on being a producer and nurturing my family and growing my family. And, from there, I went to Cassidy Turley for a year, where Peter was the president of the tri-state. And the timing was such that Cushman merged with DTZ [which bought Cassidy Turley]. 

So, I found myself at a very large company, again, and I was really interested to find the culture and the nurturing environment like Staubach had, so I left Cushman before the merger was complete, and went to a small company called Stan Johnson. 

CRE is a very male-dominated field. What was it like coming up in the industry as a woman? What is it like now, having risen to the top?

We still have a ways to go, of course. I’d love to see more women in the industry. I’ve been so fortunate having Darcy as my first mentor, and really having mentors is critical to success in this industry. She was very kind and patient with me, and stuck with me as I learned the business and grew as a professional. 

Peter Hennessy was a great mentor. He provided a lot of flexibility when I had a family, and that takes a lot of time, dedication and support from the people that you work with. Of course, now I’ve got Mitch Rudin and David Lipson, who have been incredibly supportive of my career, but it’s hard. It’s a challenge constantly for women and people of color to excel, stay in the industry, and stick with it because it does take a certain set of skills and support from behind in order to be successful.

Do you feel like you’re in a position to make CRE more diverse?

Absolutely. When I started in the industry, there were very few women, let alone successful women. Darcy]took a chance on me and guided me. There hasn’t been a tremendous increase in the number of women in brokerage firms yet [but] I think there’s an expectation for change right now. And there are a lot more women at the table, certainly for our clients, and a lot more people of color. So we want to make sure that we’re advancing at the same rate and giving the same opportunities to people. I am excited to help effectuate change. 

We’ve already seen some great changes within Savills through the junior broker development program and we’ve brought on some amazing people across the firm, including Marisha Clinton, who heads our Northeast research, and we recently completed a deal with Shawna Menifee. Savills entered into a strategic alliance with Integrated Partners, a certified minority- and
women-owned business and a commercial real estate services firm founded and led by Shawna. 

Do you think CRE as an industry is more focused on diversity than in the past or has it waned?

This is our primary focus for me. It’s a primary focus for leadership. I have not seen it wane. I hope it hasn’t. It’s important for this to continue and for the face of the industry to continue to evolve and change.

You’ve been really involved in Savills’ Junior Broker Development Program. How is it going these days?

This is really Mitch Rudin’s idea and initiative, and he’s been really an amazing mentor to me and to the program. He had this idea of bringing 10 to 15 people across the nation, either out of school or from within Savills, to this program, which is 15 months long. All the participants are on salary, which is a big change from what we’ve seen typically in the industry. A lot of the juniors that are coming out of college and into real estate companies are on a draw. It’s hard for people to feel comfortable and to excel when they know that they’re basically paying themselves back first before really becoming successful brokers. 

We’re continuing it into its third year, and we’re very excited by the diversity of the program. It’s 90 percent diverse, and the retention rate has been incredibly high [about 80 percent] compared to bringing juniors in from school without the benefit of going through the program. We’ve had great success with it. We’re thrilled that it’s continuing and that Savills has continued to financially support it and bring a lot of incredibly talented people to the company.

The market has been so tough on younger brokers, and a few other large companies such as CBRE and JLL have let people go this year. Has that been the case at Savills? Have you seen younger brokers drop off? How are you feeling about the broader office market right now? 

It’s no secret that economic uncertainty is in the forecast here. It will present challenges for any business, and certainly it’s presented some challenges for the real estate industry. But, at Savills, we try to look at economic uncertainty as an opportunity for us to thrive, while also responsibly managing the risks to our institution and advising our clients on the opportunities and risks to theirs. During the pandemic, we were really the only major real estate firm to not resort to a program of headcount reduction. We’re very proud of that. We’ve made other sacrifices in order to make sure that we did not have a reduction in staff. We actually increased our headcount. 

As we enter a potentially more difficult economic climate, I think we’ll continue to invest carefully but continue to grow, and really make sure that we’re still hitting on our long-term strategic priorities.

Your new role as president of the East covers the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Central regions. Have you noticed a difference in the office market based on region, or is it sort of the same story with the return to office?

Across the board, we’re having some challenging impacts. It’s also a very exciting time to be a tenant. It’s the first time I’ve seen that every tenant seems to have an importance and they’re sought after. In the past, it’s been a lot about chasing lease expirations for many brokers in the industry — now it’s about building very strong relationships and understanding tenants’ needs and bringing the full breadth of the resources that we have at Savills to each conversation. A tenant rep-focused firm like ours can really have those conversations in a unique way. 

Speaking of tenants taking deals, do you have any insight on what potential tenant class could replace the technology, advertising, media and information (TAMI) tenants now that tech has seen a little bit more turbulence in recent months?

I’m not sure I have to have my finger on the pulse of every emerging kind of class, but there certainly are areas of growth that we could see take over for the lag on the TAMI sector. Between health care and the professional services industries, we’ve seen a lot of activity with those two industries, and we will continue to see additional deals done in that regard.

Do you think there’s going to be more of an emphasis on technology in brokering? Is that a strong focus at Savills?

Absolutely. We’re definitely investigating and creating new and advanced technology to help our clients make easier choices. 

We have a wonderful Knowledge Cubed data-management platform that is very helpful to tenants that have portfolios of real estate. It’s probably the most advanced tool I’ve seen in the industry and provides tenants with all the information on a platform that’s easy to use and visually pleasing. It’s something that has really put Savills at the forefront of the technology platform world. 

How are you staying on top of return-to-office changes? 

We’ve had our workplace team who has been aligning very well with our clients. They’re keeping their finger on the pulse of exactly how clients are reacting, and it is changing very quickly and day to day. There’s a lot of opportunity given the varied return-to-office policies for tenants out there. There’s sublease space and prebuilt space on the market, and landlord concessions are at peak levels, which is translating to lower net rents and minimal upfront capital expenditure for tenants. 

Savills has seen a lot of new faces and somewhat of a leadership shakeup with Mitti and Arthur coming over from Avison Young. What are Savills’ hiring plans?

We’ve been very fortunate. Savills is a unique place in the industry. It’s a very collaborative place where people really feel at home, and to a certain extent it separates itself from the rest of the industry. We attract people like Mitti and Arthur and are very fortunate to have done so. I couldn’t be more excited about the new leadership roles for David Goldstein and Mitti. Together they bring vision, intelligence, experience and warmth to our employees and their clients. 

We’re continuing to talk to a lot of additional recruits, and we’re excited because we do have this unique offering at Savills. We feel that we’re going to be creating a company that really has a vision for the community and a connection that really feels unique and at home.

What’s David’s new role?

David, as president of the tri-state area, is going to work with the executive team and local leadership to align the firm’s strategy and vision for the region. Both he and Mitti will work closely with key stakeholders and producers to enhance our capabilities and to add to our clients’ success. Mitti comes as an additional element of leadership, having been the president and managing director at Avison Young’s New York office. He doubled the size of that office during his tenure, so we’re excited to have his strategic vision.

Both Mitti and David know a lot of people. They’re very well respected in the industry. Their reputation, their brokerage skill set and their vision for the New York tri-state for Savills should be a big attraction for many junior, mid- and senior-level brokers.

Do you have like a certain number of people you’re looking to hire? Are you actively hiring?

I don’t think we necessarily have a target. For my role as president of the East, I’m going to work side by side with my counterpart Patrick McGrath to develop strategy, and continue to enhance the culture. We’re going to talk through recruiting the industry’s best and just look to achieve our financial and growth objectives that we set out for the region for the company.

Given the current market, do you think there’s going to be consolidation of brokerage firms? Is Savills considering any acquisitions?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some discussions happening out there. I can’t say that Savills is involved in any of those discussions, but it wouldn’t be surprising today if those discussions were occurring. 

What’s your strategy for the D.C. region, and what trends are you noticing there?

We’ll look to grow that region as appropriate. Like other regions, we’re going to do a deep dive and an analysis on what’s needed. We continue to see great success coming out of there because we have some very mature and experienced brokers in that particular region.

Turning back to New York, how are you feeling about the office market looking toward 2023?

Well, as with prior downturns, we have seen, especially in New York City, the resiliency of the office. Be it 9/11 in 2001, when people thought no one would occupy high floors in skyscrapers, after the end of the financial crisis and the Great Recession in 2009, after the end of the debt crisis of the 2010s, etc. Each and every time we came out of the down cycle better and stronger. 

Landlords remain aggressive, more competitive space options are available on the market, and tenants should be excited to get the best deal for the best space that suits their needs. I think there’s opportunities right now. It is an exciting time to be a tenant.

Do you have any plans to shake things up?

To be determined. Patrick McGrath and I will work very closely with the market leaders and business line leaders to talk through that and understand what’s on the horizon for Savills. We tread carefully. We want to make sure that whatever decisions or changes we make for the company that it’s a unified approach and the best way forward for the company.