Sales  ·  Commercial

Where Are the Women in Investment Sales?

Other areas of the industry have diversified in recent years — not so the field of trading buildings and sites

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Women in commercial real estate, especially in New York, have made great strides, but in one niche of the industry they are in danger of falling further behind.

Investment sales brokerage in the New York market — the brokers who arrange the transfer of ownership of some of the world’s most expensive buildings, development sites and complexes such as shopping centers — remains male-dominated. With one very notable exception. 

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According to data from GreenStreet’s Real Estate Alert (REA), the top investment sales team in New York, with a 35 percent market share, is led by Darcy Stacom, chair and head of New York capital markets for CBRE (CBRE), the world’s largest commercial property brokerage. REA’s ranking survey showed that Stacom’s team processed five deals with an aggregate value of $2.95 billion. (Some of CBRE’s competitors have disputed this, and the numbers can fluctuate depending on the time period.)

Men appeared to lead all the rest of the top 10 investment sales teams in New York rankings provided to Commercial Observer on Jan. 30. 

No. 2 was Cushman & Wakefield (CWK)’s team formerly led by Doug Harmon and Adam Spies (now with Newmark (NMRK) as of February), whose five deals aggregated at $1.81 billion, or 22 percent of the market.

The time it takes to build relationships in investment sales and her numbers themselves suggest that Stacom — whose prominence in New York investment sales extends back to the 1990s — might prove hard to duplicate any time soon, for women or for men. Meanwhile, the industry at large remains male-dominated, making it also unlikely women of Stacom’s success will emerge soon. (Stacom declined to be interviewed for this article.) 

“It has changed,” said Barry Hersh, clinical professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. “It’s not as much of a patriarchy, an old boys network as it used to be. But I absolutely agree, it’s not changed nearly enough. It’s moving slowly but it is moving.”

In a September article in the “Journal of Real Estate Research,” researchers Eren Cifci, Alan Tidwell, Sandra Mortal and Vishal Gupta, all at one time professors at the University of Alabama, wrote that some 65 percent of U.S. agents in the $16 trillion industry are men “and occupy most top positions in CRE firms, with women generally in supportive and service roles.” 

“There has been progress, but very little,” said Barbi Reuter, immediate past president of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), a nationwide network involved in the industry, and chair of Cushman & Wakefield PICOR, an employee-owned brokerage in Tucson, Ariz., that’s been part of Cushman’s global network since 2008. “That may apply to various aspects of equity — from pay equity, to advancement opportunities, to satisfaction in their role in the workplace.”

It was both the Alabama study and research done by CREW that made members think “we needed to do something more intentional … to make meaningful progress,” Reuter said. The organization launched what she called “the CEO pledge” to make firms large and small commit themselves to sponsorship and mentorship to help women climb the corporate ladder.

In New York, some aspects of real estate have shown lots of progress, and some are still waiting. Examples of the former include residential brokerage teams with female superstars, including “Shark Tank” panelist Barbara Corcoran, who founded the Corcoran Group, one of the largest brokerages; Dolly Lenz of Dolly Lenz Real Estate; Diane Ramirez of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices; and Pamela Liebman, the current president and CEO of Corcoran. Commercial real estate leasing brokerage has also seen an emergence of woman all-stars such as Mary Ann Tighe, who is CEO of CBRE’s New York tri-state region; Cynthia Wasserberger, vice chairman of CBRE rival JLL’s New York leasing; and Tara Stacom, executive vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield (and Darcy Stacom’s sister).

In other areas, progress has been sluggish. 

Besides investment sales, there is the ownership of buildings themselves, which has been led by one male after another, such as Stephen Ross of Related Companies; Steven Roth, CEO of Vornado Realty; Owen Thomas, CEO of Boston Properties; Rob Speyer, CEO of Tishman Speyer Properties; and on and on.

One of the women who has developed a name for herself in investment sales in New York is Helen Hwang, who is senior executive managing director at Meridian Capital, a mortgage brokerage highly active in investment sales. Hwang is the head of Meridian’s institutional investment sales brokerage team.

Hwang has executed more than 100 transactions with a cumulative value of nearly $30 billion, according to Meridian. Her sales assignments have included Manhattan’s MetLife Building; 1 Court Square, the tallest office building in Queens; 101 Murray Street, a luxury condo site in Tribeca; and the ground lease under 75 Rockefeller Center. Meridian ranked sixth among firms doing investment sales brokerage in 2021, according to REA’s numbers, with $358 million of sales. Hwang declined to respond to questions emailed to her.

Though CBRE and Darcy Stacom also declined to comment, CBRE did issue a statement regarding Stacom’s efforts at mentoring the next generation of female real estate professionals. As “one of the first woman members of the Real Estate Board of New York’s board of governors,” she is currently co-chair of its diversity committee. There, she leads “a movement to change the composition of talent in the real estate field and create new opportunities,” according to the statement.

Stacom also co-chairs Schack’s annual women in real estate conference, and is “the undisputed favorite mentor for CBRE’s interns — a pied piper of sorts  — providing inspiration, support, hands-on learning opportunities and guidance,” according to the statement.

Investment sales brokers are the behind-the-scenes workers who make large building and site sales happen. That often means supplying potential buyers the history of a property’s revenue streams and what they can expect in the years following a purchase, often in a book that provides bidders with that information. It’s also knowing what a location is like, how close it is to mass transit, what restaurants and other retail are in the area, and what other similar buildings recently sold for, and understanding the zoning and what a building can be used for, or what the site can be used for if the decision is to take the building down. 

It’s understanding what potential buyers are looking for, and what their appetite for risk is, what capitalization rate they are looking for, which means what a building can provide a buyer in terms of income in the years following a purchase, and how that rate interacts with interest rates. It’s knowing the capital markets, what kinds of loans are available, and what they could cost a potential bidder.

“I have tremendous respect for Darcy,” said Robert Knakal, head of JLL’s New York private capital group and a leading investment sales broker himself. “She is one of the top five brokers in the country, without a doubt.”

While the very top of commercial real estate is male-dominated, a number of women have emerged as potential powerhouses. These include MaryAnne Gilmartin, who honed her skills at Forest City Ratner and was a mover behind the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, now known as Pacific Park. That project included the Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. Gilmartin is now heading up her own firm, MAG Partners, which recently acquired a 99-year ground lease at 335 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, where she intends to build housing.

While she doesn’t rule out buying commercial real estate in the future, “I can tell you that my first love in the business is to build as a developer,” Gilmartin said. 

MAG Partners describes itself on its website as “a woman-owned, urban real estate company with decades of experience developing impactful, iconic, large-scale projects.” Other projects listed on its website include 241 West 28th Street, a 480-unit multifamily project under construction, a “boutique office development” at the Hudson Square site at 122 Varick Street, and participation, along with Goldman Sachs Asset Management, MacFarlane Partners and others, in a 177-acre master-planned development in South Baltimore, Md.

There’s also Leslie Himmel, the Himmel of Himmel & Meringoff Properties, founder and managing partner along with Stephen Meringoff, who has the same title. Their partnership, which dates back to 1985, holds interests in such assets as 400 Eighth Avenue, 729 Seventh Avenue and 401 Park Avenue South.

Other women of prominence in the business include Wendy Silverstein, a former Vornado Realty Trust executive who served a stint as CEO of NYREIT, overseeing its liquidation, as well as a stretch as an executive for the coworking firm WeWork; and Andrea Olshan, CEO of Seritage Growth Properties, a real estate investment trust that was formed to sell properties that were once Sears stores, though it has become a retail manager and investment firm in it its own right. These days, Silverstein is working for Olshan, helping her liquidate Seritage assets to maximize shareholder value.

In the commercial real estate financing world, there’s Greta Guggenheim, CEO of TPG Real Estate Finance, who was the former president of Ladder Capital, another big name in real estate finance. Also there is Lisa Pendergast, who is executive director of the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council and a former executive with investment bank Jefferies LLC.

“It is changing for women who want that,” said Silverstein. “I think there are some really, really impressive young women who are, I don’t want to say ‘up and coming’ because they’re already doing super well. I don’t know if you want to call them moguls or what have you, but certainly you have women in positions of prominence at a very young age in a way that we really didn’t see as much in my generation.”

It’s also worth noting that Blackstone’s global head of real estate is Kathleen McCarthy (along with Kenneth Caplan), and the CEO of Blackstone Mortgage Trust is Katie Keenan.

“Mentoring” is a word you hear quite a bit around women who are advocating for advancement for women in CRE. One of them is Lauren Crowley Corrinet, a CBRE executive vice president and a chairwoman-to-be (next January) of CBRE’s Women’s Network in the Americas, a group of more than 6,000 CBRE staff members whose aim is to raise women’s profiles both within and beyond the organization.

“It’s not about putting women in roles just because they are women, but achieving parity based upon merit,” Corrinet said. “This is really a case where we are trying to train and raise the profile of the women at CBRE, so that they are at the top of their game. And management knows them and wants them to be in those leadership roles.”

One thing is for certain, said Hersh and others. Women are going to keep coming. Women are well represented in NYU’s Schack classes, he said.

Another academic, Patrice Derrington, director of the real estate development program at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, put it this way: “It takes time.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect Lauren Crowley Corrinet’s correct title.