Lessons Learned on the Front Line from Iconic Women in Real Estate

By Betsy Kim

Fordham Real Estate Institute launched the annual “She Builds” panel, where women leaders opened up about their experiences and careers.

“What does it mean to be in global business today in the 21st century?” moderator MaryAnne Gilmartin, the CEO at L&L MAG and former CEO of Forest City Ratner, asked the speakers at a Fordham Real Estate Institute panel. The discussion was titled “Lessons Learned on the Front Line from Iconic Women in Real Estate.”

“It’s OK to be way over your skis. Maybe stay away from the cliffs but it’s OK to be over your skis,” said Kathleen Donovan, managing director, real estate finance group at UBS. “If you’re not leaning in or leaning over, it’s just boring, and you’re just not going to be on the hill. You’re going to be staying plateaued.”

In 2001, UBS sent Donovan to London to start European CMBS operations. She had ample experience in underwriting lending but not with origination. In Europe, the different countries each had different laws and regulations. “It literally felt like I was going to 12 or 14 different jobs,” said Donovan.

She was pounding the pavement and originating. As a single woman, she met “with stodgy 50-year-old, extremely wealthy developers, who had their views,” she said. “It was a huge wake-up call. I went in being terrified.”

However, after two years, she raised $1.5 billion. Donovan said, by all accounts, without any structure or experience, she should have failed. “However, I loved going over there, starting a business having no idea what I was doing and coming back successful,” she said. “You have those experiences and you take them with you for the rest of your life.”

Nikki Field, senior global real estate advisor and associate broker at Sotheby’s, said the fall of Lehman stunned everyone in the industry. When 2008 hit, local business in the residential market vanished. “I traveled extensively over the years finding, hooking and bringing buyers to New York and other areas in the country,” she said.

As foreign investors were making money in US real estate, they wanted to do more. Field focused on wealth advisors, partnering with bankers in New York and their peers in Asia. When her team met with these advisors, they would have clients waiting in conference rooms to see what opportunities in the US were available.

Instead of seeing turmoil in the loss of jobs, Field saw an opportunity to specialize as experts in Asia and to set up an Asia desk in New York.

Gilmartin then asked about transitions such as starting businesses and navigating between careers.

Christina A. Smyth, the owner of Smyth Law P.C., was a partner in a law firm. But she started her own firm. Owners for whom she had served as the point person on all of their buildings brought their business when she opened her doors on Feb 1, 2010. She said she has never regretted her decision.

Joan Sapinsley formerly was the head of capital markets and portfolio manager, CMBS, at Resource Real Estate Funding. Throughout her career, she had experienced job losses three times, roughly once a decade.

The first time, Sapinsley was in her 30s and petrified because she had small children, and provided half of their support. At the time, she did not have much of a network. She had worked at the same job for years. However, the CEO of her company called the CEO of a large, stable pension fund which helped get her foot in the door.

Sapinsley worked at that company for 15 years. She had served on the board of a trade organization for many years and by then had established a large network in the CMBS field. “When you have a billion dollars to invest every year, everyone is your friend,” she said.

However, the world became more competitive. ”The pension fund took out the level above me and then they started coming for my level. The atmosphere is getting very intense and toxic. Morale is low,” she said. “You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been there.”

But Sapinsley worried thinking, “Nobody is going to hire a 50-year-old woman.” However, she found a small mortgage REIT that had recently gone public. The CEO was young and wanted to be in the CMBS business. “He needed somebody with gray hair, experience and contacts. So it was sort of the perfect fit. It was a little bit serendipitous and a little bit working the network. It was wonderful,” she said.

Ten years later the CEO decided to sell the company. The new managers brought their own people and their way of operations. Several of the portfolio managers including Sapinsley left. She is still tapping into her experiences and networks.

“Thank you because the story that you told is so rich in life experience and honesty that you can’t get very often in a room like this,” said  Gilmartin. “So, I just want to say, ‘Wow!’ and I’m betting on you.”