MNCAR Focus/Twin Cities women help blaze trail for females in male-dominated commercial...

Twin Cities women help blaze trail for females in male-dominated commercial real estate industry

Written by Liz Wolf


When Helen Brooks set out to start a career in commercial real estate in the 1960s, no Twin Cities firms would hire her. There were just no females in the business at the time, and firms either told her they just didn’t hire women or she lacked experience. She didn’t give up and kept knocking on doors.


“I absolutely didn’t give it another thought that there weren’t other women in the business,” Brooks says. “You just do.”


She eventually was hired as a sales representative at Premier Realty in St. Louis Park. Four years later – in 1969 -- she launched her own company called Brokers’ Exchange where she specialized in site selection for national restaurant chains including White Castle, Burger King and McDonald’s.


She was making a reputable name for herself in the business, and in 2001 was approached by Minneapolis-based Towle Real Estate Co. (now the Minneapolis office of Cassidy Turley) to work for them. She signed on and focused on the not-so-glamorous business of leasing and selling industrial real estate.


“I didn’t care about getting my shoes dirty,” Brooks says. “Literally, the soap factory that Pillsbury had for sale had water all over the floor and we had to wear boots to get in. I loved that. I enjoyed doing that kind of a service for a company.”


Building credibility is key


Brooks was successfully developing a client base and wanted to continue building her creditability in the industry, so she joined the highly regarded, but very male-dominated Society of Industrial and Office Realtors (SIOR). She became only the third female industrial broker nationally to obtain an industry designation from SIOR.


Getting a designation in your practice, Brooks says, is one of the most important things anyone can do for their career. She says her SIOR designation gave her credibility and a national reputation.


“It’s so important to be validated or certified by your profession,” Brooks explains. “You can either be an accountant or CPA, for example. Without the accreditation, not a lot of people will believe you’re good at it. So I do believe in getting whatever education or degrees and designations you can.”


Brooks later served as president of the SIOR Mid-Continent Chapter and the SIOR district vice president. She has been involved in many other professional associations and assumed leadership roles in NAIOP, the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors and Women in Real Estate.


“My attitude was you can’t fix it from outside,” she says, “so I did all kinds of committee work.”


Brooks has received numerous awards throughout the years, including NAIOP’s President Award for distinguished service to the real estate industry. This fall, Brooks, 84, was inducted into the Minnesota Real Estate Hall of Fame by The Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of St. Thomas Opus College Of Business.


Brooks, who worked for Towle for 26 years before retiring in 2003, says she never set out to be a pioneer for women in the industry, but it has been rewarding.


“It feels wonderful when these young women come up and tell me that I helped get them into the fold,” she says. “”But the profession itself was rewarding. It was like match-making to be able to put people into the proper locations.”


Narrowing the gender gap


While women like Brooks have helped narrow the gender gap and more women are in the business today and gaining success, many agree the industry still has a ways to go, especially when it comes to women in top-management level positions.


Between 2005 and 2010, the number of female commercial real estate professionals nationally increased to 43 percent from 36 percent, according to a survey by CREW Network. However, only 9 percent of females responding to the survey said they held roles of “president, chief executive, chief financial officer or chief operating officer,” while 22 percent of males held those positions. Also, 11 percent of the women CREW surveyed were at the $250,000-plus compensation level compared with 31 percent of men.


While there remains work to be done, Kaye Rakow is impressed with the progress women have made. She started in the business at the local office of Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services in 1984. Like Brooks, she sold and leased industrial property. Most recently, Rakow has served as director of public policy for NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association and is stepping down at the end of the year after 13 years in that role.


“When you go to a NAIOP meeting now,” Rakow says, “you see a lot more female faces than you did in the past. I was at a NAIOP meeting a couple of weeks ago for new members… and there was a group of young women there that was so impressive; they’re smart. There are some really good women coming into the business and there are more of them.”


Rakow also points out that there are women like Jean Kane who have risen to the top ranks. Kane is CEO of Welsh and Colliers International | Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the incoming 2014 chairman for NAIOP National. Kane made history by becoming the first woman to serve on NAIOP’s National Executive Committee as its vice chair for education.


A change in culture


These are welcome changes for Rakow, who remembers when there were no other female brokers in the Coldwell Banker office where she worked in the mid-1980s.


“Clearly, having a woman in the office was a change in the culture,” she says. “I was very aware that they had to change some things as a result of me being there, and they were all so incredibly great and accepted me in. But I noticed that one of the ways you get accepted is you go out and find business. You bring the business in and then you become part of the groupI just knocked on doors and walked up and down industrial parks, and slowly but surely, people gave me a chance.”


Eva Stevens, executive vice president of asset management for Bloomington-based United Properties, is another pioneer in the business. Stevens, 58, is a member of the United Properties Executive Team – in fact, she’s the first and only woman on that team -- and a member of the Marquette Real Estate Group President’s Council. 


Stevens has been in the real estate business for 30 years. Out of college, she worked as a public accountant for Coopers & Lybrand where she got her first taste of real estate. There she was on the real estate team that built the financial model that supported the bond sale for the Metrodome.


After working for Northco and Colonnade Properties LLC, Stevens joined United Properties as a vice president of asset management in 2001 and worked her way up the ranks. Today her primary responsibility is asset management of United Properties’ owned portfolio. She supervises and directs asset managers, lease underwriting and capital investment for this portfolio.


“I have built my career around problem solving,” she says. “The numbers tell me a story. I love working with the team, seeing the light bulb go on and figuring out an execution plan and then marching forward.”


Stevens is a member of NAIOP, currently serving on the NAIOP Minnesota Education Committee. She began a term on the National Board in 2012 and will become vice chair of the Executive Committee on Jan. 1, 2014.


Stevens’ advice for women considering the business is, “There’s not a role in commercial real estate that isn’t worth your time having. Try on brokerage and being an analyst and a property manager. Just keep educating yourself and attending courses and being visible and keeping yourself sharp and knowledgeable about the industry itself. And be willing to work hard.”