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Does Leadership Need a Gender?

When the nation faces a crisis involving commercial real estate, powerful women respond.

Isn't it about time to disregard gender in selecting commercial real estate leaders? Women at the highest reaches of their professions within the industry think so, including many on NREI's list of 10 Outstanding Women for 2010.

Gender is beside the point for those women who not only guided their companies through the recent devastating recession, but also provided core services that enabled countless other firms to survive and persevere.

These are not peripheral roles. In fact, some executives worked with the U.S. government as it sought to restore liquidity to a market parched by the credit crisis, when lenders all but stopped dispensing loans in the aftermath of the subprime meltdown.

Annemarie DiCola, chief executive officer of Trepp LLC, a New York-based provider of commercial mortgage analysis, worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to monitor the Fed's Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) program designed to stimulate the flow of credit.

“What Trepp did through this incredibly volatile period was to seek out all the ways that we could be part of the solution,” says DiCola. “We did feel that as a result of [the TALF] program, bond spreads came in, bond prices stabilized, lending got kick started and investment in commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) got kick started again.”

As the recession raged throughout the industry, companies sent longtime employees packing, developers abandoned their backhoes and cranes, and multi-generational firms closed their doors. “This recession surprised so many professionals with its speed and ferocity. As a result we've just discerned a renewed emphasis on risk management,” asserts DiCola.

Information culled from the company's immense database now alerts investors and lenders across the country to the health of the commercial finance sector. For instance, Trepp recently spread the word that the once-dormant CMBS market is on track to reach $10 billion in U.S. issuance this year, says DiCola.

Under her guidance, Trepp is making available data on the commercial real estate exposure held by banks across the nation. Commercial real estate loan defaults have played a role in a growing number of bank failures reported by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Many investors rely on Trepp's information for insight into the lending industry.

So, the answer is no, gender is not an issue as DiCola positions Trepp to anticipate the market's evolving informational needs and find a way to serve them. “I just don't think it's relevant,” she says. And even in an industry long dominated by men, many other female achievers agree, as they rise to the top.

A $1.5 billion comeback

As dealmaking came to a near halt when the lending stopped during the credit crisis, brokers faltered on the front lines. “Transactions were almost shut off. It was harder to be a broker than just about any other position in commercial real estate,” says Mary Ann King, president of Moran & Co., a Chicago-based apartment broker. Her office is in Irvine, Calif.

“But we kept our team together. We closed a small number of deals, enough to get by.” Now multifamily sales are rebounding, she says. “I feel like we're standing on the other side of the precipice saying, ‘We made it.’”

Indeed. The firm she built with owner Tom Moran is on track to close $1.5 billion in apartment sales this year. She estimates the institutional apartment market amounts to $15 billion in annual sales. “So I may have a 10% market share.”

That's not all she's achieved. King was the first woman chair of the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), an apartment advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. One of her efforts has been to expand opportunities for affordable housing. “I was the first woman chair of NMHC at the same time when the Mortgage Bankers Association had their first woman chair and the Urban Land Institute had its first woman chair. This was the first generation of women that had gotten old enough to be in senior leadership positions.”

Although she has not been the chair since 2007, King is involved with the NMHC's effort to push for a change in the federal policy favoring home ownership over apartment dwelling. “Should we be encouraging everyone to own a home, or in fact did we learn the hard way that maybe everyone wasn't supposed to be a home owner?”

King is involved in another fundamental issue as NMHC develops principles for reforming the government- sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The agencies were pillars in supporting multifamily lending and guarantee more than half of the nation's mortgage market.

In an extraordinary move, the federal government placed Fannie and Freddie in conservatorship of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in 2008, after tallying losses estimated at $400 billion. Many apartment owners view Fannie and Freddie as key sources of financing support, however, and want them or a substitute to provide the same level of support.

Handling financial crises

Suzanne Amaducci-Adams, a partner with the Miami-based law firm Bilzin Sumberg, stepped in to perform financial triage amid the carnage of the credit crisis. But she is no stranger to tackling complex distress cases.

When Millennium Partners defaulted on a $90 million loan for the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco with the hope of restructuring the loan, it nearly lost the hotel. “It had already gone into foreclosure. It was on the eve of the foreclosure sale when the resolution occurred,” says Amaducci-Adams.

“It was a very, very complicated mixed-use structure which was a hotel, an office, a retail center, a parking garage.” It took a year to resolve the issues, says Amaducci-Adams. The workout required both face-to-face meetings among the parties and hundreds of phone calls.

But the effort paid off. “The loan was able to be successfully restructured. The borrower had a new joint-venture partner. At the end of the day everyone seemed very happy with the outcome. And that was a satisfying moment.”

For Amaducci-Adams, as with other top achievers, being female in the commercial real estate industry has not proved a hindrance. “I proceed as if it's irrelevant, and I hope that everyone else proceeds the same way. It comes down to the individual, how savvy the individual is, how good they are and how they need to just be recognized for their skills, so I try to be blind to gender.”

Her words are echoed by Trepp's DiCola, when it comes to the concept of gender irrelevance. “It's really the hoped-for goal. We're certainly getting closer. I don't dwell on my gender — I've never let it stop me.”

Denise Kalette is Managing Editor

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