Weekend Interview: Bulfinch Chief Operating Officer Pamela Yang
This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.
Pamela Yang is relatively new to commercial real estate, having spent over 20 years in the investment management industry before joining The Bulfinch Cos. as its first-ever chief operating officer in January 2021. She said her experience running investment teams has made her well-suited to working in CRE.
"I have been loving this new arena and would not look back," Yang said.
She helps guide daily operations for Bulfinch, a Boston-based owner and developer with nearly $4B in assets. She also works closely with its financial reporting team and with the firm's ownership on corporate strategic planning.
Yang previously served as head of charitable asset management at State Street Global Advisors. Before that, she held multiple financial and leadership roles at Harvard University and at PwC, where she began her career.
This year, Yang was awarded with GlobeSt's 2022 Women of Influence Award. She is a member of The Boston Economic Club, an organization that focuses on finance and public policy, and is a former chair of the board of CFA Society Boston.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said the “time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Where is the blood today?
Yang: In our real estate investment world, valuations for retail and Class-B CBD office assets appear quite distressed, with sentiment and psychology extremely negative. At times this may create opportunity. For example, Bulfinch acquired the old Atrium Mall in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and redeveloped it into Lifetime Center, a state-of-the-art medical and wellness facility, which is currently home to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Newton Wellesley Hospital, Life Time Fitness and others. More recently, Bulfinch acquired the Neiman Marcus store adjacent to the Natick Mall with plans to undertake a similar repositioning.
Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right about it?
Yang: Real estate belongs in infinite life vehicles as it’s a long duration asset and should not be in finite life funds where investors are forced to liquidate within a decade, especially if that coincides with a downturn. Finite life funds are not Bulfinch’s model, and I firmly believe in our model for infinite life vehicles.
A prevailing theme in the investment management world is matching the asset with the liability. With that in mind, we should only utilize long-term fixed-rate debt with leverage not to exceed 50%.
Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?
Yang: Interestingly, my path to real estate is different from the majority of people sitting in the same seats. I did not grow up here. I was in the investment management industry for more than 20 years when Bulfinch discovered me and took a chance on me. Real estate at the end of the day is simply an alternative investment to stocks, bonds, commodities, cash, etc. The CEO and president of Bulfinch, Eric and Robert Schlager, recognized my analytical strengths and experience in running investment and operation teams, and they hired me as the firm’s first COO almost two years ago. I have been loving this new arena and would not look back.
Bisnow: If you could make one change to the industry, what would it be?
Yang: Commercial real estate is such a vast industry that encompasses so many aspects in its ecosystem. I would like to see more women and diversity in the driving seats in acquisition, property management and construction. There are more women in leasing, marketing, accounting and even brokerage, but far fewer women are calling the shots in other areas.
Bisnow: What is one thing you would do differently from early in your career?
Yang: I have been incredibly fortunate for having had so many mentors along the way and that shaped my career paths. If there is one thing that I would do differently, I wish I had been more confident and assertive to seek out mentors early on in my career. As a young professional, I was afraid of rejections. Now I realized that in life, rejections could be the catalysts to grow and to get better.
Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth mentoring and who is simply not a good fit?
Yang: People who are fundamentally learners, who want to do well, who work hard, who keep an open mind and who make an effort are the best people to mentor. It doesn’t matter where they come from or which schools they went to. It matters if they are true to themselves and if they are willing to do their best. In my career, I have mentored many people and they all share some common characteristics: They are honest with themselves, and they are willing to seek mentorship to help guide them to do better. Mentorship works the best when both parties are willing to make it work. Assigned mentorship often does not produce the desired result because it’s not spontaneous.
Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the metaverse? Does it have any relevance for CRE?
Yang: I have to admit that I struggle with embracing this concept. In real life, commercial real estate not only is driven by supply and demand, the two key fundamental economic forces, but more importantly it provides utility to people and to businesses. The value is not just an economic value; it provides a physical space on Earth with limited and scarce resources. The social impact on human life is closely connected with commercial real estate. In the metaverse, that limitation or utility doesn’t seem to really exist. Since it’s created in a man-made virtual world, I fail to see how they could provide real value in any capacity, other than maybe thrills generated by its speculative nature. I recognize I may be behind the times, so I am still trying to learn about it.
Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting impacts of the pandemic on CRE?
Yang: Two and half years into the pandemic, we still have not seen office presence returning to the 2019 level. Morning foot traffic in downtown Boston this year, although increased compared with 2020 and 2021, is still less than half of the traffic in 2019. Those who returned to office regularly care more about public health amenities. People will shift their focus more toward higher-quality properties that are Fitwel-certified with cleaner air. Will we ever return to the pre-pandemic level any time soon? Time will tell, but we know quality plays a bigger role now.
I am a firm believer that the best way to foster culture, connections and learning is to be conducted in person. Sitting at the kitchen table in front of a laptop does not generate spontaneous discussions in many situations. I am hoping that more and more people return to office, perhaps not for five days, but certainly for three or four days a week.
Bisnow: As you know, there is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?
Yang: I am the living example of what Bulfinch has been focusing on long before the current effort started. I am the first chief operating officer of the firm and I am a woman of color. Our first chief financial officer who joined us two years ago is a woman. Close to 40% of the senior leadership team are women. Not only do we try to promote and elevate women and people of color internally, but we also try to work with external parties who focus on DEI. For example, our key legal partner is one of the 29 law firms across the country that has earned the WLEF Gold Standard Certification, which is awarded by the Women in Law Empowerment Forum. To Bulfinch, this has been and will remain an ongoing effort.
Bisnow: So, this is the weekend interview. What’s your typical weekend routine?
Yang: I am a swimmer, so I typically start the day by putting in a 2-mile swim first, especially on weekends. Then I usually spend a few hours on reading: fictions, investment research or current events. I also try to practice playing the piano. I am not very good, so I need a lot more practice, but I procrastinate on this front. My family always tries to do something fun together such as taking a walk, riding on Peloton, cooking or going out to eat. I am not a big fan of TV, but occasionally, I watch some shows. I also can’t wait for the fall because I am a huge Patriots and Celtics fan.
CORRECTION, AUG. 31, 11:20 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story misstated the total amount of assets the firm owns, citing out-of-date information from Bulfinch’s website. It now owns more than $4B in assets. This story has been updated.