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Denver Power Women: 5 Questions With Developer Fiona Arnold

This limited series profiles Power Women who have helped shape metro Denver's cities, neighborhoods, businesses and lifestyles. These women will be honored at Bisnow's Denver Power Women event Dec. 5.

Mainspring Developers President Fiona Arnold is engaged in commercial and residential real estate development. She served as part of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Cabinet as executive director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in 2015 and 2016 and as executive vice president and general counsel for Vail Resorts from 2009 through 2015. She serves on the board of the nonprofit charter high school the CUBE and as a board member of the nonprofit CareerWise, an organization introducing the youth apprenticeship system in Colorado.

Mainspring team members Tamra Holton, Bekah Quiriconi, Keri Farmelo, Fiona Arnold and Joanne Kameron at a Habitat for Humanity build

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?

Arnold: As we’ve grown as a company and now have a wonderful team focused on executing all the details, my role has increasingly become that of chief dreamer — finding different opportunities, visualizing what they could be and being the energy to bring that idea to life. It is the most fabulous job in the world.

Bisnow: What is the biggest business problem you have faced and how did you solve it?

Arnold: In the first days of the company we undertook a development that grew significantly in scope from [what was] originally planned. We had the opportunity to create something special so did not want to opt for the original smaller idea. While we knew that it would be difficult, we did not know how many unforeseen pieces would push us to the limit. The capital to build the project came together and supported the increased scope but the time to stabilization was extremely difficult and took all our cash reserves. We were right on the edge financially, but I was convinced that if we could get through that year the asset would stabilize and form the basis of our company for further growth. We’ve discovered that building the right thing is extremely difficult and does not pencil in the short term, leading you to feel a bit like a crazy person, but with patience and ability to weather the lean early years it is a strategy that seems to be working.

Bisnow: What is one thing you think companies can do to address wage and gender inequality?

Arnold: Three things:

  • When hiring stop asking people what they made elsewhere. That is irrelevant and works against people who’ve not been strong in their prior salary conversations, particularly women. Their lower starting salaries compound negatively over time. You are hiring someone for a job; if they are capable then pay them in the range where their skills dictate and the job demands. 
  • Stop giving salary increases to people you think are flight risks. Women tend not to voice that they have opportunities elsewhere and are more loyal. Salary increases should be based on performance.
  • Utilize a performance grid that shows each component of a job and outlines what that looks like when performed at entry level, midlevel and high performance. Then compare the employee’s performance against those objective standards and where that puts them in the range of salary.

Bisnow: What piece of advice do you give others entering the industry?

Arnold: There’s a bit a feeding frenzy in development right now, and I think people on the outside are thinking they are missing out. I tell people that development is really, really hard, and if you haven’t proven yourself in business and are going to be scrambling for investment capital, then you will end up continually compromising what you want to do and will not be creating additive places for our city. My advice is don’t get into it for the money, do it because you want to be a city builder, placemaker and opportunity provider.

Bisnow: What do you do to unwind when you’re not working?

Arnold: Anything that inspires me and recharges my creative energy: meeting and spending time with smart, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers; exploring our wonderful city; as much travel around the world as I can fit in; time in the mountains hiking, snowshoeing and skiing; walking my dogs; reading; dinner with friends; and plenty of time in Australia, where I grew up.

Meet Mainspring Developers President Fiona Arnold at Bisnow's Denver Power Women event Dec. 5 at the Four Seasons Hotel Denver.