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90% Of Major Brokerage Leadership Is White, And That’s ‘Definitely A Problem’

This is the second in a series of articles examining the racial diversity of the boards and executive leadership of the biggest companies in commercial real estate. To read the introductory editor’s note for this series, click here. To read Part 1, on REITs, click hereTo read the story examining on real estate finance, click here.

When George Floyd died May 25, it kicked off a violent and discomforting reckoning on race that roiled the nation.

Americans were once again forced to look into an unpleasant mirror — and the multitrillion-dollar commercial real estate industry was no exception.

U.S. brokerage firms — the grease in the wheels of commercial real estate, employing hundreds of thousands of people and generating tens of billions in annual revenue — issued public statements of support for Black Lives Matter, committing to do more and better and increasing donations to diversity groups within the industry.

Many said little and committed to nothing. Despite these firms’ reach, considerable capital and massive employee rosters, the vast majority of their most powerful decision-makers are White men.

Now, the pressure to diversify at every level of these companies has intensified, as commercial real estate grapples with the residue of discriminatory policies that have kept women and people of color from advancing up the ranks — if they could get in the front door in the first place.

“When you think of the brokerage industry, it really taps into our economy and a range of areas that should represent the general population,” said Jane Stevenson, who is the vice chairman of the board and CEO of services at management consulting firm Korn Ferry.

“It’s definitely a problem that it is a White male-oriented [industry], because it doesn't represent the economy in the way that it needs to,” Stevenson said.

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In an effort to understand where the industry is — and just how far it needs to come — Bisnow examined the demographics of the leadership of the nation’s biggest brokerages. Out of 17 companies Bisnow analyzed, none had more than three people of color at the executive level, and almost a third had none at all.

Only one brokerage is led by a person of color, Marcus & Millichap CEO Hessam Nadji, who identifies as Persian American.

Some companies’ boards tell a broader story: JLL, which has a market capitalization of $7B, has five people from diverse backgrounds on its 12-person board, and Cushman & Wakefield's 10-member board has four White men, four women and four people of color.

But others have so far failed to enact major change: Publicly listed Savills, which has a £1.4B market capitalization and four women on the board, and privately held Cresa both have all-White boards, though both firms say they are actively trying to address that issue.  

“When I started out, my friend told me it was a racist business and that I wouldn’t succeed,” Marcus & Millichap Senior Vice President Joseph French, who is Black, told Bisnow in an interview.

French started in New York City office leasing in the 1990s before moving into retail brokerage, and he now focuses on shopping centers.

“At the next job, he said, ‘I’ll hire you, but it’s a racist business. You won’t succeed,’” French said.

He pressed forward all the same, carving out a fruitful career for himself — he has been involved in the sale of over $1B in property — and watching as more people of color joined the industry. Still, his daughter, today a broker at a major firm, tells him she is the only Black woman on a floor of hundreds of people.

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All in all, Bisnow found that only 11% of the commercial brokerage industry’s leadership ranks are people of color, and 25% are women, almost overwhelmingly White women. The boards are just 12% non-White, and women, primarily White women, comprise 22% of their membership.

These numbers are based on public statements and company-provided information. All but two firms either confirmed or clarified figures, though several declined to comment beyond confirming the data in this story.

When presented with the industry numbers, Stevenson, the management consultant, said she wasn’t surprised by the low rate of representation across a diverse spectrum. She said she believes there will only be change if firms start setting mandates for diversity and holding people responsible directly through their compensation.

“We need people to stop talking and start doing,” she said. “Think about it — if all the top brokers had to apprentice Black brokers to come up through the ranks, it would change everything.”

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‘It’s A Racist Business’

Few argue that diversity at the upper echelons would make for better brokerages. A Carlyle report earlier this year found that portfolio companies with two or more diverse board members had an average three-year earnings growth that was nearly 12% greater than companies that did not.

That finding follows a report from McKinsey & Co. from two years ago that showed companies with diversity at the board level are 43% more likely to score higher profits. But a complex set of factors continues to keep people of color and women from the highest levels of brokerages, sources said.

While White men continue to dominate top positions, racial diversity varies from firm to firm. At JLL, two people out of 15 members of the Americas executive team are non-White.

CBRE has two people of color on the 12-person executive team, having this summer appointed a Black man, Tim Dismond, as chief diversity officer. There are three people of color on the 11-person board. The company didn't make anyone available for this story, despite multiple requests over three months. 

Cushman & Wakefield, following a recent appointment, now has four people of color out of 10 directors on its board, and one person from a diverse background in its 10-person North American leadership team.

Savills has one person of color out of nine people on its global group executive board, a Hong Kong, Macau and Greater China executive. Meridian Capital Group, which has around 350 employees and bills itself as “America's most active dealmaker,” is led by a team of 17 people — all but two of whom are White men, per its website. One of them is a woman of color.

In a statement, a spokesperson said Meridian is a “dynamic national company comprised of individuals from a broad array of backgrounds” and that it is “committed to even greater diversity and inclusion across the firm, and we will continue to follow these core values going forward." The firm declined to make anyone available for this story.

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At French's firm, Marcus & Millichap, there are 24 people in senior management, six of whom are women. There are three people of color in the top ranks: two men who identify as Asian American, as well as the CEO, Nadji, according to a spokesperson for the firm.

The brokerage this year increased its donations to the Commercial Real Estate Women’s Network and Project REAP, an organization aimed at advancing diversity and inclusion in the industry, the spokesperson said, but declined to disclose specific amounts. 

“You come into brokerage, they give you a desk and chair and say, ‘Good luck, that’s it,’” French said, adding that other industries, like finance, have done a better job because they are salaried, as opposed to commission-based. “You need to keep yourself afloat, and that has kept women and minorities from being able to join the industry and thrive."

Ken McIntyre, the CEO of the Real Estate Executive Council, a trade association for executives of color in commercial real estate, considers brokerage to be “one of the least diverse facets” of the entire commercial real estate industry. He runs his own consulting firm, PassPort Real Estate, and was appointed to the Newmark board in January. 

As a Black man, he is the five-person board’s sole person of color. There is one female member on the firm’s board. 

“As much as people want the world to be a meritocracy, the most powerful driving forces of [success] for anyone’s career is sponsorship, and somebody needs to be sponsoring you when you are not in the room,” he said.

Newmark's four executive officers on its website are all White men.

In June, company CEO Barry Gosin was one of multiple real estate executives who signed an open letter from the leaders of the pro-business group Partnership for New York City stating they are “reasserting our commitments to diversity and inclusion among our boards, executive leadership and our entire workforce.” 

Representatives for the firm declined to provide someone for an interview or clarify responses to Bisnow’s multiple requests for comment over several months.

McIntyre said the firm is working on initiatives to create greater diversity, but he said brokerages across the board haven’t needed to collect and analyze data on their level of diversity until recently, meaning there are no systems or processes to successfully manage it yet.

“I’ve seen how women and people of color, their names always somehow magically get passed over,” he said. “If there isn't a woman or person of color in the room to say, ‘What about this person?’ It's almost standard procedure. They’ll say, ‘Let’s promote Joe, because he’s going to end up like me. I remember when I was like Joe.’”

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‘If You Don’t Have Diversity, Don’t Bother’

Many are optimistic the momentum that seized the nation this summer will force change within the industry. Widespread outrage over police brutality and racial injustice ratcheted up the heat on firms, brokerage players told Bisnow.

“If companies understand that they are losing business because they are not diverse in the workplace or in hiring diverse suppliers, they will change their thinking. Corporate America must continually keep the pressure on for diversity and inclusion in order for change to occur; it cannot be treated as a 'fad' that eventually will go away,” said Jodi Pulice, founder of JRT Realty Group, a certified woman-owned brokerage that is strategically aligned with global behemoth Cushman & Wakefield.

Pulice said she is the company’s sole leader, and out of its 11 brokers, two are people of color and seven are women. 

“The Fortune 500 companies, I believe, are standing up and saying to the larger real estate firms, ‘We are putting out an RFP. If you don’t have diversity when you apply, don’t bother,’” Pulice said. 

JRT executive Kimberly Brown, a Black woman who handles the company’s relationship with C&W and is a board member of the Association of African American Real Estate Professionals, said she has never felt so confident in the brokerage community’s commitment to change.

“Things are shifting,” she said, adding that for the first time, it feels like people are starting to try and make lasting changes beyond half-hearted attempts.

“At the start, I never saw anyone who looked like me," Brown said. "There were a few African American brokers in LA markets, and those that I knew didn’t last … This is the first time where people are now trying to figure out pathways for people of color in the industry.” 

Many brokerages issued statements in response to Black Lives Matter, pledged to make improvements and in some cases made donations to places like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.

“If there is no diversity at the C-suites and on the board, I’m not inclined to give them any slack if they aren’t intentional in pursuing diversity and inclusion at these top levels,” said Lamont Blackstone, the chairman of Project REAP.

The organization runs a 10-week real estate training program for multicultural talent to give them the skills and networking opportunities to establish themselves in the industry. It is the U.S. commercial real estate industry's largest racial and ethnic diversity initiative.

In July, Project REAP issued a call to action to the C-suites of leading commercial real estate firms and Fortune 500 companies, asking them to implement seven initiatives, including tying diversity performance to CEO compensation. 

“Diversity and inclusion is not just responding to the political issue of the moment,” Blackstone said. "It’s important for these firms to understand that there is a greater economic rationale for diversity at all levels."

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‘There Is Clearly Work To Do’

Industry leaders who participated in this story pointed to new rules governing metrics and goals that are being introduced, unique roles to oversee diversity at the board level and initiatives to try and drive more diversity across the industry.

“There’s clearly work to do. We’ve done an excellent job when it comes to gender diversity. There is more work to do when it comes to people of color,” Avison Young Chief Operating Officer Martin Dockrill said. “It takes continued discipline to make it happen.”

The firm, which employs more than 5,000 people, has two people of color in corporate leadership of 22 and one person of color on its nine-person board, the company told Bisnow. Women hold three positions on the board. There are nine women in the C-suite reporting to CEO Mark Rose.

Dockrill said Avison this year established a diversity and inclusion steering committee of 15 people across the organization, which will help shape and develop policies to break down access barriers. There are already requirements that someone of a diverse background must interview for every role, and the steering committee will help set metrics and goals for diversity at the firm.

“We’ve really been focused on having diversity and inclusion as objectives, but change in our company and the industry is not something that will happen quickly,” he said. 

At Lee & Associates, the board consists of seven men, all of whom are White — except one, who identifies as Armenian. There are four people in Lee & Associates' corporate leadership, per the company: a White man, two White women and an Armenian woman.

A new advisory board was seated in September. This seven-person committee, according to the company, will guide the firm’s approach to diversity and inclusion and is set to feature diversity across age, race, gender and location. Lee & Associates CEO Jeff Rinkov said he conceptualized the idea of the advisory board in March and has pushed forward with it since then. 

“I think we can do a better job of attracting talent,” Rinkov said in an interview.“I think [the Black Lives Matter movement] made it an easier discussion, because it’s been so front and center and top of mind.” 

At Cresa, the company’s internal Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council has put forward a plan to remove the commission-only structure for entry-level brokers, a move it hopes will lead to greater diversity in its talent pool.

“I want to see people set up for success,” Cresa Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council Chairman LaMean Koroma said. “We can’t do this in a subtle way.” 

Stevenson, of the consulting firm Korn Ferry, said pushing past all-White male leaderships requires a new set of patterns and precedents to be set.

“The first time a company has diversity in its leadership ranks, it looks really unique; the second time, it starts to be interesting. With most things, when you have three or four, it starts to be something possible or normal,” she said. “It’s an opportunity, not a deficit. It’s a positive for everyone to have diversity, including the current leaders.”