SPECIAL REPORT: New Analysis Shows Uneven Progress Toward Diversity At CRE’s Biggest Firms
In 2021, commercial real estate achieved slow but meaningful progress toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion within its ranks.
Still, the vast majority of real estate executives remain White men — and according to a new Bisnow analysis, many companies have struggled or failed to implement plans to address their firms’ lack of diversity.
But 17 months after large swaths of the industry vowed to further the diversity, equity and inclusion of people of color at their organizations, many companies have taken action — and change is decidedly happening.
“I think what the change to date shows is that if you are intentional about trying to increase diversity in your senior levels, you can find it, and so the flipside is if you currently don’t have it, it implies that you haven’t been intentional about seeking diversity at those levels,” said Real Estate Executive Council CEO Ken McIntyre, who sits on Newmark’s board of directors.
Last year, Bisnow began tracking and analyzing the highest levels of leadership at the largest companies in the industry, across brokerages, financial firms, and public and private developers.
The findings shed light on the racial and ethnic makeup of the top executives in the multitrillion-dollar industry and showed just how few people of color have seats at the most exclusive tables.
Over the past few months, a team of Bisnow reporters went back to these same companies to see how things have changed — if at all. What Bisnow found was an increase in diverse executives, board members and transparency around what broader efforts are taking place.
Dozens of companies sent responses and examples of new programs and policies they have implemented over the last year targeting DEI efforts. The industry’s halls of power also have greater representation overall in November 2021 than at this time last year — although that growth has been uneven.
In November 2020, Bisnow found that at 67 of the largest commercial real estate firms, there were 93 people of color working in the C-suite or highest echelon of management. A year later, that number has grown to 104, or 12.9% of all C-suite roles held.
Last year, 14% of those companies’ public board of director seats were filled by people of color. That number increased to 16.5% in a year.
The vast majority of those improvements happened at publicly traded companies, as pressures from new leadership at federal agencies and environmental, social and governance goals of institutional investors have spurred those firms to faster action. When including the two dozen large private development firms Bisnow tracked, people of color account for 138, or roughly 11%, of the more than 1,200 senior executives across 91 firms. Women make up 23.5% of the 91 firms’ highest-ranking executives.
Among brokerage firms and private developers in the analysis, the number of diverse executives this year is essentially flat from last year. Many declined to answer multiple requests for information and interviews, although the industry was overall more responsive to the goal of the project: to bring light to an issue that has been kept in darkness for too long.
“Last year brought things to the surface that everybody knew had been there forever,” said Collete English Dixon, a Black woman who was appointed to the board of Marcus & Millichap this month. “There's nothing new that got exposed last year; we just had a little bit more time to look at it.”
When Bisnow began reporting on this project last year, there was no data on commercial real estate’s ethnic or racial diversity to speak of.
CREW Network, the nationwide commercial real estate women’s networking group, has released a benchmark study around gender parity in the industry every five years since 2005, but outside of an oft-cited, never-repeated NAIOP report from 2013, nothing similar has been conducted on the subject of race.
Bisnow’s team of reporters spent much of 2020 identifying and tracking the largest brokerages, financial, and public and private development firms in a first attempt at quantifying this critical data. The team also trawled through proxy reports, social media and company websites to create a baseline list of executives, board members and their diverse statuses.
Each company was asked by Bisnow to provide their own figures, or at the very least fact-check what our reporters had gathered independently. Few of the firms engaged at all last year, and even fewer were willing to give statements or make executives available for interviews. The three-part series published in November 2020, with a fourth installment coming in February 2021 when Bisnow examined two dozen of the largest private developers in the U.S.
Bisnow’s latest installment is less than perfect. Some of the changes to the data come from revising firms’ 2020 figures upward, or from changes in how companies structure their leadership.
But after a year of increased awareness — and now that many of the companies have hired chief diversity officers and built out their DEI teams — Bisnow’s latest figures are more complete. This latest installment contains a fuller sense of what the analyzed companies have been working toward on the DEI front.
“Last year, we looked around at the industry and realized it was monoculture and began figuring out how we are going to address that,” Calvert Research and Management ESG Research Analyst Brendan McCarthy told Bisnow. “Where we are now is planting the seeds for future diversity.”
Public Companies Lead The Way
The industrywide increase in diversity was driven overwhelmingly by publicly traded companies.
That is in part because publicly traded companies, including real estate investment trusts, have been pressured by some of their largest shareholders and other powerful institutions to increase their diversity.
The 26 commercial real estate-focused REITs in the S&P 500 have a total of 272 board members. Of those members, 43 are people of color, almost double the number of board members of color from this time last year, according to Bisnow's analysis. And 83 of those members are women, up from 79 last year.
There are 170 members of the C-suites at these firms, according to Bisnow’s analysis, 14 of whom are people of color, up from 10 when Bisnow reviewed the same companies one year ago. The number of women with “chief” in their titles has also increased, rising from 24 last year to 33 today.
Institutional investors such as BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street — three of the largest shareholders of REITs — over the past year have enacted new policies to take board diversity into account when casting votes on director appointments. Proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services said that starting Feb. 1, 2022, it will recommend voting against nominating committee chairs of boards that have no apparent racial or ethnic diversity.
In August, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a new rule requiring most Nasdaq-listed companies with more than five board members to have at least one director who identifies as female and one director who identifies as an underrepresented minority or as LGBTQIA+.
Looking at the S&P 500 REITs provides a cross section of the largest companies across a variety of sectors, but another analysis from consulting and research firm Ferguson Partners looked at the entire REIT sector. Its September report found that the number of Black board members across all U.S. REITs increased from 64 to 117 during the prior year.
Ferguson Partners’ report also found that 29% of new board appointments to REITs were Black, and an additional 13% of new board appointments belonged to another minority group, including Asian and Latino members. And it found the percentage of minorities serving in top board positions, such as the chairperson or lead director, rose from 5.9% to 9.1%.
“It’s a pretty meaningful increase year-over-year. It’s nice to see that,” Ferguson Partners Vice Chairman Jeremy Banoff said. “Some people want this to move faster, obviously, but in reality, I think, not just here, but it’s going to take some time to see some real difference.”
McIntyre also said he thinks the concerted push from these institutions on diversity is having its intended effect.
“That pressure is definitely keeping the issue on the table and making it an agenda item for discussion in all senior management meetings and offices,” McIntyre said.
The increased attention that REITs have paid to diversity over the last year can be seen in their public communications. McCarthy tracked the frequency with which REITs used the word “diversity” in their SEC filings and found a 13% increase from Q2 2020 to Q2 2021. He said this shows that the increased focus that companies placed on diversity after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent protest movement continued into the following year.
“You had companies starting to look at what’s going on and say, ‘We need to put programs in place, look at our own diversity and how we’re going to change things,’” McCarthy said.
REITs also made a series of diverse appointments to boards and executive roles over the last year. Of the 26 REITs Bisnow analyzed, 15 increased the racial or gender diversity of either their board or C-suite. These are the REITs that made the most diverse additions:
- Realty Income Corp. added two women to its board, one of whom was a woman of color, and it added two women to its C-suite.
- AvalonBay Communities added two people of color to its board, one of whom was a woman, and it added one woman to its C-suite.
- Boston Properties added two women to its C-suite.
- Kimco Realty added one person of color to its C-suite and one person of color to its board.
- Equity Residential added one person of color to its C-suite and one woman to its board.
Several REITs declined to make an executive available for an interview over the past month to discuss their diversity efforts, some citing the quarterly earnings period as a reason they couldn’t speak publicly.
Regency Centers — which added one person of color, Asland Capital Partners CEO James Simmons, to its board over the last year — provided a written statement to Bisnow from its CEO, Lisa Palmer. She said Regency, which has an all-White, three-person C-suite, has several diversity initiatives, including employee-led resource groups, talent acquisition partnerships and unconscious bias training programs.
“Advancing diversity at Regency has been an increasing focus over the last several years,” Palmer wrote in the statement. “This process was accelerated in 2020, with the intent being a true integration into our business practices, and not a standalone measure.”
The REITs that had no change in the racial or gender composition of their boards and C-suites over the last year were: Simon Property Group, Digital Realty Trust, Federal Realty Investment Trust, MAA Communities — which have all-White C-suites — as well as Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Healthpeak Properties and SL Green.
REITs made greater progress on diversifying their boards than their C-suites. Banoff said that board appointments tend to be easier moves to make quickly because companies have the option to expand their boards, can select people without real estate experience, and because board directors aren’t full-time roles and people can serve on multiple boards at once.
“The issue is how many executive positions open up every year; companies aren’t hiring a new CEO or CFO every year,” Banoff said. “That’s the one that’s going to take time.”
McIntyre said commercial real estate companies have been too afraid to recruit executives from other industries, and even other sectors of their own industry, and this has limited their top-level diversity.
He said in other parts of corporate America, companies are willing to hire executives from other fields as long as they have shown strong business acumen and leadership, but in commercial real estate, they tend to want executives who have sector-specific experience. He said that, for example, a tech company would be more open to hiring an executive from a textiles company than an industrial real estate company would be to hiring a multifamily executive.
“The challenge is what I refer to, at some level, as a leap of faith,” McIntyre said. “The industry is not embracing of giving people credit for their skills being able to transfer. … Certainly, it’s tougher for people of color to move into senior roles because they’ve rarely done a lot of what you’re asking us to do before.”
Having diverse boards and C-suites should be a top priority for REITs not only to satisfy investor pressure but to improve their bottom lines, Banoff said, as studies have shown companies with diverse leadership achieve greater returns than those with homogeneous executives. Additionally, having diverse leaders can help in recruiting and retaining diverse talent at lower levels of the company, McIntyre said.
“You don’t know how often a college junior or senior goes to your website and says, ‘Wow, they’re all guys,’ or ‘They’re all White guys. I’m not going to go anywhere in that company,’ and they move on,” McIntyre said. “That’s an opportunity lost that you will never be able to capture.”
‘Requests, If Not Demands, From Clients To Embrace Diversity’
In commercial property finance, the pressure for diversity in C-suites and boards of directors seems to be having an impact.
At the 23 banks, insurance companies and private equity firms Bisnow analyzed, 70 roles in C-suites or executive teams are filled by people of color, up from 63 last year — although the 15.3% share stayed flat, as leadership teams expanded overall. Of the companies’ 231 publicly disclosed board seats, 22.5% were filled with ethnically or racially diverse people, up from 20% last year.
The pressure to be more diverse has palpably increased over the last year, Walker & Dunlop Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion Jason Golub said, though it had been growing beforehand more slowly. Lenders like Wells Fargo, Voya Financial, Barings and Citigroup Global Markets each added people of color to their C-suites or executive management teams since last year. Institutional investors like MetLife, Nuveen and Clarion Partners also diversified their upper levels.
"There's more pressure on public companies right now, some of which is from the government as the SEC collects more DEI data," Golub said. "That means there will be more transparency around what companies are doing in terms of DEI."
The government isn't the only source of pressure. Investors have taken note of DEI as well, Golub said. Publicly traded mortgage banking firm Walker & Dunlop has one person of color and 11 women across its management committees and two people of color out of nine on its board. It hasn’t added any people of color to its highest levels, though the company brought four more women into the C-suite and two on the board.
"I can tell you that we're seeing more requests, if not demands, from our clients to embrace diversity in the teams we're bringing to pitch business," Golub said. "Whether it's a new piece of business or an existing client, more clients are saying that it's important to them that we are diverse."
The move toward heightened awareness of DEI is also a generational change, Clarion Partners Managing Director and Head of Human Resources Dave Kutayiah said.
"The folks rising to the helm today are millennials, right?" Kutayiah said. "I'd describe them as purposeful leaders — that is, a lot more purpose-driven than other generational cohorts. They want meaning in whom they work with and why they work at all. They also believe that companies that aren't purposeful will be left behind.”
Public commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are an essential part of that strategy for a lot of these leaders, Kutayiah said. Eleven out of 52 members of Clarion Partners' C-suite are people of color — the company has an expansive definition of its C-suite, including its managing directors.
“This generation is more concerned with finding diverse talent for our pipeline, creating programs and fostering talent," Kutayiah said.
Other companies cite diversity as a way to have their C-suite and board more closely reflect a global environment in which they do business. Bank of America added five new members to its senior management team over the past year, two of whom are people of color and three of whom are women.
"As a result, it now has the most diverse management team in terms of gender and race than ever before in the company’s history, with increased international expertise," a bank spokeswoman told Bisnow in an email.
While some firms have successfully expanded their ranks with diverse candidates, growth has been uneven. Freddie Mac and Capital One lost people of color from their C-suites over the past year, and Berkadia and Starwood Property Trust have no executives of color at their highest levels.
Mortgage banking firm Northmarq has no people of color on its 13-person executive team, and its leadership structure “evolved” so that the three-member board chaired by former CEO Eduardo Padilla has seen its functions taken over by the company’s executives, a spokesperson said.
But the company has pushed hard to diversify its ranks. Forty percent of its new hires this year have been diverse, Northmarq DEI Committee Chair Jay Donaldson said, and the company has added a chief diversity officer.
“We're really on a mission to leverage our resources and the overall industry to bring new, improved diversity to our company,” Donaldson said. “This is a long-term objective, a long-term challenge that we are committed to.”
Brokerage Falls Behind
Despite several new appointments of women and minorities at brokerages' top echelons and a renewed focus on diversity at many companies, the needle hasn't moved at all in the last year, according to Bisnow’s analysis.
There are 19 people of color in top leadership positions at 16 of the largest commercial brokerages compared to 20 from last year, as new hires were balanced out by departures and retirements, as well as a few companies changing their leadership structures entirely. The number of women went down slightly, from 49 to 47.
"Last year, I was optimistic that there was wind in the sails, that there would be material change in market-facing brokers and market leaders on the brokerage side,” said Ernie Jarvis, a former D.C. regional head for CBRE who now owns his own boutique brokerage. “I am disappointed that a year later — after we've seen substantial changes in corporate America — that we have not seen noticeable changes in the core of our industry, which is market-facing brokerage.”
Board representation increased to 10.45% from 10% among people of color, and more women are serving in board roles — 51 this year from 42 last year, growing from a 21.2% share to 25.3% of all seats.
“Brokerage is a unique sector of this industry, with unique issues and pressures,” said English Dixon, Marcus & Millichap’s newest board member who runs the real estate program at the Marshall Bennett Institute at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “And you can't just say, ‘Let’s go hire a bunch of diverse talent,’ because that's not necessarily going to get you the outcomes that you want.”
Despite an industrywide push to diversify, some companies' upper echelons look the same as they did a year ago when it comes to racial and gender diversity. Savills still has no people of color on its board or North American C-suite. Meridian Capital Group is still led by a 17-person leadership team, two of whom are people of color and one of whom is a woman. Eastdil Secured was led by three White men this time last year and is now led by two after co-founder Ben Lambert died last year.
Amid retirements and reshuffling of executive ranks, JLL has fewer executives of color than it did last year, and Cushman & Wakefield and Lee & Associates have fewer people of color on their boards than they did last November.
“I do think that, if these numbers are accurate, from people of color representation in the C-suite and in the boardrooms of brokerage firms, those numbers definitely show that there is meaningful room for improvement,” English Dixon said. “But I think it's going to be harder to move the needle on the board side because so many seats are held for very long. So unless they expand their boards or people start to retire, they're not going to have a lot of seats to take.”
Others have made additions. Colliers added a person of color to its C-suite to bring it to a total of two out of 11 and brought the number of women in the C-suite from three to four. Still, like last year, only one firm is led by a person of color: Marcus & Millichap CEO Hessam Nadji is Persian American. None of the 16 big brokerages Bisnow analyzed has a female CEO.
But industry members point to a shifting mentality around diversity at the highest level of the industry.
“Because commercial real estate has been so late to the party, there's an opportunity to be a thought leader,” said LaMean Koroma, the chairman of the Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging council at Cresa. “We want to be proactive and not reactive.”
Last year, the D.C.-based tenant representation brokerage had no people of color on the board or in its C-suite. But Cresa hired Dipesh Shah from JLL to serve as chief technology officer in July and appointed three women to the previously all-male board, including Angela Roseboro, the chief diversity officer at Riot Games, which makes League of Legends.
Roseboro is the first person of color on the board, and Koroma said it is an important appointment because she is an independent member with a specialized diversity focus.
“It’s not like a box-checking exercise; it's more of a strategic appointment,” he said, adding that improving diversity at the upper levels is about attracting and retaining talent across the industry.
“The goal is ultimately to become a firm of choice, right? Want to be where people want to go? And so it's like we're like the 25-year-old startup,” he said. “We're just getting started. It's not like, OK, we're done. Now it's like going full-on, headfirst.”
Amid mounting pressure, multiple brokerages have rolled out initiatives to drive diversity and inclusion across their firms. JLL announced in June the formation of a $4M fund to provide higher draws for entry-level brokers who are women and people of color, and it is rolling out a program to provide student loan support for new analyst hires in the capital markets team. JLL, C&W and CBRE have all in the last 18 months appointed chief diversity officers.
Lee & Associates, which doesn't have an external board, created a seven-person advisory group last September, which has four women and four people of color.
“Part of the advisory group development was to have meaningful voices and insight from our younger, more diverse group of professionals that may not be senior enough to meet the requirements to join our Board of Directors,” a Lee & Associates spokesperson said.
Newmark, Eastdil Secured, C&W, JLL, Meridian, Marcus & Millichap, CBRE and Savills have partnered with social impact platform Project Destined, which gives commercial real estate job training to diverse high school and college students.
Avison Young CEO Mark Rose said achieving a more diverse management team has required a new approach to hiring and talent acquisition. In September, the company hired former Home Depot Vice President of Sales Juan Bueno as a principal and U.S. president and gave him a seat on the board of directors. Earlier this month, it announced Nicole White, a Black woman, would be promoted from principal legal counsel to chief legal officer effective Jan. 1 — marking the first time a woman of color has joined the C-suite at the company.
When Bueno’s predecessor, a White man, stepped down, the company embarked on a revamped hiring process that involved hiring an executive search firm and mandating that the team working on the search was diverse, Rose said.
“We said, ‘Now you have to go out, and we want you to search every corner, every industry. Bring us back the best talent,'” Rose said. “They might have called or interviewed about 200 people, and the final six were all diverse."
With White’s appointment, Avison Young’s executive committee — its highest level of management — will grow from 23 to 24 members, including eight women and four people of color. The 12-person board now has two people of color and three women.
White joined Avison Young from the insurance industry in 2015, further illustrating how commercial real estate may have to increasingly look to other industries to source talented people of color. She said she is proud to be the first Black woman in the C-suite at Avison Young but said she is aware that some might be dismissive of her appointment.
“I do think that there is a tendency for people to ascribe the success of women or people of color to their identities, to say ‘Oh, well, of course, you know, someone wants to check a box, so here you are,’” she said. “Unfortunately, I think that people will undermine your legitimacy to assuage sometimes their feelings of inadequacy. … Sometimes you just have to put that behind you and move forward and let your work and your success speak for itself.”
Building The Pipeline Of Development Leaders
The fourth installment of the first year of Bisnow’s series tracking diversity focused on private developers published in February, and there is little change in the ranks in the past nine months.
Out of 453 senior executives at these two dozen companies, Bisnow’s analysis found 34 are people of color, or roughly 7.5%, compared to 34 executives out of 454 Bisnow tracked in February.
These developers aren’t publicly traded — many have declined to respond to multiple Bisnow requests for information, and most either declined to disclose who sits on their board or don’t have a public-facing board of directors.
Toll Brothers and Majestic Realty lost executives of color from their ranks, while Shorenstein Properties, Hines and Tishman Speyer were among the firms to hire diverse executives in their C-suites. Less than a full year has passed since these numbers were last compiled, meaning that developers had less time than REITs, brokerages and real estate finance companies to improve their numbers.
Trammell Crow Chief Operating Officer Adam Weers said it shouldn’t be surprising that the executive level at the development firm, a CBRE subsidiary, saw no change in the number of executives of color from year to year. Trammell Crow’s C-suite shrank from eight to six total members this year, and Weers, a Black man, remained the lone person of color.
Nevertheless, Weers wrote in an email, the executive team is taking a proactive approach to succession planning and building a pool of potential candidates to move into the top echelons of the company.
“Our firm is consistently focused on building the pipeline of leaders within our firm so that, as leadership opportunities present themselves, we have a deep and ready bench of talent positioned to step up in various capacities,” Weers said.
Over the last year, Trammell Crow's 23-person diversity, equity and inclusion steering committee has implemented new programs, including one aimed at diversifying interview panels for job candidates, and all the new programs “have received funding above and beyond our 2020 investment in our DEI initiative,” Weers said.
The Michaels Organization, which developed more than 55,000 apartments, has one executive of color, unchanged since February, but it has started an internal program for mentoring and leadership development in the past year, as well as worked to expand its outreach for recruiting through groups that target women and racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in CRE, according to a company spokesperson.
To date in 2021, about a third of its companywide new hires have been White, a third Black, 23% have been Hispanic or Latino and 49% were women, the spokesperson said.
“I think it's more realistic to have a long-term view, to have a plan in place to make a sustained organizational commitment from the top,” said Milton Pratt Jr., Michaels’ executive vice president of affordable housing development.
Looking for a quick fix to diversity issues at the top levels of a company can lead to frustrating scenarios for candidates of color, said Rochelle Mills, the CEO of Irvine, California-based affordable housing developer Innovative Housing Opportunities. She said she has received phone calls from headhunters offering impressive-sounding executive-level positions and listens with skepticism.
“I say point-blank to folks, ‘Is this a real role or is this window dressing?’” Mills said. “We're bringing skills and talent and hopes and vision, and the awesome responsibility and opportunity to have an impact in the lives of so many people. And we need to know: Are you honestly taking us for the talent that we have? Or are we going to be bumping our heads up against walls because we didn't realize that you were simply trying to get a photo?”
Sterling Bay launched an eight-person inclusion committee in August that works to “recommend strategic initiatives and policies to recruit, hire, promote, support, and mentor highly qualified and talented diverse staff,” said Keiana Barrett, Sterling Bay’s director of diversity and strategic development. The Chicago-based developer has five people of color among its 36 top executives.
Many developers zeroed in on pipeline-building efforts aimed at college students or supporting early career workers as a way to ultimately bring diversity to the higher levels of their companies.
“Wood Partners fully recognizes the need to increase diversity across our organization and particularly at the executive level,” Wood Partners CEO and Chairman Joe Keough said in a statement through a spokesperson. “We also know that this challenge exists across our industry and therefore believe that the best way to make a truly meaningful impact is through a deliberate and long-term investment.”
At Wood Partners, which has no people of color in its 27-person executive leadership team, that deliberate investment includes evolving recruiting and human resources practices and ongoing discussions that the company has engaged in with several universities about a scholarship, internship and mentorship program that would be aimed at students from underrepresented groups who want to study real estate, Keough said.
While some companies are looking to make public commitments to DEI and diversifying not only their own companies but the industry, it is clear that the topic of internal diversity at these organizations is still a sensitive one.
Over a third of the firms Bisnow analyzed didn’t respond to multiple inquiries, underscoring the difficulty in obtaining this information from largely private companies that are obscured from disclosures in public filings. As such, it is harder to track their progress than it is with other sectors, and that progress often depends on desire at the top to bring in new perspectives.
“You know, I tell folks all time: Diversity starts with leadership,” Pratt said. “And if your leadership cares about this, it's going to happen. … In a large, multifaceted organization like ours, involved in various aspects of real estate, it has to be a sustained effort over time.”
For decades, the sustained effort has pushed in the opposite direction, management consulting firm Korn Ferry CEO Jane Stevenson said.
“That’s why we’ve made so little progress,” she said.
But she added that “there's becoming such a stigma to resistance that people are much more moving things forward than pushing against underrepresented talent.”
She said the pressure on firms is so intense to diversify that now, more than ever, companies are approaching her with the specific goal of finding women and minorities for top positions.
“What's exciting is that more companies are actually making decisions that place underrepresented talent in key leadership roles, and that's what we need,” she said. “That's what's ultimately going to make the difference.”
Tim Carroll contributed reporting for this story.