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Former JLL CFO Christie Kelly On Helping More Women Reach The Top Of CRE

When Christie Kelly began at Lehman Brothers in 2007, she expected she would work there for the next 20 years.

The crisis that brought down the global financial giant the following year was one of the scariest moments of Kelly’s career, but it would prove to be a turning point.

“When things like that happen and you just watch the despair and the absolute crushing of careers all around you, you really learn how to dig down deep and figure out what you can do to move from point A to point B,” Kelly said.  

Former JLL CFO Christie Kelly in a 2016 promotional video.

A woman who has spent her career in the male-dominated worlds of finance and commercial real estate, Kelly faced an uphill climb to advance from point A to point B. The industry did not have many female leaders to help young women navigate the path to the top, hiring managers often limited their searches to men within their existing networks, and some men were reluctant to offer a seat at the table to a woman.

Despite the obstacles, Kelly advanced to become the global chief financial officer of one of the world’s largest real estate companies, JLL, and she now sits on the board of directors for four commercial real estate firms.  

While her career has proven a woman can reach the highest levels of the industry, Kelly said commercial real estate still does not have nearly enough women in leadership roles. She said companies need to take greater steps to achieve diversity in C-suites and boardrooms. 

Among the 3,000 largest publicly traded companies, women hold just 20.4% of board seats, according to an annual report by 2020 Women on Boards. A 2019 study from KPMG found 17% of real estate CEOs were women. 

Women looking to advance in the industry face many obstacles, Kelly said, including the subconscious biases that men hold that can lead them to exclude women from leadership roles. She also said some male-led companies do not offer the flexibility for women who want to raise families while working, and some men have been dismissive about gender diversity concerns.

"There have been more times than not I've had men, even my boss, say 'Oh, that's not the way it works, let's face it, women have to take time off to have a baby and then lose their place in line,'" Kelly said. "Like, what are you talking about? Why aren't you listening to what we need to do from a diversity perspective? Why would you be correcting me when I'm the one who's had the experience? Those are the types of things we just can't do anymore."

The best way to bring more women into leadership roles in the industry, Kelly said, is to make human resources and executive search firms look at a diverse mix of candidates during the hiring process. But she does not think mandated quotas, like the law California passed last year, are the right way to solve the problem. 

"Making it law in my mind, or making it a quota, I feel like it really dilutes the situation where people feel pressured to call on gender diversity and maybe make decisions for the wrong reasons," she said. "Making the leadership accountable by impacting pay and discretionary bonuses if, over time, diversity is not present, is something I would be more in favor of, but not putting a quota out there."

Kelly, who left JLL in 2018 after five years as CFO, now focuses her efforts on the four boards of which she is a member. Two of those appointments came last year, with Gilbane naming Kelly to its board in September and Realty Income Corp. adding Kelly to its board in November. She also sits on the boards of Kite Realty and Park Hotels and Resorts, and she sat on Tier REIT's board before it merged with Cousins Properties last year. 

But three decades before Kelly would become a chief financial officer or a board member, she was making cold calls as a business development employee for General Electric. One of those calls would initiate a relationship with a woman who would become Kelly's mentor: former JLL Americas CEO Lauralee Martin. 

"From a female mentorship perspective, she really put her arm around me to help me be successful, and I'm forever grateful for that and those that helped me along the way," Kelly said. 

Two others who helped Kelly during her 25 years at GE were Jack Welsh, the former GE CEO who died last week, and former GE CFO Jim Park. She said they fostered an inclusive environment that allowed her hard work to shine. 

"What GE taught me is that if you work hard and really focus on being in a learning environment and taking yourself out of your comfort zone, you can really achieve anything you set your heart and mind to," Kelly said. 

Even with supportive leadership, Kelly said being a woman in the business world in the 1980s and 1990s came with challenges. 

"At times it wasn't always easy,"  she said. "There are situations and people you come across that aren't so open-minded. When that does happen, when you put yourself in situations where you need to challenge yourself, it enables you to work around those situations and learn how to be a stronger leader and to lead by example."

Banks are likely to undertake fewer distressed sales than after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Kelly's next job, her stint at Lehman Brothers, was much shorter than she expected, but the experience of being there during the financial crisis taught her valuable lessons. 

"What that experience taught me was to know who your friends are," Kelly said. "Some people were every man for himself — or every person for themselves, but there weren't a lot of females — and that taught me a lot."

While many people looked out for themselves, one of Kelly's colleagues helped her by recommending her for the open chief financial officer position at Duke Realty. The industrial-focused REIT named Kelly as its CFO in March 2009.

"That transition to Duke Realty was hard because it was an Indianapolis-based company, and the company was overleveraged, had multiple asset classes, really no strategy and the times were tough," Kelly said. "I joined Duke Realty on the worst day in the REIT market. So from my perspective, failure was not an option." 

With Kelly leading the company's finances, Duke Realty transformed its portfolio to focus entirely on industrial real estate. The REIT's stock price increased from its March 2009 low of $5.61/share to more than $17/share when Kelly left in May 2013, and its shares now trade above $30. 

In 2013, Kelly saw that Duke Realty was on stronger financial footing and pursued another position that was opening at one of the world's largest real estate services firms. JLL named Kelly its Global CFO on May 16, 2013. She replaced Lauralee Martin, her personal mentor, who transitioned to the role of Americas CEO.  

Kelly spent five years as CFO, a period in which JLL doubled its revenue and closed 70 acquisitions. She left the company in 2018 and was replaced by interim CFO Trish Maxson. 

"Christie can reflect with pride on her significant contribution over her five years with JLL," JLL CEO Christian Ulbrich said in a September 2018 release. "She has guided the development of our strong and talented Finance and Investor Relations leadership teams who will now provide excellent advice and support to Trish Maxson as she steps into the interim CFO role."

The current chapter of Kelly's career has centered around her board roles. She said she seeks to always appear in person for board meetings rather than call in, and it takes effort to make sure the meetings don't overlap. 

"The board positions that I have fit nicely throughout the calendar year," Kelly said. "It's like anything else, it takes good planning, and it takes ensuring there's the right chemistry."

As Kelly sat in the C-suite offices and boardrooms of large public real estate companies, she said she saw an industry that still did not have enough women in leadership roles.  

Kelly is the only woman on Kite Realty's eight-member board. At Park Hotels, Kelly is one of two women on a 10-member board. She is one of three women on Realty Income's 10-member board and one of three women on Gilbane's 14-member board.

"Women have to be at the table, and over the last decade you've seen significant change in that regard, but we're still not there, we're nowhere near 50-50," Kelly said. "We're nowhere near an equal playing field."

Balancing the scales is not just important for fostering gender equality, Kelly said, but it has proven to help companies become more successful. According to a McKinsey & Co. report, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. 

In addition to her board roles, Kelly said a primary focus of her efforts today are on helping women and young people advance in the industry. She said she works to connect accomplished women with board positions and executive search firms, and also to help young professionals find their footing in the industry.

"I think it's important to create opportunities for others once you've had the chance to be around the globe and had the wonderful experience of meeting a lot of people," Kelly said. "I feel very honored for what I've been able to experience, and I think it's important to share that with others."

Related Topics: Lehman Brothers Holdings