Weekend Interview: M2G Ventures Co-Founder Jessica Miller Essl
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.
Jessica Miller Essl and her twin sister, Susan Gruppi, always knew they would own their own company, so when they co-founded M2G Ventures in 2014, it came as no surprise. Eight years later, the business — which focuses on adaptive reuse of mixed-use districts, as well as ground-up and urban industrial development — has more than $1B worth of projects in its pipeline and has been at the forefront of several high-profile developments, including the transformation of Mule Alley in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.
In this conversation with Bisnow, Essl discusses the long-term impact of her mentors, her duty as a female CEO to lead by example and how the rapidly changing tides of CRE will require dynamic leaders moving forward.
The following has been lightly edited for style and grammar.
Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.
Essl: I really try to focus my leadership philosophy on treating others like you would want to be treated. Mutual respect coupled with an integrated focus to inspire allows the team to see the bigger picture in their work. I also constantly remind myself that your team can be a very good mirror of your own leadership style — when you lead with inspiration, are a solid coach, show up organized and prepared, it is contagious and reflected back to you a lot of the time. When you don’t, they likely won’t either.
My first and most important mentors were, thankfully, my parents. Growing up, my parents were real estate entrepreneurs and, being one of five kids with parents who didn’t have any employees, we learned a lot. Real estate and business topics were the center of our conversations as a family. I learned a great deal from them, and because of that, I was more prepared than I ever realized when I started my career. My dad’s favorite saying was, “You may not always be the smartest, but you can work the hardest.” And that’s exactly what I set out to do.
I am curious by nature. With that curiosity, coupled with a very hard work ethic and immense drive, I tend to look at issues from both sides of the coin to come up with the best solution. I try to impart this way of thinking to my team: Be curious to think through how one thing can affect the other or challenge an old way of thinking to come up with the best holistic recommendation. That way of thinking has shaped my entire outlook on business starting from a young age.
For the first part of my corporate career, I worked at Trademark Property Co. in leasing. I learned so much from Terry Montesi, CEO of Trademark. It’s hard to believe, but I started at Trademark over 15 years ago, and he is still my mentor and friend today. Terry is an inspiring leader — I learned that part of my leadership style from him. He did an excellent job of making sure the right people were in the room to make a decision, no matter your age or experience. He wanted your opinion, and he loves fresh perspectives. You could feel your impact at Trademark, and Terry made sure to acknowledge that. I was fortunate to work on some amazing, world-class projects at a young age. As long as you put in the work, he was glad to give you those opportunities.
After my time at Trademark, I went to Open Realty Advisors in Dallas and transitioned to the tenant side of the business. Every single one of my colleagues there was A+. There was no “back of the room” at Open, and that was a very rewarding and challenging place to be. I worked primarily with Johnny Siegel on several of their key accounts, including Apple and Tesla. He led several of their big retailers and rollouts. I still call Johnny for many of the major business decisions I make today when I can’t quite get comfortable with the direction I want to take. He has an amazing ability to parachute in and problem-solve with you quickly. He is no doubt my mentor and, most of all, my friend. I learned a different kind of leadership from him — calm, confident leadership. He really rewarded those who showed up prepared, and he was always the first to give credit where credit was due: to a new client or key relationship, not himself. It was pretty amazing to see firsthand, and Open was a fantastic environment to be in, even though the work was really hard. I’d run through walls for Johnny!
All of these experiences have led me to where I am today and have shaped my leadership style — somewhere between a confident leader and an inspiring, curious one — or at least that is what I hope my team would say about me.
Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?
Essl: I first became a CEO in 2014, which was really a CEO of myself and shortly thereafter, one person. My twin sister, Susan, and I started our own company, M2G Ventures in 2014, with no other employees. Fast forward to 2022, and we have 22 people on the team, each representing a key position that both of us wore at one given time. In the past eight years, I have seen immense change in the real estate competitive landscape and in the world as a whole. I think the biggest change has been the need for the CEO or leader of any organization to lead through immense amounts of rapid change and turbulence that many don’t see over their entire careers. Consistently being calm and rational, while also being nimble enough to never let your company be caught flat-footed, is today’s primary role of the CEO.
Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?
Essl: I would love to say I knew! In all seriousness, I think the waters will get more turbulent, and the change even more rapid. This will require CEOs to keep their eyes forward even more so than in the past. The real work for leaders of tomorrow will be to keep the bridge between where the company currently stands and where it should be going in order to keep up with the rapid change our world is experiencing, especially through real estate. The way people interact with spaces is changing daily, and real estate strategies will have to keep up with that change and ideally be able to forecast it before it happens. To use an old analogy — there will be many more times in the future that if real estate leaders aren’t careful, they will end up building a horse barn in the years before the car is introduced.
Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?
Essl: Yes, to own our own company has always been a goal for myself and my twin sister, Susan Gruppi. Growing up, our definition of success was always having our own company as we watched our entrepreneurial parents have their own company. It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?
Essl: The biggest mistake as a leader has been not hiring people smarter and more specialized than myself in key positions faster. For the first few years of M2G’s growth, Susan and I both did too much ourselves. We didn’t start hiring intentionally for growth until 2017/2018, and the results have been explosive. Having smart, seasoned people leading the team is something I wish we wouldn’t have waited so long to do.
Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?
Essl: We’ve always had a very flexible work environment. A focus on flexibility has always been the type of culture Susan and I aim to create. We are both working parents and wanted to make sure people come to work at M2G and see us walking the walk when it comes to having to make conscious choices about priorities. We have offices in both Dallas and Fort Worth to make it easy on our team to have a home base closest to their homes. We also created a hybrid schedule to allow work-from-home days. All of this is optional, but it gives people more control over their week. I don’t see us making any major changes to that today, but I would say we were ahead of the curve.
Bisnow: 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?
Essl: The biggest thing that we have done and, frankly has been easier for us to do than other companies, is lead by example. Representation goes a long way in making people feel comfortable to apply, pursue and stay at your organization as long as you are fostering the right growth environment for them. Our officer team is comprised of 89% women and minority leaders, and our company is 80% female. As a leader, it is paramount that we create and nurture an environment that is opportunistic for every employee. This starts with your recruitment efforts. Intentional transparency is also key. People want to know that what you are saying is authentic and true. You must show them. That goes the same for any initiative, but it is particularly important for DE&I.
Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning?
Essl: We infuse innovation in everything we do which always, in my mind, includes sustainability measures. A large portion of our portfolio is redevelopment, which inherently leads to working through sustainability measures as you redevelop existing structures. In our new developments, we are constantly recalibrating what we can do to continue making our places stickier, more attractive and useful to our tenant base. We do believe it is our duty to develop places with staying power that leave a positive mark on the communities that they are in, and that includes the environment. I think with anything, you can overdo it if you truly don’t believe in the purpose. But in our case, it’s business as usual.
Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong, in your eyes?
Essl: Resting on what everyone else has done. The majority of CRE is still very much tied to the banking world, which puts some limits on how far you can push the envelope with any given asset class, especially when you are putting debt on an asset. This is not something that is necessarily wrong; more so, it’s a constraint that outsiders may not be aware of, leading them to wonder why it takes so long to innovate within real estate.
Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?
Essl: Industrial. Our fundamentals are just too strong for it not to be the best. We do both well-located ground-up Class-A industrial along with urban industrial as our primary areas of focus for M2G. We see both asset classes continuing to perform very well over the next five years. With DFW’s central location within the United States, our immense job growth and the fundamentals in the class as a whole, you couldn’t really ask for a better asset class to invest in. We focus primarily on two asset classes: industrial and mixed-use. Thinking even longer-term, we believe those asset classes will continue to converge, which makes our individual focus on each of them paramount.
Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?
Essl: Traction. We measure our company’s progress and goal planning with Objectives and Key Results and keep an ongoing barometer of how we are doing through our Company Scorecard. I highly recommend this approach for any company wanting to scale and focus its efforts.
Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?
Essl: Game of Thrones. I am a fan of medieval history, and the writing is excellent.
Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?
Essl: I start every day with meditation. My 6-year-old daughter, my husband and I usually go get breakfast somewhere and do stuff around the house, such as gardening. We love to be outside. I usually try and get a nap on Saturdays because I go so hard during the week. I meditate again before evening time. We usually hang out with friends in the evening and usually make it to bed at a reasonable hour after catching up on some TV. It doesn’t sound the most exciting, but weekends are my sacred time to recharge with my family. After a busy week, it recenters me. I am about to have another baby, so naps may be limited in my near future!