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Industrial Is So Hot Right Now. But Where Are The Women?

Stephanie Rodriguez is used to being a unicorn. 

As regional senior vice president of Florida operations with Duke Realty Corp., Rodriguez wears the hat of both industrial broker and developer. She identifies land, works with construction professionals to design and build on that land, and leases completed properties. In an asset class that has historically attracted male commercial real estate professionals and served male clients, it’s a rare mix.

“I'm the only woman in South Florida who does that,” Rodriguez said.

Demand for industrial assets has skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic, reflecting consumer demand for e-commerce goods and services. It’s a busy — and lucrative — time to be in the sector. The trouble is, few women are.

Women in brokerage are relatively rare overall, accounting for 29% of commercial real estate brokers in the U.S. in 2020, according to the results of a forthcoming benchmark study from Commercial Real Estate Women Network, up from 21% of brokers in 2010. CREW didn’t break down its research by asset class, but anecdotal evidence suggests industrial lags this overall number, perhaps significantly.

The development numbers are slightly better; women account for 34% of development staffers in 2020. However, that percentage remains unchanged from 2010. CREW’s data, based on a survey of 2,930 women in the industry, found that about 48% of women in CRE do some kind of business in the industrial asset class. Comparatively, 71% said they do business in office and 58% work in retail real estate.

Industrial real estate activity has rapidly accelerated in recent years and turbocharged in 2020. That growth is being driven by e-commerce, as the pandemic is spurring many people to adopt or increase their online shopping.

Though the volume of industrial real estate deals slowed in the early days of the pandemic, that dealmaking has now resumed with vigor. E-commerce, grocery and logistics companies want to expand, and eager investors are seeking to deploy funds. There’s plenty of money to be made, but men are mostly the ones making it.

“As a profession, I think it's a shame that there's not more women in [industrial]. It's a missed opportunity to create personal wealth and professional excellence,” Kidder Mathews Executive Vice President and partner Patricia Loveall told Bisnow.

Many CRE professionals agree that the gender disparity in the industrial sector is greater than in other asset types, such as office or retail. The women who spoke to Bisnow for this story suggested several reasons, including lack of awareness, lack of glamour, risk aversion, fewer female role models and feeling intimidated.

Young women looking to carve out a place in the industry must also navigate less obvious barriers. Though the women who spoke to Bisnow said that in their own experience, instances of overt sexism and prejudice in the industrial market have been rare, it can be challenging to break into the space when brokers and developers, mostly men, have been buddies for decades.

“I think industrial has an even bigger reputation of being the boys club, because a lot of the more seasoned brokers in the field have been working together for 30 years,” Rodriguez said.

Ekaterina Avdonina, CEO of KKR-backed European logistics investor and developer Mirastar, switched from banking to industrial investment and development 10 years ago because she saw it as a savvy long-term defensive play. She said she never felt limited by her gender, but noted there were hurdles to overcome.

“Ten years ago, [industrial] had a stigma of being a closed door, male inner-circle sector with its own rulebook.”

Opus Land Joint Managing Director Victoria Turnbull, who is based in the UK's West Midlands, told Bisnow the development company has been doing a lot of industrial projects recently, and she has observed a definite male bias.

“Like a lot of areas of real estate, it’s a sector where it is all about giving an early look at deals to your best mate and going out for a beer and getting drunk, and that can be difficult for women to break into,” Turnbull said. “There are men that are not that comfortable with women in the same way. Property, in general, is an old boys club, even more so in sheds.”

Kidder Mathews Executive Vice President and partner Patricia Loveall with her colleague Jeff Lyon.

In any industry, newcomers must earn the respect of their more seasoned peers. But for young women, there is sometimes a subtle, unintentional pressure to learn faster and perform better than their male counterparts.

“Especially if you're an attractive female,” Rodriguez said. “I think people just [wonder] — oh, well, is she just a pretty face, or does she know what she's doing?”

The women who do succeed in industrial tend to be competitive by nature. Rodriguez is a self-described “deal junkie,” while CBRE Senior Vice President Jackie Orcutt said she grew up playing sports and has always been driven by competition.

To compete in the business world means working hard, but also finding ways to set yourself apart from rivals. For women, standing out isn’t a problem — it’s what to do with it. 

“Being a woman in the industry, we do stand out. And I use that to my advantage,” Rodriguez said. “If I know what I'm doing and what I'm talking about, I may stand out, because I'm the one who just looks different. I think that it's kind of fun to be the unicorn.”

WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger, who focuses on industrial development and cannabis real estate, also believes that being a rarity in the industry can actually be helpful in making an impression.

“I don't believe that I have ever won a project because I am a woman. But I do joke that if there are four or five firms pitching a build-to-suit, and everybody's sitting around trying to remember which team was which team, we do distinguish ourselves,” Berger said.

In addition to her senior role at Kidder Mathews, Loveall serves as the vice president of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, and will take on the role of national SIOR president in 2022. 

As with most women in the industrial sector, Loveall has spent a significant portion of her career being the only woman in the room. Even within SIOR, she will only be the fifth woman to take on the role of president since the organization was founded in 1941.

Loveall said women can do very well in brokerage, but it involves adopting the same professional “swagger” as men and projecting confidence.

“I think you can really be remarkable in this industry because there's so few of us that when you are good at what you do, people remember who you are,” Loveall said.

WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger

Industrial has traditionally lacked glamour. Canvassing industrial areas, or learning how to develop highly specialized warehouses, is not for everybody.

“There have been times when I've been in a warehouse in the middle of summer in Phoenix, and the temperature probably [was in] the low 200s," Orcutt said. "I'm definitely wearing heels because I'm not a tall person, and I like to be able to try to see my clients eye-to-eye, and most of them are men. So you have to stretch a little bit on what a typical job would be when you're getting into the industry."

Rodriguez said that despite the lack of glamour, she thinks the money flowing into the warehouse and logistics market will start to lure more women to the sector.

“Industrial has sort of had a bad rap over the years as being unattractive to females, and part of it’s because it’s always been male-dominated, and part of it’s because it’s not the shiny office towers with marble floors and air conditioning,” Rodriguez said.

Even broker friends working in other asset types like office have questioned Rodriguez about her decision to pursue a career in the “rough and tumble” industrial market.

“But then they see that, you know, she’s carrying the same handbag I’m carrying right now, right? So we’re both making great money. All of a sudden, people are like, you know what, maybe it’s not so bad.”

The biggest challenge appears to be the lack of women interested in the space.

“I think that in the leasing and development world, there's a natural, almost like a gravitational, pull of women to office or retail,” Rodriguez said. “When you're looking at sitting down at a table with decision-makers, you're most comfortable with people who look more like you. And on the industrial side, it's predominantly male.”

Loveall told Bisnow the dearth of women in industrial starts with brokerage more broadly. Many women don’t choose brokerage positions because they would prefer a stable salary, rather than living off commissions.

“They're not used to being out there and taking the risk, to basically have that hunter instinct to go after business and drive it home,” Loveall said. “They're more comfortable, generally speaking, in businesses in the real estate industry where they have committed salary.”

The financial risk of becoming a broker can be stressful, especially for women with children. Orcutt said even though her own mother had worked in the industry, and her partner was completely supportive, she still had to overcome her own doubts.

“The obvious challenge for a woman who is going to be taking a primary job that's 100% commission-based is stability, and almost at the risk of, can I do this? Can I make a living, and still be an influencer, a mentor, and a mother, and a wife and hopefully a successful businesswoman?” Orcutt said.

“I'd say, starting out early on, that was probably the biggest challenge — really breaking through some of the mental barriers that I imposed upon myself.”

JLL co-head of International Capital Maggie Coleman with two of her three sons, Leo and Jacques.

Most of the women Bisnow interviewed pointed to a highly supportive male manager or professional mentor who helped them establish themselves in the industry.

Prologis Regional Vice President of Real Estate and Customer Experience Kate Rutherford has been fortunate enough to have the same mentor for most of her career, Vince Zuppa.

Zuppa, who is Prologis' Chicago director of property management, advised Rutherford during her first job at Trammell Crow, encouraged her to take on a more challenging role at Colliers International and eventually hired her at Prologis, where she has worked in both property management and leasing roles.

“He just really took the time to go through and explain everything to me and invest in me,” Rutherford said. “And that meant so much to me that now, folks that I mentor, I try to do the exact same thing.”

Kidder Mathews founder Jerry Mathews acted as Loveall’s mentor for many years, Loveall said. Mathews urged her to go into industrial brokerage from the beginning and helped set her up for success at the company, where she has worked for more than 35 years.

“He had a vision about how good women could be, long before the rest of the world came into that way of thinking,” Loveall said. “I tell people all the time I went to the University of Jerry Matthews because I couldn't pay people for that education.”

Regardless of when they started their careers, all the women who spoke to Bisnow agreed that female representation has increased since they first entered the industry.

JLL Senior Managing Director and Global Capital Group Leader Maggie Coleman said that from an investment perspective, she has seen more women enter both the institutional and client sides of the business since she first started.

“I've seen more women grow through the ranks into the investment decision-makers, coupled with the fact that industrial is a growing sector for many of the large institutions. It's very much dovetailing into a story of senior women who are focused on the sector pretty significantly,” Coleman said.

Gender parity in the industrial sector, particularly in brokerage, could still be a long way off. Loveall said she expects it to take a long time, primarily because of how compensation is structured.

“We're probably on the one-yard line, in terms of getting women into this business,” she said. “We've got a long ways to go.”

Orcutt said one of the biggest challenges is simply reaching young women who are thinking about their careers, and presenting industrial as an option.

“If you ask a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up — I've got two daughters. And I ask them that now, and neither one of them has said, 'I want to work in a warehouse,' or 'I want to be a manufacturer,'” Orcutt said. 

The recent strength of the industry may help solve the problem.

‘’Success has helped the sector’s diversity,” Avdonina said. “As it becoming more popular due to rising investor allocations, a more diverse group of people are entering the sector. Once it was unfashionable, but now it has risen to become the darling of the real estate world.”

Industrial shops are promoting awareness of career opportunities through organizations like CREW, and Orcutt said retail brokers may face more interaction with the industrial sector as more big-box locations convert to last-mile facilities.

“Seeing the conversion of a completely different product type in the commercial real estate sector, which is retail, now shifting to have more of an industrial focus is cutting edge. It's never happened before and I think we're going to see more of that to come,” Orcutt said.

The hope is that the steep rise of interest in e-commerce will help attract more women into the sector, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

“I think now that the awareness has been opened a little bit to the world, with e-commerce being so exciting and the Amazons and FedExs coming online and being so successful ... that's intriguing to men and women alike coming out of school,” Rutherford said. “Like, oh, this is pretty cool. Yeah, I want to do this.”

Mike Phillips contributed reporting to this story.