You CRE Me: 6 Real Estate Power Pairs
Commercial real estate executives work hard at maintaining relationships in the industry. Some have a little help from Cupid.
This Valentine's Day, we spoke with six couples who work in commercial real estate, some at different companies, and some that can carpool together to the office, proving absence isn't necessary to make the heart grow fonder.
Bradford Cos.’ Leigh and Paul Richter
Bradford Cos.’ Leigh and Paul Richter have been drawing inspiration from each other for about a quarter of a century.
Leigh, who serves Bradford as executive vice president of investment and retail services, met Bradford Vice President Paul Richter in 1992 while they were working together at Fuller Interests, which later became Macfarlan Real Estate Services.
At the time, Paul worked in leasing, and Leigh dedicated most of her time to property management. They sparked a love match that has seen them through various phases of their respective careers, including stints together at several firms.
The pair now have a son that works in commercial insurance and attribute much of their own successes in commercial real estate to the bravery they bring out in each other.
Paul encouraged Leigh to concentrate on the brokerage and leasing side of the business. For Leigh, it was a frightening move, but one that propelled her to the executive position she holds at Bradford today.
“The first year was a bit rough,” Leigh said. “But, it worked out in the end.”
The pair will celebrate their 24th anniversary on Feb. 16 and have no regrets about staying in the business together while married.
“You don’t have to explain what you did all day and can give each other a different perspective on a challenging negotiation. We always have each other’s back,” Leigh said.
Stepp Commercial’s Robert and Kim Stepp
No, Robert and Kimberly Stepp are not siblings.
The principals of Stepp Commercial, a multifamily brokerage specializing in the Los Angeles and Long Beach submarkets, met on Match.com and were surprised to learn they both were multifamily investment sales brokers.
“Sparks flew, next thing I knew, he flew me to Catalina Island on a helicopter and proposed, and we got married in 2008, the same year Robert founded Stepp Commercial,” Kim said.
That may not have happened without her encouragement — Kim was more established in her career than Robert, and he said she pushed him to move to a more prominent firm to execute larger transactions.
Kim joined Robert at Stepp in 2015, and now they are their own bosses, which means they have flexibility to spend time with their kids and to travel, but they do find themselves taking work home and even on vacation.
“The nature of our business is nonstop and because we understand that, we give each other the time and space to do what we need to do,” Robert said.
That focus on maintaining their individuality and keeping some separation between work and home has made their business successful, Kim said.
“It took a while for the two of us to join forces in business — Rob started Stepp Commercial in 2008, and I joined in 2015 — we didn’t want our marriage affected by our business but we made it work and it was a great decision,” Kim said. “Once we became business partners, we realized how our strengths combined made us better all around.”
Stepp could turn into a family dynasty — their children are 4, 6 and 8, but Kim said they already show entrepreneurial spirits and hone their sales skills by trying to convince their parents they are always right — but the nature of that family business sometimes confuses other people in the industry.
“While we know a lot of the same people in the industry, over the years, people have thought Kim was my sister, which I think is funny, so I have to set them straight,” Robert said.
Skya Ventures’ Gelena Wasserman and Gelt’s Keith Wasserman
Gelena and Keith Wasserman had an inauspicious start.
“I was working as a broker and I had a client that was interested in a building owned by Keith’s dad, Steve Wasserman,” Gelena said. “I cold-called Keith’s dad and he asked me what I wanted. I told him about my client and wanting to see the building. He then asked me how old I was and went on this long tailspin about how he has a son, he’s in his 20s and buying property in Bakersfield, and that he’s wonderful and great. My response was, ‘Great. Can I see the building?’”
Keith gave her the property tour, and he almost blew it.
“My dad didn’t tell me he was setting me up,” he said. “He told me to go meet the broker and open the space. I was 25 and I see this young woman and asked if she was with the broker and she said, ‘No. I am the broker.’ It wasn’t love at first sight.”
They became friends, started dating and now have been married eight years. Keith’s dad regularly jokes the pair owe him a commission for setting them up. They haven’t paid up yet, nor properly thanked him, though Gelena said they did give him two grandchildren.
Gelena and Keith work separately but in the same field, which Keith said helps them partner up and support each other. He is the founder of Gelt, a Los Angeles-based multifamily investor and developer specializing in buying 200-unit apartments outside of California. Gelena is the president at Skya Ventures, which specializes in acquiring undervalued off-market multifamily properties in Los Angeles. Keith said they are building a portfolio together.
“There’s a balance and some boundaries,” Gelena said. “Our roles are very defined. We do separate things. Keith does workforce housing. I do more design-centric multifamily, ground-up and very heavy rehab. So it’s very complementary.”
The pair include their children in the business.
“We bring them over to the job site. When we drive around town our daughter would go, ‘Look mom, look at that building. You should buy it.’ She looks at any building that looks run down and needs work,” Keith said. “It’s definitely been a family experience.”
Fifield’s Steve and Randy Fifield
Fifield founder and CEO Steve Fifield and Chairwoman Randy Fifield met on a business deal in 1991 and nearly 30 years later they are developing major mixed-use projects together around the U.S.
The two were both in real estate, and Steve was in the process of a workout with the bank after the CRE crash of the late '80s.
“Steve often joked that I had a greater net worth and he was a kept man once we started dating!” Randy said.
But she said in reality, the two have a strong partnership. Steve had previously only built office buildings, and she loves designing, building and renovating apartments. Together, they build live-work-play properties that appeal to clients and investors, such as Logan Apartments in Chicago and Catherine in Santa Monica, both opening this year.
Their five kids grew up around real estate as both a business and a hobby, and two followed them into the profession. Their daughter Alexa works for Oaktree Capital Management in Los Angeles, and their daughter Samantha works for CBRE in Washington, D.C. Nina and Jack were in Greystar’s summer management training program for the summer of 2019, but have decided on careers outside of commercial real estate, and their youngest, Katie, has an interest in medicine.
Though they have fun together, Randy said it hasn’t always been easy.
“Working together is not for the fainthearted. Team work, trust and tenacity,” she said. “It’s much harder than it looks to design, build and market apartments year after year. We are human and while it’s bricks and mortar, it’s a human business. You need a compassionate soul to stay at it for as many decades as we have invested and still love what you do.”
CBRE's Tim Bower and Laurie Lustig-Bower
Corporate consolidation brought Tim Bower and Laurie Lustig-Bower together.
Tim was working out of CBRE’s Miracle Mile office in 1991 when it was closed as part of a consolidation. He was moved to the West LA office, where Laurie worked.
“I remember the first time seeing her. She caught my eye. We were both in other relationships but we got to be friends,” he said.
After a year, he tried to turn their relationship romantic, but she was reluctant, fearing that an office relationship could turn sour and make work awkward.
“I kept chasing her. I was very persistent. Ultimately, I convinced her to go out with me. As soon as that happened, we clicked.”
They kept the relationship quiet for about six months before deciding it was serious enough to bring into the open, and they showed up at a work function together. The duo, who are still at CBRE — Laurie as an executive vice president and Tim as senior vice president — are celebrating their 21-year wedding anniversary today. They have a 17-year-old daughter who likely won’t follow them into CRE.
They work in the same office but he specializes in retail and she in multifamily, so they don’t usually work side by side, though sometimes they partner up for mixed-use work.
“We thought early on about teaming up together with everything we do. We ended up deciding not to do that,” Laurie said. “It gives us independence to be our own leaders of our own teams. I think that’s worked out well for us.”
“It’s great to have that overlap and that separation as well,” Tim said.
To keep work and home from being too blended, early in their relationship they set a 9 p.m. cutoff time where they can no longer discuss real estate.
Tim said convincing Laurie to date him is the best deal he has ever closed.
“It’s been terrific. What’s great about it is that I get to see her every day,” he said. “There are people in the office who call [their significant other] about who’s picking up their kids or what’s for dinner; I just walk over to her.”
RAAM Construction's Richard and Lisa Lara
Richard and Lisa Lara were college sweethearts who studied very different things but brought it all together for CRE business magic.
Lisa was studying business and Richard was in engineering at Cal Poly Pomona when they were introduced by one of his ex-girlfriends. Those backgrounds help Lisa and Richard run RAAM Construction, Richard as president and CEO, running the field aspects of the company, and Lisa as executive vice president of operations, focusing on the business side.
Their styles of work also balance each other out; Richard said Lisa brings more of a personal touch and keeps the employee and family perspective alive in their business.
There are some difficulties keeping work and home apart, but they embrace the family aspect of their family-owned business. RAAM is named for their children, Richard Alexander and Alexis Marie, and the kids helped with day-to-day activities in the office as they grew up, such as training employees on Microsoft Office. The kids are welcome to join and eventually run the company, though Lisa said she and Richard do not want to limit their choices and finding their own passion.
With 16 years in business and a portfolio of affordable multifamily development under their belt at RAAM, Richard and Lisa don’t see themselves as a power couple. They keep themselves humble and take very seriously their responsibility of providing livelihoods for their employees.
“Honestly, we see ourselves as just two people who decided to take a risk and start our own company to better the life of our family. We work very hard and appreciate all that our employees have done for the company,” she said.
“I feel very privileged to not only build a life with my husband, but also a company.”