CRE's Next Generation: Northwestern Mutual's Nylz Reyes On His 'Covert Infiltration' Of The Industry
This series asks rising stars in commercial real estate about their thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry, including inequality, climate change and technology.
Growing up, Northwestern Mutual Real Estate Associate Nylz Reyes never thought he’d wind up in commercial real estate, much less making a difference for people of color in the industry.
“I was never even that big about race,” Reyes told Bisnow. “I would get into arguments with my siblings because I was so much like, ‘It’s all about work.’”
In getting to where he is now, Reyes was forced to confront the challenges unique to Black people and other marginalized ethnic groups. He is still all about work, but now what he does is more than just for his own advancement. He formed CBRE's first local diversity task force and still champions it after leaving the company.
“I’m pretty much the poster child for diversity in the CRE industry, and I say that because my background is very atypical in the business,” Reyes said.
The son of a Jamaican mother and a father from the Dominican Republic who split up soon after he was born, Reyes was raised in the East Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. The neighborhood’s ZIP code, 19150, is 95% Black according to census data, and Reyes both recognizes how difficult it can be to rise above such circumstances in the poorest big city in the U.S. and bristles at the notion that his story could be defined by what he looks like or where he comes from.
“Sometime the ZIP code you’re born in is predictive of your life, of the opportunities that will or won’t be provided to you,” Reyes said. “I’m definitely on point, high speed, legit when it comes to getting stuff done. That’s my personality … And I say that because I’m not the kind of person who’s blaming problems on ‘the man.’”
Growing up the oldest of five children without a consistent father figure, Reyes struggled through high school while “lost in the sauce,” without the grades to stay on the football or track and field teams despite showing some athletic promise. Wanting to make his mother proud but unsure how, he found his next step in the military recruiters that heavily target neighborhoods like East Mount Airy, promising a way to pay for secondary education. Only 17, he obtained his mother’s permission to enlist in the Army National Guard.
“I hate to say this, but Uncle Sam was my daddy, because I joined at such a young age,” Reyes said. “The values my drill sergeants instilled in me became my framework going forward, and they gave me a form of mental toughness to where I became very disciplined, easily motivated and comfortable being uncomfortable. And I took that and have carried it for the rest of my life.”
From there, Reyes attended the historically Black North Carolina A&T University, entering the nursing program and graduating with honors. He returned to Philadelphia and took a job at one of the most challenging nursing gigs in the city: the emergency department at North Philadelphia’s Einstein Medical Center. As he moved from there to Hahnemann University Hospital and finally to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, he distinguished himself to co-workers and his community as a fast riser.
“I felt great about myself,” Reyes said. “I was a leader in my neighborhood; everybody knew me.”
But when HUP began construction on its New Patient Pavilion, it kindled what Reyes described as a latent interest in commercial real estate, showing him firsthand the influence that people who buy and sell buildings of that size could wield. He also found himself, at 30 years old, wondering where his next steps should lead.
“Based on that exposure to the real estate of the hospital, I dove deep into Google and emerged three weeks later with a full-grown beard, knowing, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” Reyes said.
As luck would have it, one of his patients in the specialized intensive care unit where he worked was John Gallagher, the former chief financial officer of Brandywine Realty Trust who has since died. Reyes shared his interest, and Gallagher set up a meeting with himself, Jackson Cross Partners founding partner Pete Davisson and retired real estate executive Pat Armstrong — what Reyes called “My ‘three wise men’ meeting.”
The “wise men” told Reyes what he would learn firsthand later on: Success in real estate is based on relationships and experience. Without any of the former, Reyes applied for graduate school to gain the latter. Even as he attended New York University’s master's program in real estate, attending and placing well in contests like the 2016 MIT Real Estate Competition, he saw himself falling behind his classmates for reasons he couldn’t identify.
“My classmates were getting jobs, interviews, internships, and I wasn’t getting anything,” Reyes said. “Grad school was like $120K, so I couldn’t come out of it with no job. So then I used my military background, thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got to come up with a plan to covertly infiltrate the industry.’”
Reyes was heartened by the stories of his role models in the industry: Tristan Capital Partners Executive Chairman and Chief Investment Officer Ric Lewis; BentallGreenOak CEO Sonny Kalsi; Capri Capital Partners co-founder, Chairman and CEO Quintin Primo; and MacFarlane Partners Chairman and CEO Victor MacFarlane. When he graduated from NYU, he tagged each of them in a LinkedIn post that read, simply, “I got next!”
Reyes knew he wanted to work in his hometown, but the only valuations job he was offered anywhere was with CBRE’s health care practice in Boston. Since CBRE didn’t have a Philadelphia-based health care valuation practice at the time, Reyes committed to learning the ropes in Boston before coming back to Philly.
“My friends were like, ‘Why are you doing this? Not only are you leaving health care, but going to Boston?’" Reyes said, referring to Boston’s reputation of being unwelcoming to Black people. “They were like, ‘We appreciate you for being Captain Black America, but Boston? We’re a little scared for you.’”
He looked to CBRE Executive Vice President Randal Dawson, who specializes in valuations just like Reyes wanted to, as a mentor and an example that his goal was possible.
But within two weeks of starting at CBRE, Reyes sensed something was off. His immediate superior, who no longer works at the company, initially promised to bring Reyes along to a health care real estate conference in Philadelphia. But as the conference’s first day drew closer, the manager wouldn’t commit to even telling Reyes whether they would be traveling by plane or train. When the day came, the manager said he was going down to Philly alone.
“I heard the excuses: ‘Something came up, money’s tight,’ etc.,” Reyes said. “I’m a soldier, so I got back to work, but I was hurt.”
Reyes struggled against the microaggressions familiar to so many women and people of color in the business world at large: finding himself excluded from meetings and email threads, losing opportunities to make the connections the industry runs on.
“So many people don’t realize what covert racism looks like,” Reyes said. “It’s not a Confederate flag on your lawn; it’s what I dealt with.”
After bringing his concerns to his superior, Reyes was promised that he would be given more opportunities, and in February 2017, he received one. Reyes was given the assignment to work on a valuation for The Watermark at Franklin Square in Philadelphia, a swanky senior living facility owned by Fortress Investments.
“I thought, ‘This is what I stayed here for,’” Reyes said. “I knew it was worth something.”
Mere weeks later, the account was reassigned to a White man who had graduated from college the previous summer. Reyes said the slight crystallized how much more likely a manager or executive is to hand opportunities to people who look like them.
“Lack of advancement is not something that my White colleagues ever had to face,” Reyes said. “I can’t tell you how many people I talked to that were lacrosse players or coaches, and they said they heard about commercial real estate by seeing a guy pull up in a Bentley, asking where they worked and asking for a job. And boom, they got it.”
Reyes slammed his laptop and walked out of the office that day, feeling defeated. CBRE leadership called him and asked what it could do to get him not to quit. His answer: “Put me back in Philly.”
Once he arrived back home, Reyes attended the same conference from which he had been snubbed and saw the same manager — with the White employee who had replaced Reyes in tow. It strengthened his resolve to attack the problem himself.
Reyes saw that CBRE had diversity task forces at the national level, but as the truism goes, real estate is about three things: location, location, location.
“There was nothing on the local level,” Reyes said. “So with my military mindset, I was like, ‘We need to form this task force. We need to attack this problem.’ I would literally communicate with my team like I was their captain.”
Reyes noticed that much of the diversity in real estate was in property management or other divisions that mainly worked away from the main offices, preventing them from forming the connections that might allow them to spread their wings. Every few months, the task force would have events to bring people from those groups into the office.
“The diversity that’s in CRE is out in the field, it’s not in the office,” Reyes said. “In the office, it’s mostly all White, so how else do you bring them in front of executives?”
Bisnow asked CBRE for comment on a detailed list of Reyes’ experiences. The company responded with the following statement from a spokesperson:
“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a priority for CBRE. Our company and our work for clients are enhanced by maintaining an environment where people of all backgrounds and experiences can thrive. We continually strive to improve our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and appreciate Nylz Reyes’ help with those efforts during his time at CBRE and value the work he performed for our clients. We wish him great success in advancing his career.”
When Adam Mullen arrived as CBRE Philadelphia’s Market Leader in January 2019, he was immediately supportive of Reyes’ diversity efforts and his career ambitions. Mullen brought him to conferences and introduced him to executives at other CBRE divisions and even other companies, but most of the time, the communication would peter out before Reyes had the chance to formally interview.
“Whenever a person of color has a fault in the hiring process, boom, it’s a reason for you to be done,” Reyes said. “[With] a White male, they always find a reason to push you over that issue.”
Eventually, Reyes interviewed at Northwestern Mutual, where he saw greater diversity throughout the company’s ranks and a “Midwestern niceness” that he found especially welcoming.
“Northwestern got diversity recruitment right,” Reyes said. “There are people of color at executive levels, in offices around the country, and in positions I wanted to be in. I didn’t tell them anything I went through, and they hired me anyway.
“They said, ‘You come here, you perform, the sky’s the limit.’ And I saw that throughout the company.”
Reyes joined Northwestern over the summer, but he still participates in meetings of the CBRE diversity task force he founded in Philadelphia and helps put on events like job fairs for students at local colleges, including the region’s historically Black institutions Cheyney, Lincoln and Delaware State universities. It was at one of those events that Reyes found the next challenge he wanted to attack.
“One of my pet peeves is that minorities in the industry don’t reach back out enough,” Reyes said. “I don’t think all the blame should go on White people. I wasn’t looking for Adam Mullen to recruit and retain people, to budget for it. I took ownership of my community, gathered individuals like me and gave them the pitch on commercial real estate, which they had no exposure to.
“All the White brokers who went to Wharton, to Villanova, they go to the career events,” he said. “So if you’re Black and went to Temple, you need to go to these job events and be leading the charge. And that’s why I got the results.”
Now, Reyes is confident that Northwestern gives him the opportunity to advance and fully expects to take advantage and rise as high as he can. But to truly take not just his own fate, but the fate of those who share in his struggle, in his hands, he believes he will have to start his own company one day.
“Coming from the ZIP code where I grew up to where I am now, why stop here? I’m going for gold.”