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At This Seattle CRE Shop, Leadership Is A Sister Act

Lindsey Pflugrath, Cairncross & Hempelmann

Sisters Erika and Anne Marie Koehler are no strangers to commercial real estate. Growing up in the shadow of their father, Westlake Center developer Steve Koehler, the retail side of CRE comes naturally. Yet even they find the male-dominated industry intimidating. For these two, teaming up as managing directors at Newmark Knight Frank means ongoing, unconditional support.

“As women, you do need a team where there’s trust, respect and friendship,” Erika Koehler said. “As sisters we have each other. We are a team that’s unbreakable.”

The sisters’ CRE family history is a common pathway for women into the industry, said Lindsey Pflugrath, an attorney at Hempelmann & Cairncross. 

Erika Koehler

There are numbers to back up her assertion. Companies that are in the top 25% for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians, according to a white paper by CREW. Also, innovation is six times higher at companies with the most equal workforce cultures. Firms that have a board that is 30% women can add up to a 6% increase to the company’s net margin. 

In the white paper, Paula Loop, who leads the governance insights center of the consulting firm PwC, points out all-male boards tend to examine problems as they arise, while boards with more women monitor company’s current performance more closely. 

Pflugrath, who works with CRE clients in the Seattle area, says about 10% to 15% of the industry is led by women. “Women are typically just below the top level unless they are a member of a CRE family,” she said.

Nationally, only about 9% of C-suite positions are held by women, according to figures from the Commercial Real Estate Women Network. About 27% are at the senior vice president, managing director and partner levels, while 54% of the midlevel associate and senior positions are held by women.

Pflugrath said she believes it would behoove the industry if that changed.

“When I work with women I notice they are very collaborative,” she said. “They listen to my advice and that garners better results.”

For example, Pflugrath recently worked with a male client who independently made some last-minute changes to a deal. In the end, those independent decisions worsened the outcome. “Women know they don’t know everything, and they are very willing to take my advice and bring me all the as information and aspects of a deal,” she said.


Anne Marie Koehler

Erika Koehler said having mixed-gender leadership teams makes good business sense. Pflugrath said not all men and women fall into these stereotypical categories. Still, she sees the clear advantages of mixed-gender leadership teams.

“When you have both men and women in leadership roles, it ends up being a more dynamic decision-making process,” Koehler said. “If the group is more diverse, you come up with more out-of-the-box solutions.”

Pflugrath said she believes commercial real estate would by wise to intentionally pull women up to leadership roles by supporting them with work-life balance options.

“Right about the time you start having agency over your skill set and start to have leadership positions people want to start having families,” she said. 

Having a baby is a burden that falls on the woman, Pflugrath said. If companies want to retain a mixed-gender leadership team they need to support women through that phase and give them flexible options to continue working.

So what’s a woman to do to get ahead in this industry? Pflugrath says it’s a numbers game. Women need to be good at money.

“The problem is systemic, Young girls feel excluded from math and science. It starts there," she said. "For women, there needs to be a greater emphasis on the money side of things whether that’s in investment or raising equity.”

“Money will always be talking in this industry,” she said. “You need to understand how to raise it and manage it.”