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EagleBank Changemakers: Suzanne Hillman On Navigating Unprecedented Times, Advocating For Representation In CRE

"EagleBank is proud to present the DMV Changemakers Series, sharing the experience, work and perspectives of innovative real estate business leaders across the Washington, D.C., market. At EagleBank, we have a singular purpose: to be community builders. Our CRE financing continues to make a positive impact in communities throughout the mid-Atlantic. Our partners are setting the standard for the CRE industry by delivering projects that align with their communities’ needs.”  — Susan Riel, president and CEO, EagleBank

Southern Management Properties CEO Suzanne Hillman

Suzanne Hillman is the president and CEO of Southern Management Cos. based in Vienna, Virginia. Southern oversees more than 77 apartment communities and 25,000 apartment homes, in addition to other commercial properties, within the Baltimore/D.C. and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, areas. Hillman’s focus includes facilitating investments and enacting strategies as well as broadening Southern’s portfolio of real estate.

Bisnow recently spoke with Hillman to learn how she helped her employees pivot during the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest challenges commercial real estate is facing and why she believes the multifamily market is a white-hot opportunity for investors right now.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Bisnow: What has been your proudest accomplishment during the last 18 months?

Hillman: Over the course of a difficult year and a half, we have accomplished many things, but the one that makes me the most proud is Southern’s response to the pandemic. When Covid struck, we immediately identified a core group of company leaders who became our Covid-19 Response Team. 

The CRT made swift, thoughtful decisions to ensure the safety of our team members, residents, guests and tenants. Southern was among the first in our region to publicly release “Ever Strong,” a comprehensive strategy for safely operating during the pandemic. This plan, which clearly demonstrated Southern’s vigilant safety-first approach to business, has instilled confidence in our company and its leadership team.

Bisnow: Tell me about the most stressful day you had while leading your firm through the pandemic. How did you get through?

Hillman: My most stressful day was when we decided to close our corporate offices. Our decision to have corporate staff work from home was made in response to a rapidly devolving situation and driven by our desire to keep our team members safe. It was a very big decision and it was made quickly, without our typical process of careful deliberation. It was also an unprecedented change in the way we did business, and it felt monumental. I remember leaving a very empty office late that night, not knowing when we would be back or whether our hastily implemented work-from-home plan would actually be successful. 

I got through that day because I knew that we would make the best decision we could, given the information we had. I trusted my team and knew that they would navigate the uncertainty ahead by following Southern’s “three Rs” — doing the right things, in the right ways, for the right reasons. 

Bisnow: How do you and your firm advocate for and advance the interests of underrepresented groups in commercial real estate?

Hillman: Southern’s company culture has always been one of respect and equality for all. Advocating for people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, religions and sexual orientations has been incorporated into our culture and values since the 1960s — long before the business community at large recognized the importance of those issues or the need for change. One quick look at Southern is all it takes to see our commitment to diversity. At Southern, 59% of our senior-level managers are people of color, and 52% of our senior-level managers are women. We believe that actions speak louder than words, and we’ve spent the last half-century proving it by living our commitment to equality.

Bisnow: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing CRE now? 

Hillman: Our industry is overregulated by federal, state and local governmental entities that often render decisions without taking the time to understand complicated and multifaceted issues from all sides. The CRE industry is a frequent target of governmental overreaching and needs to do a better job of advocating for itself to ensure that our voices are being heard. Our elected officials need to hear from us more regularly, and we should not be shy about reminding them of the many ways in which our investments and properties improve lives within and bring value to their communities.

Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the CRE industry, what would it be?

Hillman: At times, the CRE industry feels very much like an “old boys’ network,” where opportunities are generated based more on one’s connections than one’s competence. I would like to see an end to that.

Bisnow: Where do you see the biggest opportunity for investment in the CRE world? 

Hillman: The multifamily real estate market is a red-hot investment opportunity and continues to be one of the most stable investment classes in the CRE industry. An incredibly lopsided seller’s market in single-family homes has driven their prices up, while their supply remains down. These changes in the single-family sector have resulted in an increased demand for multifamily properties and made investments in our sector more attractive.

Bisnow: What do you want your legacy to be?

Hillman: I want people to recognize Southern Management as a company that provides a quality product, whether it is housing, from workforce to Class-A, office space or hotels; as a company that conducts business honestly and fairly, delivering real value to all of our stakeholders — investors, team members and customers; and as an engaged and responsible member of their community who works really hard, each and every day to improve the lives of those inside and outside of our properties.