43 Real Estate Execs On The Biggest Lessons Of 2020

The last 280 days of the cornavirus pandemic have been unprecedented, unimaginable and tragic in countless ways. From an economic perspective, where we work, where we eat, where we shop — where we do anything — is still mostly in flux. It’s anyone’s guess what will come back stronger, or perhaps not at all. At every level of real estate and the global economy, people and companies are suffering.

But as a vaccine starts to be distributed, things could start to turn around, and businesses are looking at how their strategy should be different in the new year.

Bisnow reached out to commercial real estate executives across the world — from Calabasas, California, to Birmingham, England, and wherever else the business class is working from home — to ask a simple question: How has 2020 changed the way you’re going to run your business moving forward?

These interviews have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

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Courtesy of Rao Mulpuri

View CEO Rao Mulpuri at Machu Picchu

NAME: Rao Mulpuri
JOB TITLE: Chairman and CEO of View Inc.
SECTOR: Smart buildings
CITY: Milpitas, California
YEARS IN CRE: 12 

In spite of a global pandemic that has led to immediate uncertainty in the real estate and construction markets earlier in the year, the picture became clearer and we recently announced our plans to go public and are experiencing unprecedented growth as we reinvent the way buildings are built. Most importantly, we are doubling down on our mission and laying the foundation for a post-COVID world where the health and well-being of people is the No. 1 priority for landlords and building managers. The shift toward healthier buildings didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s set to become an even more important trend in building design going forward, as people imagine life in the post-pandemic world. Leading companies are accelerating their sustainability goals, several of the industry’s most important investors have sustainability mandates, and the demand for safe, differentiated workplace experiences has never been greater. This year, we’ve all had to learn to navigate a shifting array of guidelines developed to keep us safe. Maybe more than other companies, government regulations are a key tailwind behind View’s ability to grow and thrive. For example, new building codes specifically target glass facades and windows. If 2020 has helped us appreciate one thing in particular, it’s that we are biologically hard-wired to crave connection to people and the outdoors; we need it to learn, grow, be productive and stay healthy. With View, the possibilities for connection are endless. And we’re just getting started.

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NAMES: Mike Pestronk and Matt Pestronk
JOB TITLES: Co-founders of Post Brothers
SECTOR: Multifamily and other commercial development 
CITY: Philadelphia
YEARS IN CRE: 15 years

The enduring appeal of urban living has been made clear: People don’t only live in the city to be close to their jobs and for restaurants and bars. They live in the city for opportunity — opportunity for professional advancement, for personal relationships, and to build off of the collective energy and ideas of others. Leasing has not had a terrible slowdown for us through the pandemic, and in fact, this quarter we are leasing more apartments than a typical year. People see the light at the end of the tunnel and are anticipating and appreciating more than ever the vitality of city life. Counter to popular narrative during the pandemic, we had less residents than in any of the previous four years move to sunnier southern places from the East Coast. It’s clear that our residents — urban, Class-A renters — do not want a suburban lifestyle with a grass backyard. The many factors that made urban living so appealing have been made clearer to us than ever, and we are generally doubling down on urban development. Simply put, people now appreciate and miss what they had and are extremely excited to get it back. 

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NAME: Keith Breslauer
JOB TITLE: Managing Director of Patron Capital
SECTOR: Private equity
CITY: London
YEARS IN CRE: 32 

2020 has really brought the “why” to the front of all of our minds. Why do you do what you do? For me, it has completely confirmed that our approach of learning to navigate risk and find opportunities in any market, regardless of the conditions and how challenging they may be, is the right one. I’ll be taking this with me into 2021, both in business and in life, as we continue to explore the bigger “why” of our impact on the world around us by creating a positive impact on as many lives as possible through the Patron Charitable Initiatives and the Women in Safe Homes Fund.

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NAME: Bradley Tisdahl
JOB TITLE: Principal and CEO of Tenant Risk Assessment
SECTOR: Office, industrial and retail
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 7

We have been forced to look at tenant risk through a narrower, shorter-term lens given the immense strain on certain asset classes. We are looking at two futures: a near-term reality and a longer-term aspiration. The current reality requires us to continue advising clients on cash flow risk while negotiating with distressed tenants to ensure our clients have adequate liquidity to service their debt obligations. Longer-term, once the pandemic is comfortably in the rearview, we expect to emerge into an environment where office and retail tenants use their space in new and innovative ways. Evolving real estate strategies are likely to introduce new fiscal pressure on our client base, which includes owners and landlords across North America and globally, which will reshape how we underwrite leases and acquisitions on behalf of our clients.  

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Bisnow Archive/Joseph Pimentel

Convene CEO and co-founder Ryan Simonetti

NAME: Ryan Simonetti
JOB TITLE: CEO of Convene
SECTOR: Flexible workspace
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 16

Running Convene this past year has been nothing like the past 11 years that we’ve been in business. This has been more difficult than when we founded the company during the ‘09 recession, and it has helped to reveal our own outdated modes of thinking and operating. The biggest change for us has been shifting from operating a physical business to a digitally led one because of the launch of our Virtual Meetings product. It requires increased agility and the willingness to try and fail, which feels a lot like we’re growing a startup within a startup. I want us to continue looking at the business with fresh eyes as things open up again next year. On the people management front, I expect that we’ll continue being more flexible and understanding with our employees, many of whom appreciate the flexibility offered by working remotely. We’re learning to balance that with the needs of our business because we have full teams manning our command centers for Virtual. I also think that our business has to adapt to the trends that have accelerated rapidly due to COVID-19. In 2017, I had predicted that by 2030, “third places” would be the No. 1 preferred workspace category, and I now think that will happen in 2025. I had said that the average commercial lease term will approach one year in 2040, which I now think will be 2035. Smart buildings are also going to be part of our lives a lot sooner than I initially thought. Much of what we’re focusing on is accelerating our approach to meeting and event venues and flexible workspaces in order to meet this fast-approaching reality. Most importantly, our team has supported one another this past year. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m proud of how we’ve shown up for each other.

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NAME: Nelson Stabile
JOB TITLE: Principal of Integra Investments
SECTOR: Multifamily
CITY: Miami
YEARS IN CRE: 20  

In 2021, we will continue to place value on boutique buildings with high walkability scores and access to a variety of around-the-clock services. With health and wellness at the top of people’s minds, commercial and residential developers are incorporating more open, distanced spaces that allow them to cater to the new climate. Specifically, there is an emphasis on untapped products that merge single-family home features with Class-A multifamily amenities. Regarding retail, our focus will be on assets that appeal to a service-oriented tenant mix in high-barrier-to-entry markets. As we look forward to 2021, our firm will become even more conservative as it pertains to cash flow preservation, as this pandemic has shown us the importance of well-capitalized businesses and real estate investments.

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NAME: Quency Phillips
JOB TITLE: Development Engagement & Community Partnerships Manager at Lendlease/Google Development Ventures
SECTOR: Development
CITY: San Francisco
YEARS IN CRE: 6

2020 has been the perfect lighting, set and scene for our “equity play” in development. The pandemic has forced us to reassess all that we know, and in our business, it has shown the importance of affordable housing and how we place standards around health and social sustainability efforts across the globe. Social injustice and Black Lives Matter movements could not be ignored, and we responded with the creation of the Diversity and Inclusion Council for the Americas to begin to hold ourselves accountable as global leaders in development. We are not looking to be applauded, as we all can do more. It’s up to us to keep the pressure on one another so that we all are leaders with no desire to follow the standards of our past.

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Courtesy of Bobby Turner

Turner Impact Capital’s Bobby Turner

NAME: Bobby Turner
JOB TITLE: CEO of Turner Impact Capital
SECTOR: Social impact investing  
CITY: Santa Monica, California
YEARS IN CRE: 18 

More than any other year, 2020 put a spotlight on how fragile our most vulnerable populations are to unforeseen emergencies, and [on] the urgent need for private investment to help strengthen these communities at a time when government and philanthropy are falling short. That includes investing to preserve affordable housing for families as our historic housing crisis continues to worsen. And finally, the demands for justice following the killing of George Floyd underlined the moral imperative to continually extend opportunity to those who have historically been excluded, particularly in underserved communities. In terms of running our business, the year has reinforced the importance of proactive leadership and open, transparent communication. Being distanced from one another during this dramatic period has only increased the importance of asserting the values our firm stands for and the need to stay closely aligned with all of our stakeholders — from employees to investors, lenders, tenants and partners. We will be doing even more in the future to keep communications channels open and active, in all directions. And finally, the year has driven home the need to stay nimble. I’ve experienced a number of crises over my 30-year career, beginning with the stock market crash of 1987. Each time, I’m reminded of the importance not only of IQ but also AQ — adaptability quotient. The ability to stay flexible and resilient in uncertain times — both to seize opportunity and to adjust course when necessary — is ultimately what differentiates those who thrive during a crisis versus those who merely survive.

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NAME: Chris Charnas
JOB TITLE: CEO of Links Capital Advisors
SECTOR: Land brokerage
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 30

As a CRE broker specializing in golf course sales, 2020 started with the golf course industry shutting down and ended with it having the best year in 20 years. The impact on the golf industry from COVID was remarkable. With golf being one of the few activities that was safe to do outside, the industry flourished in 2020. More people played golf, more people bought golf equipment, more rounds were played and golf course owners had their best year in over a decade. How this new golf boom will impact golf course sales is anyone’s guess. As a golf course broker, I will need to be attentive to market trends as buyers and sellers sort out the new reality of increased EBITDA and the impact that has on valuation. One trend already materializing is new investors are starting to look at golf as a potential investment, and my business will need to identify those new buyers and assist them in their first golf course acquisition. Here’s hoping the positive change in golf course industry fortunes becomes a long-term trend with increased rounds, revenue and course sales.   

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NAME: Lauren Jennings
JOB TITLE: Vice President of Operations at DCG Strategies
SECTOR: Development
CITY: Oakland
YEARS IN CRE: 6

While 2020 has drawn a lot of awareness to social equity and inclusion disparities such as racism, housing insecurity and economic mobility, our firm has been working in this space for years. 2020 has afforded us the opportunity to leverage the newfound national attention and resources directed at these very issues. As a result, 2020 has expanded our reach in ways we could have never forecasted. Our team has embraced tools that allow us to have a greater impact in the work that we do. The use of electronic meetings, in addition to the business community’s desire to be more collaborative, has allowed us to drastically expand our market outside of California. Moving forward, we refuse to go back to the old way of doing business and instead choose to embrace change.

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NAME: Ashley Parker
JOB TITLE: Vice President of Richard Bowers & Co.
SECTOR: Office and industrial
CITY: Atlanta
YEARS IN CRE: 21 

Things that I thought I controlled were yanked away — some temporarily, some possibly permanently. Many, if not most, of us, in this industry succeed through our efforts to create positive outcomes for our clients, company and ourselves. We especially like being in control. So, personally, I have had to reconsider what are the things that I cannot change and instead go with the flow — and hopefully find ways to grow. In other words, 2020 certainly gave new meaning to the serenity prayer.

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Courtesy of Lisa Skye Hain

Lisa Skye Hain, co-founder and CEO of Primary, a coworking company in Manhattan.

NAME: Lisa Skye Hain
JOB TITLE: CEO and co-founder of Primary
SECTOR: Coworking/office
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 10 

Given we are in the flexible office space business, we are highly focused on offering our members even greater flexibility, with plans that include office and meeting room use several times per month along with access to partner operator spaces in other boroughs and cities throughout the United States. Post-pandemic, I believe new clients will select space based on cleanliness protocols and an overall feeling of safety at work. We are lucky in that our already-built aesthetic is one that gives people generous space to move around — we’ve never packed members in like sardines.

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NAME: Gary LaBarbera
JOB TITLE: President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York
SECTOR: Construction/development/labor union
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 25

The safety of our members and of all construction workers has always been a foremost priority for the unionized construction industry. The pandemic reinforced how critical these safety measures are to the success of the industry, but it also broadened the sanitary health and safety protocols that workers should come to expect on the worksite into the foreseeable future. While this year has been exceptionally challenging for construction, we’re proud of the unprecedented and historic agreements we reached with the real estate community and union contractors that will bring long-standing benefits to the industry and ensure that the sanitary health and safety of workers always remains paramount.

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NAME: Charles Krawitz
JOB TITLE: Vice President and Head of Commercial Lending and Loan Trading at Alliant Credit Union
SECTOR: Commercial Lending
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 30

Above all else, 2020 has underscored that we can ill afford to “give away the shop” in terms of lenient deal structures, even when a loan proposition seems ultraconservative. Rather, we have learned that it behooves both the borrower and lender to keep some money on the sidelines to hedge against a macro calamity akin to the 2020 COVID outbreak. The ability to weather a storm cannot be understated, which means that debt service escrows ranging from six to 12 months’ worth of loan payments are here to stay.  

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NAME: Ryan Smith 
JOB TITLE: Vice President of Venture Commercial Real Estate
SECTOR: Retail brokerage — project leasing (landlord specialization)
CITY: Dallas-Fort Worth
YEARS IN CRE: 10 

We have to be a lot more creative than we have been in the past, especially when managing deal structures. There is clearly uncertainty about the next 12 months. Tenants are uneasy about committing, and they don’t know if another shutdown period is around the corner and how long that will last. Landlords want to be more conservative on who they want to take a chance on. Both sides have strong concerns, so I feel like I am in the middle making sure the communication is as fluid as possible. Recently, I have been a lot more hands-on with my landlord clients, planning, budgeting and determining TI allocations. Technology has been critical. In spaces where I have vacancies, I am getting interior shots of all of the spaces and trying to anticipate the questions that are going to be asked because travel continues to be an issue, so being able to show everything you can on a website or in an email is important. We are having to get creative with the ramp-up period. Free rent was something that wasn’t necessarily negotiated with tenants, but tenants may say I want six months’ rent free now when committing to a new deal. I am starting to push back on landlords’ expectations of rent, and we are starting to see the tenant improvement dollars that we are allocating go up 10% to 15% from last year because the tenants have less cash available and lending scrutiny has increased despite lower demand.

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Bisnow Archive/Joseph Pimentel

Neighborhood Goods CEO Matt Alexander, JLL Americas Retail President and CEO Greg Maloney and Thyng CEO Ed LaHood discuss the innovative products coming to retail at ICSC RECon 2019 in Las Vegas.

NAME: Greg Maloney
JOB TITLE: CEO of JLL Retail
SECTOR: Retail
CITY: Atlanta
YEARS IN CRE: 25

There is no question that COVID-19 has brought change at an unprecedented rate to the retail industry and will have a lasting impact on consumer behavior. But bright spots continue to emerge as consumer sales are already back to pre-pandemic levels, albeit dollars are being spent differently. When retail stores shuttered in March and April and consumers stayed home, there was a clear shift toward essentials such as groceries and health supplies and a reduction in discretionary spending on entertainment, dine-in restaurants, gyms and department stores. Now, in some parts of the country, we are starting to see foot traffic at physical retail tick back up, especially during the holiday shopping season where ship-to-home volumes are putting increased pressure on supply chains. It’s important to note that the pandemic in most instances has not really been an initiator of new trends but rather an accelerator of ones that had already been emerging. According to a recent JLL report, some retailers will exit the pandemic stronger than before, forced to adapt and evolve their services and operations much faster than under normal circumstances, but it’s no secret that we will lose retailers as well. I expect that retailers with a strong online presence, coupled with strong curbside pickup and pickup-in-store options, will be in the best position to grow and thrive post-pandemic. JLL’s role as we move into a new year and “new normal” will be to continue to offer retail owners, occupiers and investors a one-team approach in helping them reach their goals.

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NAME: Carmen Hill
JOB TITLE: President of CitiHousing Real Estate Services
SECTOR: Investment sales
CITY: Los Angeles
YEARS IN CRE: 39

In 2021, I will focus on projects for medium-sized investors. There will continue to be demand for the medium class of income properties, considering the low interest rates and favorable tax laws, since I’m not anticipating a significant change in the tax laws for real estate under the new administration. I will focus on properties selling for less than $5M and finding good values outside of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, such as in San Bernardino County.

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NAME: Guy Windsor-Lewis
JOB TITLE: Founder and CEO of Locale Ltd.
SECTOR: Property management
CITY: Birmingham, England
YEARS IN CRE: 15

Have greater empathy. Understanding that the entire world is going through the same situation as you and appreciating what you can do to help is vital, both internally and externally. This includes listening to clients, encouraging staff to speak up and working together to find meaningful, impactful solutions. 2020 has also taught me to not just innovate and be a cliché. Knowing what will actually work for our clients and showcasing the return on investment enables us to provide the best service possible. In an age of the “emperor’s new clothing”, consistency is important, but it doesn’t guarantee success. I am definitely going to shout loudly and proudly, but in the right places and to the right people. They say hindsight is 20/20, and this year has proved it.

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NAME: Tim Helmig
JOB TITLE: Managing Partner of Monday Properties
SECTOR: Office
CITY: Washington, D.C.
YEARS IN CRE: 25 

Our No. 1 goal is the safety and well-being of our tenants and our employees. We believe that many of the investments we have made to the operations of our buildings, including the expansion of our advanced HVAC filter technology, virtual tour platform, digital document signing and the increased implementation of hands-free technologies, will be a mainstay in 2021 and the foreseeable future. This year has changed the way many companies run their operations, and we are adapting to these policies and preferences to better serve our tenants. For example, we know that some tenants will not need as much office space due to a flexible work schedule, while others will need twice the amount due to social distancing. We plan to move forward into 2021 with continued efforts focused on listening to all of our current and potential tenants and the industry as a whole to create and design safe, innovative and efficient spaces.

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Bisnow/Jon Banister

Menkiti Group CEO Bo Menkiti at a 2018 Bisnow event

NAME: Bo Menkiti
JOB TITLE: Founder and CEO of The Menkiti Group
SECTOR: Development
CITY: Washington, D.C.
YEARS IN CRE: 16

The pandemic has shown us that things we could never imagine — like vast swaths of the economy shutting down — could in fact happen. The precedent has been set by these unprecedented times, making it now essential for businesses to anticipate and prepare for it happening again. As a result, there have been very decisive changes and adaptations necessary for businesses to thrive in our new world. The need for flexibility and the ability to adjust on a moment’s notice is now critical. As a business, we have seen an acceleration of the use of technology and swiftly adapted to this new virtual world. For the first time, people are buying homes they’ve only seen over FaceTime and open houses are being held where no one physically visits the house. Community meetings and design charettes are held over Zoom, and our internal teams are now connecting virtually across geographic boundaries. 2020 has also brought to light the work we must do as a country in addressing social inequalities and racial equity in addition to highlighting how international crises like the pandemic affect different communities in different ways. Business leaders are now tasked with taking decisive and direct action while also being challenged to lead with a humanistic approach. This new dynamic has created a clarion call for us as business leaders during the crisis; it has never been clearer that businesses, especially in the real estate industry, play an important role in increasing access to opportunities and equity in our nation’s communities.

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NAME: Moe Vela
JOB TITLE: Chief Transparency Officer at TransparentBusiness
SECTOR: Consulting (specializes in tech that facilitates remote work)
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE:

Arguably the most impactful change to the workforce has been the “new normal” of working remotely. This involuntary move to a predominantly remote workforce model has resulted in enhanced productivity, consistent operational efficiencies and a happier and healthier workforce, not to mention substantial savings to the company. In order to remain competitive and attract the greatest global talent, the biggest business behavior change we will see in the future is that businesses will be making remote work an employee benefit and option no different than offering health insurance or paid vacation. 

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NAME: Marshall Mills
JOB TITLE: President and CEO of Weitzman
SECTOR: Retail Brokerage
CITY: Dallas-Fort Worth
YEARS IN CRE: 20 

We launched digital marketing for our retail centers to make Weitzman properties and tenants competitive in an e-commerce world. But the pandemic moved digital from the “optional” to the “critical” column. People increasingly make shopping and dining decisions on their devices, and if you are digitally dark, you probably will not survive the consumer-behavior changes caused by COVID. Getting our mom-and-pop and even chain tenants on digital is one focus for us this year and going forward. We’re becoming a consultant for our tenants, from the time they open a new store in a Weitzman center to offering resources and consultative insights on how to set up a digital footprint and how to build their brands in the nearby trade area/communities. That benefits the tenant, and it benefits the center because it leads to increased tenant sales and retention.

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Courtesy of Origin Investments

Origin Investments principals Michael Episcope and David Scherer started the company in 2007.

NAME: David Scherer
JOB TITLE: Co-CEO, Origin Investments
SECTOR: Investment
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 14

We’ve always invested in suburban multifamily, focusing on assets with high walkability scores and convenient access to transportation in expanding job markets. Origin expects to focus more on suburban than downtown projects as we address issues of affordability and changing demographics. We’re involved in projects that allow us to design and build high-quality, garden-style properties at a basis that delivers high-quality, amenity-filled assets that are attractively priced and very rentable. Further, we’ve all witnessed how COVID is changing suburban demographic trends. Even small changes can represent significant shifts. We’ve seen how e-commerce has impacted industrial and retail real estate, despite e-commerce sales only totaling 15%. Ultimately, the current suburban shift could be significant. Yet even if it isn’t, we’re protected by the affordability factor.   

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NAME: Ken Ashley
JOB TITLE: Chairman of Cushman & Wakefield
SECTOR: Office tenant representation
CITY: Atlanta
YEARS IN CRE: 25 

The way tenant rep brokers communicate with their clients and prospects has fundamentally changed — at least for now. The days of hugs, handshakes and in-person lunches are off the table. What tools do we have left for communication and differentiation? Why, social media, of course. Real estate Twitter is amazing and so informative, and LinkedIn is like the best and most thoughtful coffee shop you can imagine. However, only listening in social media is like going to a cocktail party and not talking with anyone. Authentically contributing to a conversation, be it IRL or online, is how brokers are able to do what they are good at: sharing information and hopefully thought-leading ideas. In 2021, I plan to write a lot more. Real estate discussions are THE conversation that executives want to have now, and I plan to honor that sentiment in as many ways as I can. This would be a high bar, but I would hope they will think of me as real estate’s Johnny Appleseed. I want to plant as many ideas as I can with the idea they will grow into real plans of action. And I will share whatever ideas I do have freely and without expectation of my own personal gain. 

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NAME: Michael Silver
JOB TITLE: Chairman of Vestian Global
SECTOR: Tenant brokerage
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 35

As a business owner, the added remote work has been a boon for our productivity. I am able to visit with my colleagues coast to coast and internationally in a very personal way — albeit remotely. In this manner, we are able to function as one company with a single voice and message compared to the past where our offices had created boundaries. Not surprisingly, the commercial office space world has imploded. It is definitely not a good time to be an owner of an office building or represent an office building. As such, the majority of our company time is now spent with clients, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, who are seeking to reduce or eliminate their office space obligations. We have been quite successful at expeditiously getting rid of or reducing space, saving clients significant money. The sooner businesses do this — especially the typical office space user such as law firms, accounting firms, and banks and financial institutions — the quicker they can reap the benefits of reduced costs and overhead. These cost savings can be used to “fund people instead of overhead” and help instill a more productive and healthier corporate culture.

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Courtesy of Adelaide Polsinelli

Compass Vice Chair Adelaide Polsinelli

NAME: Adelaide Polsinelli
JOB TITLE: Vice Chair of Compass
SECTOR: Brokerage
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 35

I have been on the phone, calling my clients every day since March. They say, “Don’t waste a good pandemic,” so I heeded that advice by expanding my footprint nationally. As my clients started to move out of the city to find safer, more predictable investments, I formed alliances in other states. Luckily, my firm has coverage throughout the U.S. I got licensed in states where I needed inventory. I have become knowledgeable in other areas with feet on the ground at any given time. 2020 forced me to become more creative and challenged me to find unique methods of being supportive for my clients as their needs changed. I have taken a multifaceted approach and become a one-stop-shop for my clients. I have expanded my business to include advisory, residential sales and leasing, office and retail leasing, as well as debt and equity. Being centered and steady while also available for my clients for moral support, advice and guidance has been critical. I can now do every aspect of my job without the need for any support personnel. Most importantly, I have had to keep up with the news to be able to provide clarity and direction. Reading and learning new methods, technologies, regulations, tax strategies so that I can advise on real estate positioning has become the central focus of my business. 2020 taught us that survival of the fittest is here to stay. The most important lesson is to remain calm and remember that this too shall pass.

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NAME: Tom Barbera
JOB TITLE: CEO of Industrial Outdoor Ventures
SECTOR: Industrial
CITY: Schaumburg, Illinois
YEARS IN CRE: 27

IOV is very fortunate to be in the industrial market, which has experienced far less disruption from COVID-19 than other product sectors. Further, our niche product within the industrial market almost exclusively hosts what we now refer to as “essential businesses,” so we have been very busy all year. 2020 hasn’t changed the way we’ll “run the business” of sourcing and managing our investments. We’ll continue to use Argus to model our returns, rely on brokers to bring us deals and support our underwriting with comps, etc. From a team interaction standpoint, we have worked more remotely in 2020 but have been in the office since mid-May while observing safe social distances — we’re having anyone with symptoms or who isn’t comfortable coming to the office work remotely. We are clearly doing much more conference calling in lieu of travel and face-to-face meetings than ever before, and I expect that trend to lighten up but not go away in the years to come. As it relates to acquisitions, we are focusing a little more of our resources on e-commerce, last-mile, as I think the entire universe of industrial investors and developers are, but that’s always been in our wheelhouse, so it’s not a paradigm shift in our strategy. 

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NAME: Joanne McNamara
JOB TITLE: Head of Europe for Oxford Properties
SECTOR: Pension fund investor
CITY: London
YEARS IN CRE: 15

Oxford came into the pandemic in good shape, with a resilient, diversified portfolio, a strong team and significant dry powder. The lessons we have learnt in the last year have been invaluable in continuing to evolve and push the business forward. COVID-19 has taught us to exercise patience and humility by acknowledging that we don’t always have all the answers, especially amid unprecedented uncertainty. It has shown how important it is for us to play to our strengths and focus on areas where we have a competitive advantage, such as our global reach, operating expertise, investment flexibility and strong track record. It also helped us accelerate our adoption of technology, enabling us to work effectively and flexibly across our global footprint. Looking ahead, we believe that being creative and agile will be more important than ever in order to take advantage of where we see attractive long-term opportunities, especially in our high conviction strategies including European logistics, UK BTR and European offices, with a focus on life sciences clusters. Diversity and inclusiveness is at the heart of our people strategy. It’s vital that we continue empowering our talent, such as enabling more junior colleagues to take on greater responsibility and providing growth opportunities to the many exceptional people we have in our business.

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Bisnow/Kelsey Neubauer

Eastbound Construction CEO Alex Elkin at 20 Bruckner Blvd.

NAME: Alex Elkin
JOB TITLE: CEO of Eastbound Construction
SECTOR: Construction/development
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 13

Eastbound has always embraced technology to control information and make the construction process more efficient and cost-effective. We have further increased our move into digital technology in the past nine months, implementing this into our daily workflow with contractors and into our client reporting process. At the same time, we remain physically present on our job sites, and we recently established a new office in Manhattan, as we believe the importance of in-person collaboration with our team and with our clients will remain critical in the post-COVID world.

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NAME: David Goss
JOB TITLE: Co-founder and Managing Principal of Interra Realty
SECTOR: Multifamily
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 20

As a leader in middle-market multifamily investment sales, we have had a surprisingly strong 2020 and expect to surpass last year’s transaction total by about 20%. Success came, in part, through our investment in both talent and technologies that made it easier to connect with clients without physically meeting with them. For example, we hired our own in-house videographer and redesigned our digital presentations to make them much more engaging and visual, using drone footage to provide a bird’s-eye view of each property — a perspective investors wouldn’t even get from an in-person tour. Like many businesses, we were quick to adapt to virtual meetings to replace in-person meetings both with clients and colleagues and continue to use those tools. With more of the workday taking place online, we also recognized the importance of using social media at both the corporate and broker level to organically market properties without being too intrusive or getting lost in overcrowded inboxes. Our brokers already had a strong social media presence, and many of them are native users of platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram, but the pandemic made these efforts much more focused, and we’ve seen our followers and engagement increase as a result. While we are all looking forward to a return to normalcy, we recognize the efficiencies offered by tools and practices that were implemented out of necessity in 2020 and expect to keep many of them in place post-pandemic.

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NAME: Keith Lord
JOB TITLE: President and Managing Partner of The Lord Cos.
SECTOR: Brokerage, design and development
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 33 

I get asked all the time “when do we get back to the old norm?” We need to all wake up. There is no old norm to go back to in the future. We are in the new norm and the new norm is different, not defined and a moving target. We are being hit with not just COVID but crime and financially difficult state and local governments. We have social unrest and retail business regulations that change every few weeks. The new norm is not defined and won’t be well past the end of 2021. So, therefore, we all have to be very flexible, reactive and ready to change directions on a moment’s notice. All businesses need to take a hard look at what they do, trim expenses, focus on what makes money, where growth is and how to help our clients … help THEM to stay alive. For retail tenants, we need to look at who can and will survive this titanic consumer spending shift. We need to help tenants understand what similar tenants are doing to adjust their businesses across the country. We need to look at which tenant’s business plan is now outdated and cannot be revised. Will a dry cleaner, indoor high-end restaurant and luxury spa be functionally obsolescent? Movie theaters and performance venues will need to change or they will be closed. Tenants must see the new path for 2021 and beyond. We need to help tenants in any way possible to be creative and change. As a landlord, we need to help tenants every way possible to pay their rent! It is not about concessions, as rent may be only 10% of expenses. It is the management of their business. We need to predict which tenants won’t survive and get backup tenants lined up to replace them. We have to be proactive and possibly lease a tenant out of their space before they close. Relieving them of liability may be the best decision. Tough but appropriate. Most retail is in survival mode. 

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NAME: Jeff Rinkov
JOB TITLE: CEO of Lee & Associates
SECTOR: Brokerage
CITY: Calabasas, California
YEARS IN CRE: 23

While I believe there are many areas where we have changed behaviors, created efficiencies and adapted, the most notable change going forward will be the reverence and appreciation for in-person gatherings and personal connections that are integral to our organization and synonymous with our company. Going forward, we will be driven to add even more value and create stronger connectivity with our clients and professionals at our live events from our annual conference, the Lee Summit, to our quarterly leadership meetings, and at the many industry events we participate in. We will continue to use the digital and virtual tools that have shaped our communications over the last nine months, but we are very much looking forward to collaborating face to face. We now realize the incredible opportunities we sometimes took for granted and look forward to re-creating those and enhancing their positive impact.

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NAME: Diana Pittro
JOB TITLE: Executive Vice President of RMK Management Corp.
SECTOR: Property management
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 20 

2020 showed us that our ability to be flexible is critical to meet the needs and goals of owners, lenders, employees and residents. Key areas of focus for 2021 include technology, a return to limited, safe in-person interaction and team recognition. At the outset of 2020, technology was becoming more prevalent in the property management world, but because of the pandemic, we jumped light-years ahead. While we won’t go back, we will institute a more selective process in choosing platforms to implement. I foresee short-term trials to evaluate programs — whether for leasing, management, tours, events, reporting or marketing — to ensure the features work the way we need them to and don’t offer overlapping or unusable functions. Resident events shifted from large gatherings to virtual or very small, socially distanced events this year. We learned that we need a happy medium, whether for training, tours or events, to ensure we are creating opportunities for people to bond and build a community, which after the long stretches of isolation we’ve been living with is desperately needed. Virtual tours and training will remain, but we will adjust in-person formats as well to augment the virtual options. People need the opportunity to build connections with one another both for work and play, and that happens best in person. Finally, acknowledging and celebrating employee milestones is more critical than ever before. These dedicated essential workers continue to come to work every day and tackle new challenges in an ongoing effort to assist residents with their needs, answer their questions and ensure building maintenance continues, ensuring both residents and team members feel safe. We’ve implemented an RMK Cares program to do this, and we are confident this is also a program that will continue beyond the pandemic.  

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NAME: Charlton Hamer
JOB TITLE: Senior Vice President of Habitat Affordable Group
SECTOR: Affordable housing
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 31 

The pandemic magnified the lack of access to fast and reliable internet service in low-income communities. As a result, future affordable housing developments must include infrastructure for families to function and prosper in the new live-work-study environment. Automating processes for certification and documentation for residents within tax credit and rental subsidy programs was underway but will be accelerated at all our sites to simplify this historically “high-touch” endeavor. Working from home will be normalized as we emerge from the pandemic. New developments will work to create more space within communities, and we will seek to create suitable coworking spaces. Cleanliness, installing disinfecting areas and hand-washing stations will continue to be standard. Habitat has always been a diverse company, and we still believe our diversity is an advantage. However, we refuse to remain stagnant. Because of the recent attention to justifiable social grievances, we dedicated time to listen to our team members and their concerns and empathize with those aggrieved. As a result, we established internal protocols to ensure we exude respect for all humanity and continue to identify opportunities to make a positive impact on marginalized people and communities.  

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Courtesy of Mike Jue

Kimberly Dowdell on Chicago’s lakefront before the pandemic.

NAME: Kimberly Dowdell
JOB TITLE: Principal of HOK
SECTOR: Architecture
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 16 

We’ve learned to harness the power of technology to do our work in ways that we couldn’t fully imagine before. Going forward, when we do return to our physical office space, we will do so with greater flexibility to accommodate participation in all aspects of our work both as design teams and with clients. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, we took a hard look at what we can do to counterbalance the forces that perpetuate inequality of any kind, but particularly racism. We are working closely with our firmwide leadership to ensure that we’re doing our part to support a more diverse pipeline of talent in joining the architecture profession and making sure that all people feel like they belong at HOK throughout their career with us. We are also rethinking how to optimally engage with a wider and more diverse pool of consultants to support our project work. Going forward, our business will continue to be grounded in open and productive communication, flexible space usage and building equity in our practice and beyond.

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NAME: Manish Chande
JOB TITLE: Senior Partner of Clearbell Capital
SECTOR: Private equity investor
CITY: London
YEARS IN CRE: 25

The pandemic was something that no one could have predicted. As a result, normal activity was brought to a halt overnight. At Clearbell, our immediate focus was on reviewing our existing investments with a critical eye and looking at the sensitivities of those investments — including rent collections, debt and, importantly, supporting tenants where needed. We also spent a lot of time in 2020 looking at opportunities as a result of the pandemic, both in terms of acquisitions but also where we could create value within our existing portfolio. We will take a lot of learnings from this going forward — most importantly, we’ll try to always expect the unexpected! Our priority for the year ahead will also be making sure we have sufficient ballast in our investments to help ride through any future seismic shocks like the pandemic. This includes taking a conservative approach in terms of our investments, as well as debt. There has also been an increased recognition through the pandemic that property values are only what you can grow on the investment. Therefore, in 2021 our investments are likely to be focused on areas where there is a sustainable, long-term expectation of growth and which include flexibility, sustainability and a sense of community within them. We have also learned that being conscious of your customer base is as important as ever, with opportunities to capitalise on treating a tenant as a customer. Finally, the wellbeing of our team has been prioritised above all else in 2020, and this will continue to be our primary concern.

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RXR Realty CEO Scott Rechler

NAME: Scott Rechler
JOB TITLE: CEO of RXR Realty
SECTOR: Developer/landlord
CITY: New York
YEARS IN CRE: 31

In many ways, COVID was an accelerant of innovation and obsolescence, fundamentally altering the way people will live, work and play in urban environments. From remote working to e-commerce to telehealth, 10 years of innovation was developed in just the last 10 months. Simply put, we will not be returning to what once was. This acceleration and disruption forced us to reposition nearly every aspect of our overall business strategy. The megatrends emerging from COVID will create outsized demand for certain types of real estate such as logistic facilities or Class-A office space with modern infrastructure, while other types of real estate such as movie theaters or older office buildings unable to meet the standards required in a post-COVID world will quickly become competitively obsolete. Health and wellness as prerequisites are here to stay, even with the introduction of a vaccine. So, while it will take time to get COVID-19 fully under control, we should all be prepared for future pandemics still to come (e.g., COVID 20 and beyond). New York City’s energy took a hit this past year, but its adaptability — transitioning from seaport to industrial center to financial capital to technology hub — is as strong as ever. As Charles Darwin noted, it is not the strongest who survive but the ones most adaptable to change, and as a company tethered to the world’s greatest city, we will continue to recalibrate to this new reality.

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NAME: Martin Muoto
JOB TITLE: Managing Director of SoLa Impact
SECTOR: Impact neighborhood investment/affordable housing
CITY: Los Angeles
YEARS IN CRE: 15

With everything that has happened in 2020, we realize that the world is even more interconnected today than ever before. For years, we have built and operated multifamily apartments in Black and Brown communities of Los Angeles. We have learned a tremendous amount about how to invest with intention and inclusion. The events of the summer not only highlighted the need for broadening that platform, it demonstrated that in order to protect everyone, you must take care of the most vulnerable of society. We hope the country, and the world, remembers the lesson as we revert to a new normal.  

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NAME: Roger McCarron
JOB TITLE: President and CEO of Project Management Advisors Inc.
SECTOR: Development management
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 25

This year has underscored the importance of our role and the perspective we provide to the development process as an owner’s representative. We’re comfortable where risk and ambiguity are part of the status quo. Our job is to partner with our clients — owners, investors, developers and end users — assess the whole picture, and make realistic plans to capitalize on opportunities and minimize problems, especially in the face of uncertainty. This practice is long-standing and central to our approach. 2020 reinforced our commitment to delivering agile guidance that will keep us nimble in 2021 and beyond. While every project is unique, successful outcomes depend on processes that are repeatable and customizable. We’ve embraced remote work while staying close as a team, finding opportunities to collaborate across 150-plus active projects and a growing national footprint. We’ve ramped up the frequency and efficiency of check-ins to foster collaboration, generate new ideas and identify novel approaches. Fundamental to our business is diversity in terms of clients, project types, markets served and geographies we reach. It not only helps protect against volatility but strengthens our thinking across projects.

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NAME: Scott Malkin
JOB TITLE: Founder and Chairman of Value Retail
SECTOR: Outlet malls
CITY: London
YEARS IN CRE: 25

The moment has arrived for us to plan for life after the pandemic. This is our time to anticipate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us. Not only have the old ways of doing things come unglued, but those companies that have found a path through the chaos of the coronavirus have begun to adapt to what comes next. There is no choice but to “lean in.” Organisations built on agility and resilience will benefit from a diversity of inputs (skills and styles) and from a calm and objective view of evolving technologies. It will be necessary for all of us to be totally focussed on adding value every day. The status quo has been disrupted, which is incredibly exciting. Gradatim Ferociter. 

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NAME: Flip Howard
JOB TITLE: Principal with WorkSuites
SECTOR: Coworking, flexible office provider
CITY: Dallas-Fort Worth
YEARS IN CRE: 20

Every company right now is rethinking their workspace. It seems obvious to most people that flexible workspace will play an even bigger role in the post-pandemic economy. At WorkSuites, we are already seeing a dramatic increase in demand for hybrid and part-time office solutions, as well as corporate demand for short-term space. The silver lining of 2020 for us was that it forced us out of complacency and status quo and it caused us to think outside the box. We were forced to pivot and streamline many core areas of our offerings and our operations, and many of the changes we made turned out to be things we should have done a long time ago.

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NAME: Lisa Davidson
JOB TITLE: Vice Chairman, Director and Chief Diversity Officer of Savills
SECTOR: Leasing, workplace strategy
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 35 

2020 has fundamentally changed the way I will run my business, similar, I’m sure, to other executives. I will likely incorporate a work-from-home day, probably on Fridays, and I will utilize technology more than ever before. I will use videoconferencing tools such as Zoom for meetings not being held in Chicago in place of travel. I will also use Zoom to have more “face-to-face” conversations with clients and colleagues versus a phone call and to preview/evaluate spaces before seeing them in person. Bottom line — I’ll be using technology more aggressively to recapture my time and be more efficient. Hopefully, I can use the extra time for my own personal health and wellness.

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Bisnow

WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger

NAME: Wendy Berger
JOB TITLE: CEO of WBS Equities
SECTOR: Industrial
CITY: Chicago
YEARS IN CRE: 28

At the very beginning of the pandemic, when so much uncertainty was swirling, I crystallized my thinking around three approaches to my business and to life. First, a humanity-first approach. Second, we will be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Third, that we would stay focused and be an economic engine, keeping people employed and creating new jobs through new real estate development projects. These guiding principles, on top of our core values, have kept me fired up and working each day with a sense of urgency and intensity. This is a time where leadership is critical, and 2021 will be no different. Crisis leadership is innovation on steroids. I will continue to push for innovation in our thinking, problem-solving and the way we look at projects. We will listen more intently to our tenants and prospects and try to be their partner in structuring transactions that are solution-oriented. On the more personal side, I am going to try to encourage my team to find a good work-life balance. We are not going back to our offices until I hear from the scientists that it is safe for us to do so, as we are among the most fortunate, those who can work from home with no hardship. As a result, I think we have all been working more hours than ever. I want my team to find joy and meaning in each day. I think we will all use just a bit less toilet paper.