Few little girls dream of big time careers in commercial real estate. Amy Durfee West is a prominent Denver-based attorney with a booming practice specializing in all things related to commercial land and buildings. She speaks widely on the intellectual and financial rewards to be found in varied careers within the industry — and has made it her mission to steer little girls toward it. But this wasn’t the career about which she had dreamed.
A solo practitioner in the city where she was born, West says that when she was growing up she wanted to be F. Lee Bailey and save the world. So she took the requisite courses in legal representation of the poor and in environmental law at the University of Denver College of Law, where she graduated in 1979, but her highest grades were in basic business, tax, and real estate. “It should have been a clue that my talents lay elsewhere,” she says.
It turned out that her first job was as a full-time law clerk for a firm specializing in banking law, but when she was not offered an associate position, she got a job at a boutique real estate law firm, working for a man she calls the “dean of Colorado real estate law.” With that move, she had found her niche. She has worked it ever since.
West speaks on “Advancing the Success of Women in Commercial Real Estate” at a prospective member breakfast for ICREW (Industrial Commercial Real Estate Women) of New Jersey on Thursday, September 14, at 8:30 a.m. at the Woodbridge Hilton. Cost: $40. Register at www.icrewnj.org.
West has loved real estate law, riding 26 years of booms and busts. She even sees a relationship between the history degree she earned at the University of Colorado (Class of 1975) and law. “Real estate is really real — you drive by it,” she says, “and it is historical — dusty old common law principles and new stuff like the Common Interest Ownership Act, which governs condos and planned developments.”
Her job also involves a lot of leasing work, representing either landlords or tenants, which she enjoys. “In leasing,” she says, “there is still room for creativity, innovations, and pulling out your negotiation, problem solving, and communication skills.”
Years ago someone told her she should join the CREW Network, a North American association of more than 6,500 commercial real estate industry professionals in 57 cities in the United States and Canada, which has been around for 23 years.
For years she wrote dues check and went to lunches, but then she decided it was time to commit herself: “I realized that you don’t get business by paying dues. You have to get involved and get to know people.” So 10 years ago she joined a committee in the Denver chapter and soon found herself at its helm. Next she became president-elect for CREW Denver and then a delegate to CREW Network, where she has served on committees and on the board.
CREW has two features that distinguish it from other networking organizations: it covers the whole range of professions associated with commercial real estate, and its focus is to make women successful.
Commercial real estate includes office buildings, shopping centers, and big residential developments, including planning processes, financing, and securitizing, everything except buying or selling individual houses. Professionals in the industry include appraisers, brokers, attorneys, environmental consultants, property managers, staff of real estate investment trusts, developers, and owners of rental and income properties.
Other organizations have people sorted out by professions, like the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties or the Building Owners and Managers Association, but CREW brings everyone together. “CREW is one organization where you could do the entire process with members,” says West.
CREW is also the only organization with a primary goal of advancing the success of women in commercial real estate, helping them to achieve parity in opportunity, influence, and power.
“If we achieve what we want to achieve, CREW will work itself out of a job entirely or people will forget that ‘W’ stands for women. Either CREW will be where all the deals are getting done, or it will wither away,” says West.
For the moment, women are far from parity. Last year the CREW Network commissioned an Industry Research Study to develop a baseline of women’s positions in the industry. Its conclusions are mixed. Whereas the percentage of commercial real estate professionals who are women has grown from 32 percent to 36 percent over the past five years, progress has been spread unevenly across the industry.
Women comprise 51 percent of the professionals specializing in asset, property, and facilities management; 44 percent of those in financial and professional services; but only 23 percent of those in brokerage, sales, and leasing. “Women are well represented in property management and the professions like law and accounting,” says West, “but they are under represented in brokerage and development and at the C level — CEO, CFO, and COO.”
Another finding is that men in commercial real estate report higher compensation levels than women in similar positions with similar years of experience, across all specializations, experience levels, and ages. Yet the people in the study, says West, “all think they’re making the same. They don’t know about this disparity, because women don’t like to talk about money.”
This year CREW is continuing its research by presenting study results to chapters across the country and asking people to fill out a questionnaire about their reactions, their speculations about why things are the way they are, and what can be done.
West has her own opinions about why women haven’t advanced as they should in the field. As an analogy, she cites a little girl on her son’s soccer team 20 years ago: “She was the best player in terms of all of her skills, but for some reason she wouldn’t shoot,” she says. “A lot of women in careers are like that. They have all the skills, know all the people, but don’t go in for the kill.”
Musing about the reasons behind women’s second-class status in commercial real estate, she cites another finding of the study — the big difference between the numbers of men and women who have all or much of their compensation based on performance.
“I think there is a direct correspondence between the fact that very few women are working on commission and their making less money,” she asserts. Why do women prefer salary to commission? Perhaps they are more security minded, she observes, but another possibility is that they are “not being mentored, trained, or taught appropriately that they can do it. Guys tend to be bolder about taking that kind of risk.”
Even though girls know the boys’ rules more than they used to — from playing team sports and having moms who work — West says that women still see themselves in a web of relationships while men “naturally think of themselves as ‘where I am on the hierarchical ladder.’”
At the same time, she says that the way women relate to other people is a huge strength in an industry where deals are complex and require many kinds of expertise.
“The natural way that women make friends, find out about people and figure out what they can do, and help create networks is incredibly helpful in keeping a deal going, which requires getting the right people to the table, getting them talking, and keeping them talking.” But there is a downside, says West. “The weakness in the female relational style is that women tend not to value or realize the value of where you are on the organizational chart.”
CREW is exploring solutions that will help women succeed. One is to divvy up the commission among all members of a team, realizing that the top sales person would not have made the sale, for example, without his assistant who kept the details straight, put together a great presentation, and had everything ready on time. “Women’s work has traditionally been essential, but has not generated a dollar assignment that people recognize,” observes West.
Another initiative is to encourage older women to mentor younger ones, because men are more likely to mentor younger men. “If an older man and a younger woman are hanging out,” she explains, “there is a sense of the possibility of an inappropriate relationship.” But many senior women in the industry are not taking younger women under there wings, and West says that one thing CREW can do is to “help women understand that they need each other across the entire career path.”
CREW Careers, the association’s charitable arm, is working to interest more women in the field through programs for junior high school students about what kinds of careers are available and how to prepare for them. They are thinking now about reaching out to young women in college, on the brink of choosing a career. Another idea they have been batting around is to develop a CREW MBA.
West believes that every individual needs a personal strategic plan. “I like to tell CREW members,” she says, “that each of us is responsible from the day we graduate from college for our own career — what we want, where we are going, and what resources we need to devote to get there.” CREW is there to help women develop the perspective they need to be successful. West concludes, “I think women can be taught that they have more power and natural ability to make money than they think they can do.”