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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April
6, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Family Partnership, Business Partnership
Gayle Meredith left a high level job in commercial real estate to
launch a business in that same notoriously difficult, incredibly
competitive field. She entered the venture with her husband, Ed
Meredith, who had previously worked as a commercial realtor, a
do-it-yourself contractor, and a stay-at-home dad, caring for the
couple’s pre-schooler and infant twins.
The new business, Pennington-based Meredith Realty Partners, is
counting on exploiting a risky niche. The partners know that it is
nearly impossible to get into the business of selling and leasing
commercial space. "But, hey," says Gayle, "it’s what we know." So,
brainstorming by E-mail, she from a Manhattan office and he from the
family’s playroom in Hopewell, the couple came up with a plan. Gayle
would head up the company, and it would be registered as a woman-owned
business. That designation would give the company access to the
contracts that the government at all levels must set aside for
minority companies and that large corporations, most of which do
business with the government, must also award to minority businesses.
"It’s a huge advantage," Gayle says of the designation.
That was the plan, and it could work, but, less than a year after
Gayle left her job and the company was incorporated, there have been
substantial problems – some of them anticipated, some not. They range
from state certifiers who did not initially believe that Gayle really
was in charge, to shifting state laws on whether woman-owned
businesses are eligible for contract set-asides, to whether
corporations will be willing to outsource commercial real estate work.
The pair talk about the challenges as they sit in their
400-square-foot office on the ground floor of a peacock blue Queen
Anne Victorian in downtown Pennington, big windows letting in abundant
sunlight on what turned out to be the only warm day in March, a back
door opened to let in the air. Gayle is wearing a spring-green boiled
wool jacket, while Ed, in a button-down blue Oxford, sips a health
shake prescribed as part of a diet regimen the pair have entered into
together. Comfortably settled into a beautiful space just four blocks
from their sons’ preschool, the couple are happy in their new venture
– but also worried.
"I was terrified when I left my job. I’m still terrified!" says Gayle.
"There are a lot of small commercial real estate companies. We didn’t
want to compete with the same business model. The woman-owned business
gives you the edge. It’s a way to get in with the larger companies and
to get public sector work."
The company was formed in April, 2004, and its office opened two
months later. Start-up cash came from savings, a lot of it from
Gayle’s final consulting job, and from home equity.
"I was completely terrified to step away from the safety net," says
Gayle. But "little victories" built her confidence. She was able to
obtain health insurance for less than the amount she was paying to
COBRA. She studied computer programming and was able to build the
company’s website (www.mrealtypartners.com) by herself, saving
thousands of dollars. She also learned accounting software and started
applying for real estate licenses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to
add to her New York license.
Then came the biggest hurdle, something the new company never saw
coming. Gayle Meredith applied for certification as a woman-owned
business from New Jersey. Generally, it is a snap to obtain this
designation. The application is only two pages. But the state did not
believe that Gayle really was in charge.
"There have been so many scams," she says, giving small trucking
companies as an example. "They say it’s a woman-owned business, but
the husband drives the truck. The woman is supposedly the bookkeeper
and manager, but often isn’t."
As a result, New Jersey now "scrutinizes husband and wife teams," says
Gayle. "They’re very judgmental. It’s supposed to be easy to get the
designation, but it wasn’t."
Penni Nafus, director of the Women’s Center of the New Jersey
Association of Women Business Owners, which prepares women for owning
a small business, says that she finds any number of people eager to
scam the system. "I get calls every week from men who say their wives
own their business," she says. "They think there are low-cost loans
available to women-owned businesses." That is not true, but it doesn’t
stop any number of enterprising men from trying for the designation.
The situation was complicated further in the Merediths’ case by the
fact that Ed is the broker of record in New Jersey, and as such is the
person with signatory powers over trust accounts. Many states have
reciprocity agreements, and would automatically recognize Gayle’s New
York license, but that is not the case in New Jersey.
"The state sent an auditor out," says Gayle. "We had to convince them
that we are similarly credentialed, and that I have much more
experience on a more senior level." The main test the state imposes,
she says, is what would happen to the business if the husband left.
The wife must prove that the business would continue with her at the
Finally, the new company convinced the state that this was the case.
But the drama doesn’t end there. It turns out that, as a result of a
lawsuit claiming discrimination, New Jersey has recently done away
with set-asides for woman-owned businesses, and lumped them together
with minority business, and in fact with all small businesses. That is
the law, but the Merediths say that in reality some state agencies do
aim to make sure that a portion of contracts go to women.
Meanwhile, says Robin Tabakin, president-elect of NJAWBO, women are
still seeking the designation, believeing that the state will soon
reinstate the woman-owned-business set-asides. Tabakin herself, an
attorney and the owner of Technoforce, a placement and diversity
supplier consulting firm in Randolph, is in the process of applying
for the designation.
While the New Jersey designation is supposed to be a walk in the park,
even if that was not the case for the Merediths, the national
designation is widely regarded as more of a marathon run. "The
application is like a mortgage application times 10," says Gayle. On
the national level, the designation is conferred by the Women’s
Business Enterprise Council (WBENC), a non-profit supported by the
contributions of its corporate members. This potent designation
unlocks the doors to myriad contract possibilities. "That’s what
corporations use," says Gayle. "A lot of cities and states have
adopted it too."
But WBENC, questioning whether Meredith Realty really qualified as a
woman-owned business, denied it a certification. This was a crippling
blow to the nascent company. But, says Gayle, "I appealed, and won.
That’s very unusual." Her argument as she states it was, "You’re
supposed to be empowering women. I want to be near family, and you
won’t certify me." Had she been starting the business in New York,
where she has a license, it would not have been a problem, she argued.
She could have done that, but then she would be away from her children
all day. "They bought it," she says with a sigh. But it was a battle.
"They’re so focused on people trying to scam the certification
Meredith Realty was victorious, but the certification did not come
through until December. They had lost six months. "We couldn’t pitch
corporations without it," says Gayle.
Now, hooked into WBENC’s network, the firm receives a constant stream
of notifications of contracts that corporations want to award to
woman-owned or minority businesses. But still the path is not clear.
There are very few instances in which corporations direct outsourced
commercial real estate services to minority or woman-owned businesses.
But the Merediths believe that will change.
"We’re at the cutting edge," says Gayle. For decades, small companies
providing staples such as paper and services such as landscaping and
janitorial work have made a good living from corporate set-aside
contracts. Now, the couple are convinced, professional services will
be added to the list. They believe this is so, in part, because of a
growing trend among corporations to compete on giving out minority
contracts. There is a Billion Dollar Club made up of no fewer than 12
corporations that are giving out at least $1 billion a year in these
contracts. "You can’t do that with toilet paper," says Gayle. Add a
few $10 million office leases into the mix and the number becomes more
Susan Bari, president of WBENC, agrees. A woman with a background in
advocating for woman-owned businesses at the federal level, including
a stint with the Reagan administration as associate director of the
Office of Presidential Personnel, she founded WBENC (www.wbenc.org) in
1997. Her mission was to address the lack of a nationally-recognized
certification for woman-owned businesses. She agrees with the
Merediths’ belief that corporate set-aside contracts are going to
start flowing to businesses providing professional services. "It’s
probably the next big wave," she says.
Bari points to Hilton Hotels as an example. That chain, she says, has
a "major initiative" to outsource legal work to woman-owned
Asked for her take on why corporations are eager to award contracts to
woman-owned business, Bari responds crisply. "Look around," she says.
"Look at our country. You’ve got to see that demographics are
changing." Corporations are "more sophisticated," she says. They
realize that the fact that 57 percent of college graduates are women
translates into a force to be dealt with.
Big companies want to find themselves on WBENC’s list of "America’s
Top Corporations for Women’s Business Enterprises." Just released,
this list includes AT&T, Merrill Lynch, IBM, PepsiCo, UPS, Office
Depot, Chevron Texaco, and Eastman Kodak.
For woman-owned businesses, says Bari, access to corporate contracts
has, until recently, remained the equivalent of the "glass ceiling"
their employed counterparts face in climbing to the top levels of the
executive suite. This is one reason that the WBENC certification is so
incredibly important to the success of a woman-owned business.
For the Merediths, entry into this high stakes game came about as a
result of a typical central New Jersey dilemma. Gayle, working from 8
a.m. until 6 p.m. in New York, was gone from the house from 5 a.m.
until 8 p.m. Surprisingly, she was basically all right with that. She
loved her work as a commercial real estate manager, working on
accounts for Fortune 100 corporations. In the end, it was the commute
that got her.
"Before 9/11, I enjoyed it," she says. "I read the newspaper on the
way in and trade publications on the way out. When I got home, I was
finished with my work day. I didn’t have to bring anything with me."
After the terrorist attacks, however, the commute became longer and
far less comfortable. With PATH train service to downtown halted and
driving into the city all but impossible because of restrictions on
single-occupancy cars, trains became far more crowded. Loading at each
station took longer. Seats could be secured only by the swift, the
strong, and the lucky.
Then there was the psychological factor.
"I worked above Grand Central Station," she says. "Every time there
was a security alert there were soldiers with guns everywhere." There
was also a pervasive awareness that Penn Station, where she got on her
train, and Grand Central, where she spent her days, were prime
potential terrorist targets.
She wanted a change, and so did her husband. "I never saw her," he
says. "We’ve been married for 18 years, and there’s still a spark. I
So they each took stock of their backgrounds and skills, looked at the
way they had managed work and family in the past, and started to
formulate a plan.
Gayle grew up in Katonah, NY. Gayle’s family lived in the town until
she was six, at which time her father, an advertising creative
director, got a plum assignment, the Coca-Cola account, and moved the
family to Miami, and then on to Tokyo, London, and Atlanta when she
was 16. Gayle’s mother was a nurse, but it was her father’s career
path that she yearned to follow.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins (Class of 1985), she tried "to be a
copywriter like my father," she says, "but there was a huge
consolidation in ad agencies." She worked as a waitress before going
into a related field – marketing. By chance, she fell into marketing
office buildings, and found that she loved the work.
For most of the past 10 years, Gayle worked with the Edward S. Gordon
Company of New York and its successors, Insignia/ESG and CB Richard
Ellis, one of the world’s largest full-service commercial real estate
companies. Her work included serving as the asset manager for "trophy"
office properties controlled by Equitable Real Estate Investment Inc.,
Nippon Life, and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company in the
early 1990s, when, she recalls, "everyone was defaulting." Early on in
her career she worked for the architecture firm Rothe-Johnson
Associates in Edison and DKM Properties in Lawrenceville.
And how is marketing commercial real estate different from selling?
Ed jumps in with an answer, displaying a fierce pride in his wife’s
accomplishments. "The brokers reported to her," he says. "She was the
senior managing director. She developed the marketing plan for some of
the biggest buildings in the country."
In a more understated manner, Gayle explains that "almost all major
deals have shoe outs." She says that the "shoe out" in commercial real
estate is similar to the "pitch" in advertising. That is, commercial
real estate companies compete for the business of, say, selling an IBM
headquarters building, which is an example of a job she helped to win.
Through most of her career, it was her responsibility to come up with
marketing plans that would win business.
It was high-powered, time-intensive work, and she enjoyed it until the
firms with which she was working kept getting swallowed by larger and
larger firms. In 2003 she turned to consulting, landing what she
describes as a lucrative contract with JRT Realty, a woman-owned firm
in Manhattan. JRT had just formed an alliance with commercial real
estate giant Cushman & Wakefield.
The assignment was pivotal to the genesis of her own company. "It was
the first time I had heard of a woman-owned commercial real estate
company," she says. It was also her first exposure to a business model
wherein a large company, Cushman & Wakefield in this instance, worked
at winning set-aside business through a partnership with a company
that had a woman-owned business designation.
As the wheels in her brain were turning, wheels on the ground were
just crawling along. "The winter of 2003-2004 was a lousy winter," she
recalls. "It was a snowy, slushy mess in New York City."
Finally, unexpectedly, she cried uncle. "None of this was planned,"
she says. "I just hit a threshold. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I
didn’t have a grand plan."
Meanwhile, Ed was at home with the kids, and was finding that the
addition of twin boys had moved his Mr. Mom career to a whole
different level. He was starting to think that re-hiring the nanny
would be a good idea. And he was getting back into commercial real
estate, working as a consultant.
The idea of a mom-and-pop firm appealed to him. It was just what he
had grown up with. His parents, Regina and Edward B. Meredith, had
jointly run a law firm, Meredith, Meredith & Chase, with offices in
Trenton and Princeton, for 55 years. The firm, now Meredith, Chase &
Taggart, with offices at 109 South Warren Street in Trenton, is now
home to another husband and wife team, Ward Taggart, and his wife,
Alex, Ed’s sister, who is its HR consultant.
Ed himself toyed with the idea of becoming an attorney, but only
briefly. A graduate of Franklin Pierce College (Class of 1983), he
says "I couldn’t stand school. I had no designs on grad school."
Like his wife, Ed fell into commercial real estate. "After college I
was a project coordinator for subcontractors at Boston commercial
high-rises," he says. While working in muddy jeans and boots, he
became enthralled by the brokers who floated in and out – in suits and
shiny shoes. "They would just walk through with tenants," he says. "It
looked like the easiest job."
And was it, in fact, an easier life?
"No!" laughs Ed. "It was not easier. I made no money for two years. I
had to work as a telemarketer to support myself." The choice of
telemarketing as a bread and butter job was a pretty good one, he
says. It came in handy in selling and leasing real estate, which he
did for a number of companies, including Weidel and Fennelly, now
Gayle, whom he married in 1987, got him a recommendation to Cushman &
Wakefield, and he worked there for five years before getting his
broker’s license and starting his own firm, Meredith Realty Group,
which had offices in Princeton. He merged his firm with Edward S.
Gordon in 1996.
The couple rented the Hopewell house and moved to Far Hills in 1996
so that Ed would be closer to his office, which was in Saddle Brook.
Two years later their daughter, Aleigh, was born. A nanny was hired to
care for her as both parents continued full tilt in their demanding
careers. But within a year it became apparent that there was just too
much going on.
"I did 44 transactions in 1999," says Ed. "I still had to drive all
day. I never saw Aleigh." Gayle, meanwhile, was commuting into New
York. "We waited 10 years to have kids," says Ed. "We wanted a strong
foundation, to be established. Well, we were established, but we never
saw our child. We were successful, but Aleigh didn’t know me." Ed and
Gayle decided that one of them should stay home. The choice was an
easy one. "Ed was more commission-based," says Gayle. "I had the
salary, the steady income."
The nanny was fired, and Ed took her place, loving every minute of
raising his daughter. Then, when Aleigh was two, the twins, Teddy and
Harry, were born. The family had been living in "a really tiny house"
on a 150 acre farm owned by a wildlife preservation group. Scenic,
yes. Spacious, no. "The twins were living in the dining room," says
They needed to move, and at first thought of selling the Hopewell
house, which was occupied by tenants Ed describes as "a disaster."
Bringing the nanny back on board, Ed bought a CAD program and became
the architect, and then the general contractor, for a remodeling of
the Hopewell home. He was glad to have a respite from the Mr. Mom
role. "I would be talking to the nannies, who spoke Spanish," he says.
"The parents treated me differently." While it is no longer acceptable
in some circles for women to respond to the "So, what do you do?"
question with spilled applesauce stories, it is far more difficult, in
nearly all circles, for men to give the same response.
"I had to say ‘I raise the kids. That’s it,’" says Ed. "It was
lonely." He did meet a couple of other stay-at-home dads, though,
including the husband of a pharmaceutical executive. The men bonded
instantly, and remain good friends.
With the house finished, the family moved back to Hopewell, Aleigh
entered preschool, and Ed did some commercial real estate sales and
At about that time, Gayle was burning out. She sent Ed an E-mail
asking what he thought about starting a business. His response was
"let’s go for it!"
There followed several months of business planning E-mails. The couple
brought in another partner, Bernie McNamee, former head of property
management at the Carnegie Center. They had "known him forever" and
thought his expertise at property management would be a good
complement for Gayle’s marketing and business planning experience and
Ed’s transaction experience. It was a good fit, made better by the
fact that McNamee, the father of a girl a little older than Aleigh,
had substantial child raising experience. "We traded daddy tales for
eight months," says Ed.
By the spring of 2004, it was time for Gayle to get off the train and
for Meredith Realty Partners to put its business model – the
woman-owned niche – into the real world.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief to have obtained the certification,
Gayle finds that her new business is still far from out of the woods.
She has noticed that there are not a lot of contracts for leasing,
buying, or managing properties on WBENC’s lists. But she has noticed
that there are lots of contracts for appraisals. So, Ed, the guy who
is not fond of school, is spending many hours a week at Rutgers
studying to earn an appraisal license.
Following the model she observed at JGT in New York, she is working on
selected assignments with the New York City and Florham Park offices
of Trammell-Crow, the multi-national commercial realty. The advantage
to the larger firm is access to set-aside business. The advantage to
Meredith Realty is the ability to offer corporate clients what they
increasingly demand – one-stop shopping through a firm able to fill
all of their commercial real estate needs.
Meredith Realty Partners is also doing consulting while pursuing
set-aside business. There is uncertainty. But there is also a vastly
improved lifestyle. The family’s beloved nanny, Grace Morrison, is
back part time. She splits her day between the growing Meredith
children and Ed’s parents, who now need some help with household
chores. As for Gayle and Ed, they walk together for an hour a day, and
are both home for dinner with the kids.
They both know that the biggest danger their business – and their new
lifestyle – faces is a lack of courage. "We could each pick up the
phone today and get a job," says Gayle. "That’s a big temptation. It’s
seductive but we want to keep the business going. The business plan is
to stay in business."
Pennington 08534. 609-737-9420; fax, 609-737-5761.
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