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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

helm.

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

process."

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

easily obtainable.

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

businesses.

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

missed her."

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

Fennelly NAI.

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

Ed.

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

consulting.

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."

Meredith Realty Partners LLC, 32 North Main Street,

Pennington 08534. 609-737-9420; fax, 609-737-5761.

www.mrealtypartners.com.


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