Beth Machen, 2013 President of IREM

CHICAGO-Even though many professionals plan out their career paths from the get-go, many others arrive in a variety of fields by pure chance. Beth Machen, 2013 president of the Institute of Real Estate Management is one such individual, having arrived in commercial real estate by chance, and then chose to develop her career by learning and continued education – not to mention her personal interest in sustainability. She also feels that women have many innate qualities that make them assets to the field and has noticed how it has diversified over the years. By the same token, she is adamant that a strong character, willingness to challenge perceptions and true passion for the industry can make one successful – she certainly didn’t let people shoebox her during the earlier stages of her career. Read on for more.

Part II of her interview will appear on the site tomorrow morning – be sure to check back for the rest of her answers.

1. GlobeSt: What initially attracted you to the world of commercial real estate and how have you developed your career?

Interestingly enough, most of the professional real estate managers of my generation did not start out in this field.  We landed here, in various ways, by chance…not by choice.  Today, we see young, college-educated people entering commercial real estate right after graduation.  Never before have so many colleges and universities offered undergraduate degrees in real estate, and even masters degrees. And a growing number of schools are offering undergraduate and masters’ degrees in real estate management. I find it quite exciting to interact with young students and graduates to hear their new and fresh ideas about our industry.

Personal circumstances that landed me in the commercial real estate field? I worked for 15 years as a legal secretary and paralegal and, among other frustrations, I was tired of taking dictation from an attorney who was simultaneously chewing tobacco.  I needed a new challenge!

My children were just beginning school, and I wanted to reduce my work hours in order to pick them up from school each day.  I think many parents can relate to the fact that being a “quiet” and attentive carpool driver is when you hear what is actually going on in your children’s lives. So I landed a part-time job managing properties for a family trust, as their one-and- only employee, to handle all aspects of managing their property holdings.  A part-time position quickly became full time, and I soon discovered that I was totally unprepared to professionally handle the job. 

Recognizing that education is a proven path to success, getting a real estate broker’s license was the first step on that path for me.  Soon after, I affiliated with a bigger commercial real estate firm as the manager of a large office park, and my mentor at the firm encouraged me to pursue the Certified Property Manager (CPM) designation through the Institute of Real Estate Management. 

I earned my CPM designation in 1996. Along with hard work and dedication, it opened doors for me to advance my career.  Ultimately, I became president of the Property Management Division of that same company. In 2007, I formed my very own firm, Machen Advisory Group, Inc.  The following year, I achieved my LEED AP O+M accreditation and have since enjoyed working as the project manager on several LEED projects, one of which earned LEED Platinum Core and Shell Precertification.  By the way, my firm specializes in third-party real estate management and bringing real estate assets to the highest possible level of sustainability.

In terms of ongoing career development, our industry is ever-changing. So keeping up with these changes is essential for me and other practitioners to stay on top of our game and work smarter.  For if we don’t stay abreast of the latest trends and best practices within our marketplace and industry, we won’t be able to provide the value and services that our clients deserve and expect.   Stated simply, one cannot rest on one’s laurels in the real estate management industry!

2. Globest: IREM’s Journal of Property Management recently released its list of Women Changing the Face of Real Estate Management. As a woman in the industry, how have your efforts prompted change and what did you specifically do?

I wouldn’t say that I personally have changed the industry.  I’m convinced, however, that collectively, the women in our industry serve it extraordinarily well.  By nature, women are nurturers and patient problem solvers.  These qualities align well with the focus in real estate management on solving problems, ideally with foresight rather than hindsight.  Indeed, women have the ability to see both sides of a situation and, in most cases,  resolve it amicably,  We are a determined sex, and  our training as sisters, wives/partners and mothers gives us  plenty of practice in problem resolution!

So women and real estate management are, in my view, a great fit. And the growing numbers of women in our industry underscores this point.   By way of example, the percentage of female IREM Members who earned our prestigious CPM designation rose from nine percent in 1983 to more than 50 percent today. And in 2012, 52 percent of IREM’s new CPM Members in the U.S. were women. Moreover, the percentage of women on the CPM Candidate track has grown from 28 percent 30 years ago to 60 percent today.

Suffice it to say that when I began my career in the real estate management profession, men in dark suits were plentiful at our association meetings.  Today, we see about half men and half women.

Let me backtrack to the earlier query about how, as a woman in the industry, my efforts may have prompted change. If I were to cite one area where I may have helped break through a glass ceiling, it would be in the sustainability arena.  Since sustainability has been my passion, I worked hard to achieve my LEED AP O+M accreditation.  Thereafter, our firm brokered a deal where our client bought an existing office building, and the client hired me to act as the leading LEED AP and Project Manager to certify the building within the LEED program.  Of course, I was thrilled and worked to assemble a team including an architect and engineering firm as well as a general contractor.    Our team worked professionally on this project and we currently are certified as Platinum Core and Shell in the Precertification phase.  As far as I know, this may be the first project where the property manager served as the Project Manager on a LEED project.  I hope to see this practice continue, and I am serving now on several other projects as the project manager while, at the same time, serving as property manager.

3. Globest: What challenges have you faced as a woman in this field?

There are challenges in any profession or walk of life, and women in real estate have certainly seen their share. 

Starting my career in the real estate profession in the mid ‘80s was certainly challenging.  What the doubters did not know is that my Daddy gave me my first hammer as a teenager that I still use today as a paperweight in my office.  When I left home to go to college, Daddy gave me my first toolbox (with flower appliqués on it, I might add). I have used the wrench from that toolbox many times rescuing contact lenses out of the sink trap… and was known in the dorm hall as the “the fix-it girl!”

Pardon the segue. Now back to challenges. A specific one that always comes to mind is figuring out how to convince a 50ish-year-old maintenance engineer to work for a 30ish-year-old female manager that he believes knows nothing about building operations and resents the fact that he has to report to a woman, not to mention a younger woman!  After many months of working side by side and showing him that I did know and understand building operations, it was not until we were in a crisis and I rolled up my sleeves, kicked off the heels and jumped in and helped him physically resolve a situation that I actually earned his respect.  From this I learned that as long as employees (male or female) know and actually see that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done (including their job), they will respect you and work with you rather than fight you at every turn.

Another thing I learned along the way as a manager of real estate managers pertains to hiring, both women and men.  Initially, I was guided by my gut feeling about the person and how I “thought” they would relate to tenants and clients; also, on my sense of the depth of their industry knowledge.  I learned the hard way that it also is about what they “see” in the field.  Some folks just don’t see the details that can make or break the general appearance or curb appeal of a property.  They may know all the technical details on how to work with a chiller or boiler and how to do financial reports. But if they don’t see the overall picture of the property, they will not succeed. 

While inspecting a property with a manager prior to an owner visit, I realized that this particular manager just did not “see” that the sidewalk needed to be cleaned, the corridors were dirty, and lights were out!  How could that happen?  Well, I did not put the manager to the test prior to hiring.  My gut let me down in a big way!  To prepare for the client visit, I spent my holiday taking care of these deficiencies personally.  Lesson learned – always give an applicant a pen and paper and send them to a bathroom or corridor and ask them to note the deficiencies that need attention.  As much as we would like to think that all our properties are perfect all the time, there usually is an item or two to be noted.  The applicant with the longest list gets the job!