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Paul Bunby is editor of Real Estate New York, from which this article is excerpted.

As participants in self-help groups–or anyone who watches Oprah–might attest, people today seem more willing to divulge the most intimate details of their lives in public forums. However, they’re often less forthcoming with any information related to the size or composition of their paychecks. That shyness evidently extends even to anonymous online responses: none of the participants in the first-ever compensation survey conducted by Real Estate New York answered the question of how their compensation is divided, on a percentage basis, between base salary and bonuses or commissions.

The 75 men and women who took the time to address the survey’s remaining questions were more forthcoming on issues such as their expectations for pay increases, the gap (perceived or otherwise) in compensation for men and women with comparable job titles and the importance of money in attracting and retaining talent. Many offered additional comments that provided some shades of grey to what otherwise might seem like black-and-white distinctions.

What those additional comments didn’t suggest, by and large, was a downward cast to respondents’ outlook in the face of uncertainty in the financial markets. While the president of an accounting firm noted, “The market is going down. Fewer sales and fewer transactions equals fewer raises,” the overwhelming majority said they expect to start bringing home a bigger paycheck in the next 12 months, just as a comparable percentage reported receiving an increase in the past year.

In the preceding 12 months, 82.1% of the respondents whose base compensation rose saw this in the form of a merit increase. The remainder attributed their increases to getting promoted. For nearly two-thirds of the respondents whose base compensation increased, the gain was larger on a percentage basis than it had been in the previous 12 months.

With regard to the division of compensation between base salary and bonuses or commissions, “It’s difficult to generalize,” says Tony LoPinto, CEO of Equinox Partners, an executive search firm specializing in the real estate industry, and parent company of SelectLeaders. “For example, brokers are more typically paid on commissions; they generally don’t have a base. They may have a draw but if they’re successful, it’s a relatively small amount.”

Adds Anthony R. Saitta, a principal in Schonbraun McCann’s advisory group, “What you will generally find at the senior levels is that the compensation is allocated between base salary, bonus and then long-term compensation. For a CEO, long-term comp would be probably around 50% to 60% of the total compensation. The remaining 40% to 50% is going to be made up of the bonus. There again, if you’re looking at just that base and bonus component, generally the CEO comp structures are somewhere from 75% of base to 150% or even 200% of base in the bonus category.”

Moving out of the CEO’s office, Saitta says, “What tends to happen is that the portion that is long-term equity comp tends to go down a little bit. In that group of the top five or 10 executives below the CEO, you’re probably in the range of where 25% to 50% of your total comp is going to be this equity. Of the remainder, you’re going to have a base salary and then a bonus, again performance based, that could be anywhere from 25% at a minimum to 100% or 125%. Even there, you’ll find that more than half of your compensation is performance based, whether it’s the equity piece that only has value as the stock goes up or the bonus, which is more or less annual metrics.”

The uncertainty in the financial services sector, which has spread outward from the subprime mortgage meltdown, has led professionals in that industry to worry about their year-end bonuses. Could the bonuses for RE employees in the New York market–which after all is driven heavily by the office space needs of financial firms–be affected? “I think you have to look at the level of compensation and the two different elements we’re talking about,” says Saitta. “The base salary obviously stays the same. The annual bonus, which is generally based on operating metrics–FFO growth or occupancy or development–is still relatively healthy and it’s done pretty well this year. So annual bonuses may actually increase a little bit. I would be a little surprised if they did, but I wouldn’t be shocked, because they’re based on operations that are still pretty strong.”

Looking more at the stock equity aspect of compensation, Saitta adds, “Depending on where the market ends up at the end of the year, which is anyone’s guess, you could see decreases. Companies that give out equity awards could see smaller awards. Also, companies that have had this mantra of ‘pay for performance’ are struggling with defining what that performance is. They’ve struggled with that even in the good years. Is it strictly market return or TRS? Is it an annual measure or a three-year measure? Because we all know that markets correct. So I think that companies are examining those concepts and comp committees are very attuned to that.”

Whether due to concerns about a possible decline in the market or other factors, 58.7% of respondents said they do not expect starting salaries within their organizations to increase within the next year. “Many will lose jobs in the downturn. There’s no need to pay more for starting people,” noted the president of an accounting firm. “There will be a glut of MBAs as the demand drops in the financial sector,” predicted an EVP at a financial firm.

Naturally, there’s another, simpler reason that starting salaries might not go up at a particular organization: namely, the company’s compensation isn’t based on salary. “We work on commission,” pointed out an executive at an investments firm. Among the respondents who foresee a boost in starting salaries, a VP of business development at an architectural firm explained, “Appropriate and experienced technical professionals are harder to find and please.” An associate at a property owner said starting pay would increase because “the market is increasing.”

Asked whether they consider themselves adequately compensated given their levels of experience and responsibilities, 57.9% of respondents said they do not. Then again, as one respondent put it, “Who does?” And an associate at a property owner opined that he’d earn more if he worked for a different company.

However, the reasons for believing that compensation falls short are more complicated than feeling underappreciated. The perception of being underpaid “depends on compared to whom,” pointed out a VP at an investments firm. “Compared to Wall Street, no way, I should be paid a lot more. Compared to Main Street, I think it’s fair.”

A slightly smaller majority–52.6%–said no when asked if their organization’s compensation packages were competitive. “We are on the low end of the scale,” one respondent said, while a senior manager at an accounting firm offered, “I could probably make more elsewhere but may not have the same long-term benefits.” A managing director of real estate at a developer explained that her employer was “a small company, so the compensation varies. In some positions, we overpay; in others, we underpay.”

If most respondents believed that neither their own compensation nor the compensation packages within their organizations measured up fully, more than three-quarters nonetheless agreed that compensation in the New York metro area is equitable compared to other markets. “It’s higher than other markets, even adjusted for the cost of living in New York City,” asserted one respondent. A contrarian viewpoint was offered by an associate at a developer: “I haven’t looked; but the cost of living is so high here effectively you take home less money.”

In Saitta’s view, the seeming disconnect here–a majority of respondents feeling underpaid but also believing compensation is equitable–is not as great as it might seem. “Part of the uniqueness of the New York market is the real estate professionals and the owners of the companies are competing for talent not just against other real estate companies, as in most other cities,” he says. “They’re also competing against the Wall Street firms, hedge funds and the foreign firms that have a presence in New York.”

For New York commercial real estate, “The challenge is to find the right mix of compensation that’s competitive,” Saitta continues. “Companies struggle with that every day, because in public markets you’re not necessarily able to recreate exactly the promote structure that some of these hedge funds have been able to take advantage of in the past few years, where their executives have made significant amounts of money. I think within commercial real estate, companies here are very competitive. But when you work for a development company and you think ‘I could go to Blackstone or any number of other companies here in the city where the comp is much different and significantly higher,’ it looks a little less competitive.”

On the contentious issue of whether compensation is equitable for men and women with comparable responsibilities in a male-dominated industry, the results were again divided. Here, though, the split was just the opposite: 76.3% of respondents felt that compensation levels for men and women within their own organizations achieved parity, while 61.8% felt compensation was inequitable within the larger real estate community.

Breaking down the responses according to sex reveals another “gender gap.” Just under 84% of male respondents said compensation levels were comparable for men and women in their own organizations, compared to 35.7% of female respondents who shared this view. Although a majority (59.7%) of male respondents opined that compensation levels for men and women are not equitable on an industry-wide basis, an even larger percentage (85.7%) of female respondents said this. Reflecting the makeup of the commercial real estate industry, 81.3% of the respondents to this survey were men.

Touching on the challenge of attracting qualified candidates who may have a variety of career options to choose from, most respondents–59.2%, to be precise–agreed that compensation is the most important factor in hiring talent.

Compensation was also ranked as the most important of four factors in retaining talent by 43.4% of respondents. “Challenge offered by job” was ranked as most important by 21.1% of respondents, “room for advancement” was ranked number one by 19.7% and “team environment” by 15.8%. Interestingly, more respondents (38.2%) listed “room for advancement” as the second most important factor than did “challenge offered by job” and “compensation” (26.3% and 23.7%, respectively).

When the survey turned the question around and asked respondents if compensation was the number one factor keeping them at their own jobs, 75% said no. Among the four factors cited previously, compensation came in third in the rankings with 25% calling it the most important factor, 26.3% citing “room for advancement” as most important and “challenge offered by job” leading the ay with 31.6% of respondents. Relatively few respondents cited “team environment” as the most important factor in their own job satisfaction, and nearly 41% ranked it as least important.

“If my salary were anywhere other than last on the above list I would have been out of here a year ago,” offered one respondent. That being said, only 15.8% of respondents did rank salary dead last. Commented a financial analyst, “All things appearing equal, salary will be the differentiator, and someone won’t consider a job unless it offers close to the salary they consider to be fair. However, once an employee is hired, it’s the above things excluding salary that will retain or repel them.”

Respondents to this inaugural survey draw on an extensive background in commercial real estate. They’ve worked in the industry for an average of 11 years, with approximately 27% having 20 years’ experience or more.

Seventy-six percent describe their market as the entire New York metropolitan area, although another 18.4% specialize in Manhattan. Smaller numbers of respondents define their market as either the outer boroughs or Fairfield County. Slightly over 22% of survey respondents work for financial firms, followed by investments professionals at 15.8% of the total. Development professionals account for 14.5% of respondents, while another 13.2% work for property owners. Brokerage employees represent 8% of survey respondents. Asset management firms and accounting firms each comprise 4% of the total and another 2.6% work for architectural firms. Just over 1% work at law firms; the remaining respondents work at a variety of organizations ranging from REITS to consulting firms.

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