Diversity in RE finance: Part 2: Flagging opportunities through outreach

CBRE’s Clarence Dixon says employers need to let people from minority groups know that opportunities exist for them.

Clarence Dixon
Clarence Dixon

‘When a person of colour walks into a job interview they’re already at a disadvantage, at least from their own perspective, because of the colour of their skin,” says Clarence Dixon, head of consultancy CBRE’s loan servicing business. “Interviewers don’t expect you to be what you are, or where you are. It comes as a surprise to them.”

Dixon, who also runs the company’s diversity network in Europe, believes the real estate industry needs to work harder to create opportunities for people from minorities.

He recalls his own experience of entering the real estate credit space as an African-American running a loan servicing platform for a mortgage bank in Germany, where he lives. He says he was warned that clients in the traditional world of German banking were unlikely to have worked with a black person before, and that it could be an issue for him.

“We grew a €20 billion business in two years,” he adds.

Despite that success, he says discrimination has been apparent from colleagues, if not employers, at times in his career. “It manifests itself in people challenging your ideas, your skill base – especially when dealing with debt. Some suggest you are not trained
for it.”

Dixon is continually reminded that he is one of few senior black figures in the industry. “I speak at 10 to 15 conferences per year throughout Europe and I’m usually the only black guy in the room. I ask myself constantly ‘where are the other up-and-coming minority people in this business?’”

In 2019, he took on the leadership of the Reach Network, CBRE’s support network for employees from a variety of backgrounds. Initiatives include a new work-study programme, which is intended to target students from ethnic minority backgrounds and ensure that work placement opportunities are not available only to friends and family of existing employees. The goal is to reach out to communities whose members would not typically be inclined to pursue careers in commercial real estate.

“As an industry, we need to stop looking at Oxford, Cambridge, Reading – the usual places from where people are recruited – and actually go out to minority communities, into schools to say ‘this is what we do, and there are opportunities – we’re talking directly to you’.”

“I ask myself constantly ‘where are the other up-and-coming minority people in this business?’”

Clarence Dixon

Dixon says many young black and ethnic minority people who are interested in property careers often lack the confidence to aim for senior roles, partly because they do not see others like them in such jobs.

“I tell them, ‘if you can sell a house for £500,000 then you have the core skills to sell the Shard’. If you can sit in a clearing bank and underwrite a £1 million loan, you can work in an investment bank and write a loan for £100 million.”

Dixon insists cultural change within organisations is also crucial. “You need to start at the top and ensure the leaders and middle management go down the same route. A business is like a tanker: you can turn the wheel, but it doesn’t move straight away. Last year, we mandated all executive directors to do unconscious bias training and it took six months.”

He believes people should be incentivised to promote diversity and is pushing for targets to be part of managers’ objectives. “They should not just measure whether you hit revenue targets.”

He adds that data should be the starting point for large organisations. “We are one of the only real estate firms to have published an ethnicity pay study. Once you have data you can calibrate your business.”