Diversity in RE finance: Part 3: Speak up, and listen

Emma Huepfl, chair of CREFC Europe, says the industry can learn from people’s lived experiences.

Emma Huepfl
Emma Huepfl

“The experience is changing, but for many years, walking into industry events to a sea of white men in grey suits could be intimidating,” says Emma Huepfl, chair of industry body the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council Europe and a London-based property debt specialist for more than 20 years. “If you feel like an outsider, it’s not easy to know how to join conversations with groups who all seem to know each other. That’s old context, though – progress is definitely happening.” Huepfl says CREFC’s board members have spent time thinking about how networking can be genuinely inclusive. When CREFC can again host physical industry events, she says they will be different. “We’re going to put in place introducers to act as facilitators and make sure nobody comes to an event and does not know how to join in.”

Huepfl also credits CREFC Europe chief executive Peter Cosmetatos for making diversity and inclusion central to the body’s policymaking, and to decisions about who ought to sit on public forums and working groups. “I have personally been grateful to be part of committees that have a real range of perspectives around the table.”

That has included collaborating with external organisations such as Purple, which helps businesses improve working conditions for disabled people. “We’re all learning that we don’t have all the answers ourselves, but there are experts who do.

“It’s hugely important to listen to people who have lived experience of coming into this industry. I can say what it was like as a young woman entering the industry 20 years ago, but I can’t say what it’s like being a disabled person trying to access events in a wheelchair, or a black person who feels completely underrepresented.”

Huepfl’s day job is leading CBRE Global Investors’ European property debt platform. In 2019, the property manager bought Laxfield Capital, the real estate debt advisor and lender she had co-founded in 1997.

At times in her career, she has found real estate finance a challenging environment for a woman to thrive in. “I went from university, where gender equality was natural and expected, into a male-dominated industry. That was where the authority in the discourse was, and it could be difficult to know how to speak up.”

“It’s hugely important to listen to people who have lived experience of coming into
this industry”

Emma Huepfl
CREFC Europe

However, she says there has been progress on gender equality. “A lot of men are conscious about wanting to demonstrate inclusivity and that helps everyone because it means it has become a male issue too. There is still a problem with how few women speak up at industry events, though. When I am mentoring young women, I encourage them to ask a question if no other woman has. Events should not go by without a female voice being heard.”

More generally, Huepfl believes the fragmented structure of Europe’s real estate finance industry can both help and hinder diversity. “There is no one route in, so people come from disciplines including banking, surveying and accountancy. It is good that it isn’t prescriptive, but the fact there are no objective qualifications to work in this industry means candidates are assessed by whatever measures recruiters decide are fair, and there is a risk of unconscious bias in that process. Also, because there is no set route in, connections can be important – which favours the status quo.”

Huepfl believes finding objectives and consensus through working groups, such as those established by CREFC, is helping to set benchmarks and best practice. This, she says, feeds into gradual pressure on diversity and inclusion from the industry’s allocators of capital.

“When we are talking to investors at CBREGI, we fully expect questions about D&I when discussing ESG policy. We need to proactively demonstrate what we are doing as part of our fiduciary responsibility.”